Black Resistance: The Power of the Image

Black Resistance
May 12, 2023

Black Resistance: The Power of the Image

"I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America — poverty, racism, discrimination."
– Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Through the lens of the camera, communities have been able to document their experience, preserve their history and challenge misconceptions since the evolution of photography. As this technology became publicly available, many people were able to sit for a photograph or even become a photographer themselves. Black photographers were not only dealing with the emergence of a new industry but also with the racial discrimination. Nevertheless, a few prominent African Americans were able to make names for themselves as respected photographers.

Frederick Douglass was already a respected orator and established author by the time these new photographic methods were becoming popular. While it was a new technology, he recognized the importance of how photography could be a catalyst for social change. Douglass believed “Negros can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists” because he knew the importance of having Black photographers in the field – especially when photographing Black subjects.

When Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth sat for photographs, they did so in hopes that white people would see that Black people weren’t the caricatures they were portrayed to be. Posing for a photograph became an act of empowerment for Black people and served to counteract the stereotypes that distorted facial features and mocked Black society and culture. The development of Black photography allowed communities greater control to style images that authentically represented Black life during that time.

James Presley “J.P.” Ball

J.P. Ball was an African American photographer, abolitionist and businessman in the mid-1800s. He established a photographic business in Cincinnati in 1849 which became one of the most popular portrait studios in mid-nineteenth century America.

J.P. Ball was born free in Virginia in 1825. As a young man, Ball learned the process of daguerreotypes from the Black Boston photographer John B. Bailey. His first attempt at opening a photographic studio in Cincinnati in 1845 failed and Ball spent the next four years traveling through Pittsburgh, Richmond and Ohio working as an itinerant photographer before resettling in Cincinnati in 1849.

Cincinnati was home to rising racial tensions in the 19th century. It had just seen the race riots of 1829, 1836 and 1841 where African Americans were being run out of Cincinnati, attacked, killed or had their homes destroyed. As a prominent abolitionist and Black business owner, J.P. Ball had to carefully navigate a city filled with racial tensions. Nevertheless, he was dedicated and, in 1853, Ball moved his gallery to a downtown Cincinnati location and “Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West” became one of the most celebrated galleries in the United States.

Ball traveled to Europe in 1856 where he photographed Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens. His growing reputation drew many well-known figures to his Cincinnati studio, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, P.T. Barnum and the family of Ulysses S. Grant.  By 1857, Ball and his brother-in-law had opened a business that became known as “the finest photographic gallery west of the Allegheny Mountains.”

His work serves as documentation that despite the common imagery presented from this time period, these real photographs of Black people exist, too.


In the rise of the Jim Crow era, photography was still being used to give a voice to the often-misrepresented communities. There was also an increase in photos taken to disparage the Black community and support white supremacy. Images of dehumanized bodies and lynchings were not uncommon and were used to demoralize those trying to advance their rights.

Many photographers emerged to document the beauty and resilience of their communities despite the struggles they faced with Gordon Parks, P.H. Polk and James Van Der Zee among the most notable photographers giving voice to their communities at this time. With their documentation of the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement and portraits that dignified their subjects we can get a fuller representation of Black life during this time.


Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 | Gordon Parks


Gordon Parks

Some of Gordon Parks' most famous photos are of regular life portraying family and friends gathering, going shopping, attending church and getting ice cream with kids – things that most people can relate to on some level. But he was also showing what life was like for African Americans. Using his camera, he was creating a social commentary about the basis of our humanity.

These images provide evidence that these people existed—they are noteworthy because they aren’t of noteworthy images. They are empowering because they counteracted the distorted images portrayed by the media.

Gordon Parks' photo essay “Harlem Gang Leader” in 1948 documented the life of 17-year-old Leonard “Red” Jackson in hopes of humanizing the individuals in the Harlem Gang Wars and encouraging support for social programs. This landed him a job with Life Magazine where he was hired as the first Black photographer on staff. His photographs of the civil rights movement became some of the most important documentation of racial divide in the United States.

His work took him around the world and had him photographing icons of the time including Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. His extensive collection of work from the 1940s to the 2000s include credits as photographer, author, composer and filmmaker. His film “The Learning Tree” was the first studio film by an African American director. Set in rural Kansas in the 1920s, the film was a coming-of-age story against the backdrop of segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Later, his iconic film “Shaft” (1971) featured a Black detective working against white criminals. He was brought in to direct the film and, apart from the script, gave all the pieces of the filmmaking process — from acting to marketing — to African American creatives.

The rise in digital photography and social media has increased the power of photography for pushing social change and creating a global collaborative community. Social media platforms have allowed its users to connect and share their experiences with a wide audience. It has allowed people to tell their own stories with their own voice. The #BlackLivesMatter movement gained traction in 2012 after the murder of Trayvon Martin and as users began sharing powerful images online.

The role of photography cannot be understated when pushing for social change. It has long been an important tool for creating awareness by provoking an emotional response. Photographs capture the injustices and inequalities of society, and by presenting these images to a wider audience, they can (and have) inspired change.

National Mental Health Awareness Month: Improving Mental Healthcare For All

Freedom Center Voices

May 1, 2023

National Mental Health Awareness Month: Improving Mental Healthcare For All

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Social media lights up with #selfcare and celebrities testify to the importance of mental health care in their lives, but there is still an ongoing mental health crisis in the United States. Even for those who want access to mental health care, too often barriers exist to access. This is particularly true in communities of color.

In 2020, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that 21% – roughly 1 in 5 – U.S. adults experienced some form of mental illness. Further, 16.5% – about 1 in 6 – American youth ages 6-17 struggled with a “mental health disorder.” In total, that is roughly 60.6 million American men, women and children. This is just the tip of the iceberg, considering these numbers rely on self-reporting, which an individual may choose not to do for a variety of reasons.

Yet a very important nuance of the picture is missed when viewing the data from the broader level. Different ethnic and racial groups receive mental health care at different rates. See the bar graph (created from 2019 SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services)) for a visual representation of this discrepancy. In 2019, although about half of non-Hispanic white adults with mental health illnesses received treatment, less than a third of non-Hispanic African Americans suffering from mental health disorders received treatment. What gives?

Everyone faces barriers to mental health care, but individuals from minority communities are often uniquely disadvantaged when it comes to mental health access. Barriers can include lack of insurance (or underinsurance, as mental health care is sometimes not included in health care plans), lack of transportation to appointments, prohibitive cost, and more. According to a 2019 NAMI California survey, the three greatest obstacles to mental health care reported by diverse patients and caregivers were cost, stigma within their communities, and lack of culturally competent services. To quote one participant, “We have been knocking on county mental health services’ doors for years.”  

So, what can be done to improve mental health services and outcomes for diverse communities? One important early step is to work within communities and with community leaders to educate about mental illnesses and lower the stigma about seeking mental health services. It's important that practitioners address culturally-specific traumas as well as community strengths. For an example of one group that practices this, check out the Center for Native Child and Family Resilience. By giving priority to community leaders and centering traditional spiritual and healing customs in development of community programming (see this example of using the Indigenous Medicine Wheel), the Center offers more holistic outcomes than traditional social and mental health frameworks for many Native American and Alaskan Native communities. 

This is just one step. The United States also needs to commit to more comprehensive mental health care included in health insurance for all, as well as requiring ongoing implicit bias training and cultural competency courses for social workers and mental health care professionals. Poor mental health outcomes have adverse effects on not only individuals, but also families, communities, and society as a whole. It snowballs into something that affects everyone. The CDC has even called it a “global public health issue.” Considering the consequences, who wouldn’t be invested in improving mental health care for all?  

Better mental health for all starts with access for all. Are you interested in therapy, but worried about the cost? You may qualify for state-sponsored therapy. Check the following links for more information: 

Choose another state: 

Haley Knuth - Specialist, Guest Services

Haley holds a Bachelor's degree in Acting and German from Wright State University, and a Master's degree in History from Miami University. 

Black Resistance: Reproductive Justice

Freedom Center Voices

April 14, 2023

Black Resistance: Reproductive Justice

Content advisory: The following post includes references to historic events and policies that may be emotionally challenging, including instances of sexual assault.

Women have been fighting for the right to make decisions about their own bodies for longer than the nation has been a union. The battle has been even harder for Black women and other women of color. Black women have historically been subjected to great reproductive injustices that have had lasting effects.

Starting during chattel slavery, enslaved women had little to no control of their reproductive systems. Female enslaved people were bought for their bodies: for sex or for ability to produce more bodies. Women were advertised and sold for the purpose of creating more labor, comparable to cattle or livestock.

Did you know?

 J. Marion Sims, credited as the “Father of Gynecology” carried out his experimental operations on enslaved women – often without an anesthetic. Between 1845 and 1849, he performed repeated operations on these Black women that he quartered in a small hospital behind his house in Alabama. His misuse and unethical treatment of these non-consenting women have led many in the scientific community to denounce Sims for his work.


"Scenes in Memphis, Tennessee, during the riot—shooting down negroes on the morning of May 2, 1866 [Sketched by A.R.W.]" | Alfred Rudolph Waud; Harper's Weekly, 26 May 1866, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonial laws prohibited interracial marriages but not fornication, which gave white enslavers incentive to sexually exploit, abuse and control their enslaved property. It was seen as a wealth maximizing strategy that completely disregarded the mother for the sole purpose of creating labor and wealth for the enslaver. There are stories of enslaved women giving themselves abortions or killing their infants so their child wouldn’t be born into the exploitative practice of slavery or to prevent their daughters from sharing their fate. 

It is believed that the first women in the United States to publicly break the silence around rape and sexual violence were the African American and Black women who testified before Congress after the Memphis Riot of May 1866. In the three-day race riot, 48 people were killed, over 100 Black homes, churches and schools were burned down and five Black women reported being raped.  

Six formerly enslaved women who had relocated to Memphis testified to Congress about the riots. They are often cited as the first victims of sexual assault to testify in public. Their horrifying testimonies and that of the other atrocities led to the eventual passage of the 14th Amendment. Their names were Lucy Tibbs, Harriet Armour, Lucy Smith, Frances Thompson, Elivra Walker and Rebecca Ann Bloom 

Frances Thompson was later arrested after it was discovered she was a transgender woman. 

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
– 14th Amendment, Section 1

Fannie Lou Hamer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When owners could no longer profit off the “use” of Black women’s bodies after emancipation, a different view on Black pregnancy began to form. White society and pro-slavery individuals shifted from forcing reproduction on Black women to trying to stop it at all.  

In the late 19th century, the eugenics movement in America began to take shape. Lying medical professionals would perform sterilization procedures on unknowing or unwitting Black females resulting in them unable to reproduce. The laws that permitted hospitals and doctors to perform these procedures had broad and ever-changing labels like “feeblemindedness” and “mental defective.” These forced sterilization campaigns combined disability with racism and xenophobia and worked on dehumanizing, typically, targeted minority groups. These groups were deemed less worthy of reproduction and of family formation. Eugenicists applied new theories in biology and genetics to human reproduction but this gave a very subjective opinion on who was “fit” and “unfit.” Anyone who didn’t fit their mold of genetic perfection, which included most immigrants, Black and African American people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and poor whites, were deemed “unfit.”  Some doctors told patients they needed a particular operation and some doctors performed sterilizations during other types of operations, without the patient’s knowledge or consent.  

Famed Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer underwent surgery for removal of a fibroid and, in addition, was given a hysterectomy. She found that almost 60% of Black women in her community had undergone similar surgeries. It was so common she coined the term “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Among other things, Hamer went on to protest for bodily autonomy and is quoted as saying a “Black woman’s body was never hers alone.” 

The term “reproductive justice” was created by a group of 12 Black women in 1994. They defined it as a “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent their children in safe and sustainable communities.” This provided the framework that sparked social movements across the country. 

Toni M. Bond Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S. Field, Terri James, Bisola Marignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Lorretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, ‘Able’ Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis and Kim Youngblood were the 12 women. Later they would become the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice (WADRJ). They came together to plan a response to President Clinton’s healthcare reform effort, feeling the reforms did not address critical issues. 

The reproductive justice framework recognizes that reproductive health is impacted by social, economic and political factors, and that reproductive rights are human rights. It emphasizes the importance of centering the experiences of marginalized communities, including people of color, low-income individuals and LGBTQ+ individuals. 

The recent reproductive justice movement has focused on several key issues, including access to comprehensive sexual education, birth control, abortion and maternal healthcare. Black women have played a leading role in advocating for these issues, using their voices and experiences to call attention to the systemic barriers that limit their reproductive freedom.