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Portraits of Her People

Historian, photographer and Macarthur "genius," Deborah Willis documents the black experience

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"We have the Anacostia Museum, but that's community-based. This was to be a national museum." As a curator for the Smithsonian's Center for African-American History and Culture and the Anacostia, Willis continues to develop exhibitions that help keep an African-American presence on the Mall.

Last winter the career of Deborah Willis came to a climax with the opening of an important show that she curated, "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present," featuring some 300 pictures by 120 photographers. The opening on February 3 was to be perhaps the proudest night of her life. It turned out to be the saddest. "The day before the opening," she told me, "my nephew was killed. He was on his way here to see the show, but he stopped off in Philadelphia to see his mother."

With some school friends, the 27-year-old Songha Thomas Willis dropped by a nightclub. He was held up in the parking lot, robbed and shot to death.

"This was a nonviolent kid. He loved the world. He went to private schools; he was a kid who was protected, and he didn't know what was happening. He did everything the guy wanted, gave him his money. "I want to use some of the MacArthur money to do a project about gun violence. You know, my father never used his gun all the 25 years he was a cop."

She's concerned about her son, Hank Sloane Thomas. "He's been at New York University and now he wants to drive across the country to California, and I want to protect him, the only male child left in my family. But I have to let him go. He says, 'Mom, I'll call you from every city.' ...You have to let them go."

Though freed from money worries with the MacArthur grant of $100,000 a year for five years, Willis, 52, is busier than ever. In addition to her Smithsonian duties, she travels weekly to North Carolina to teach a course in visual images in popular culture at Duke University.

Of her own photography work, she says, "I use color for family snaps, but all my work is in black and white. Color doesn't have the soul, you don't put yourself into it. I find black-and-white fascinating because it has that sense of intimacy. You look at the gray tones, you read the images for yourself."

Willis plans to document in photographs the unsung work that women do in cities around the country. For instance, a current project involves taking photographs of women in hair salons.

One of her favorite pictures is the big crowd shot on the cover of the "Reflections in Black" catalog. Taken in 1910 by A. P. Bedou, a New Orleans photographer, it shows a group of people listening to a speech by Booker T. Washington.

"I found this in 1974 when I was starting my research, this celebration of an event in life. Men looking up at the camera, they all wear hats, everyone wore hats then, and a few women with those big wide-brimmed hats. It's very hard to make a strong picture out of a crowd. But this one stays with you."

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