Stories of the segregated South: A folklorist’s promise

William Ferris grew up on a farm in Mississippi, which is where he first heard the voices that shaped him.

They were farmers and writers and musicians, black and white and all living in segregated Mississippi, a state defined to many outsiders by the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. (Ferris was 13 at the time.)

He would leave the South to earn degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania, but he’d return in the late 1960s, the curly-haired white kid with a camera and a recorder, knocking on the doors of strangers.

“I went in unapologetically, saying that I was there working on a book and a film and I wanted to tell their story,” says Ferris, sitting in his home office in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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At 76, Ferris has just retired as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which houses his collection of folklore. This fall, an exhibition of civil rights photographs and films he curated — not his own — will open at the Pavillon Populaire in Montpellier, France, and he hopes they’ll later come to Washington, D.C.

He recently sat down to talk about the people he met and captured over the span of his career.

James “Son Ford” Thomas

Thomas would dig clay out of the hills of Mississippi and make it into birds, animals and faces. Skulls were a particular interest.

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Tom Johnson

In 1978, Ferris filmed Tom Johnson, who taught his pigs to pause before eating, waiting until he finished his prayer with “Amen.”

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Jim Steed’s mailbox

The blacksmith was in his 80s when Ferris met him and noticed his mailbox in Utica, Miss., the town closest to the Ferris family farm.

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Lovenia Willis and Nora

Ferris was in Crystal Springs, Miss., in 1974 to photograph Luster Willis, an artist who was then in his early 60s, when he stumbled upon this scene.

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Eudora Welty

Welty, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1973, was a Ferris family friend who lived and died in Jackson, Miss.

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Fannie Bell Chapman

Ferris captured Bell Chapman in 1975 singing in her church. She was celebrated in her part of Mississippi for her performances with her daughters and sons-in-law.

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Robert Penn Warren

Ferris photographed Warren, founder of the literary journal the Southern Review and the only writer to win the Pulitzer for both fiction and poetry, in his yard in Fairfield, Conn., in 1978.

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Alice Walker

Ferris met Walker when he taught at Jackson State University in the early ’70s, and they’ve been friends since. This photo was taken in 1977.

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Walker Evans

Evans’s photographs in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” were an inspiration to Ferris. Just before Evans’s death in 1975, Ferris photographed him at a friend’s house in New Haven, Conn.

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Louis Dotson

When he couldn’t get a guitar, Dotson found another way to make music. He turned his house into an instrument using a single wire string.

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