The Black Women of Appalachia, 1920s

If you are looking for dignified portraits of older American women, sooner or later you will come across the work of Doris Ulmann (1882-1934). She started out as a celebrity photographer, but in the 1920s her life took a turn.  A decade before the Farm Security Association began to document the lives of rural Americans, she set off to Appalachia to take photos of the poorer inhabitants who were keeping local crafts and musical traditions alive.  Many of her portraits are of older African American women, like this one above of the Black singer, Ella Welster. (I looked in vain for more information about her.)

Many of her photos were taken in and near Berea, Kentucky, which is still home to Berea College, an institution that also works to keep craft traditions alive.   

Ulmann was more interested in faces than in clothing—I haven’t seen many of her photographs that show her subjects’ entire bodies.  They do show the details of the fabric, though.  Look at this wonderful example of pattern mixing, combining dots, checks, and plaid.  And note the book in her hand, a reminder to all of us that she knew how to read.

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3 Responses to The Black Women of Appalachia, 1920s

  1. ceci says:

    Wonderful – as is so often the case with your posts I am now planning some research on this photographer! What strong looking women, and I bet the child in the first picture was a real handful.

    Thanks for giving me something new to think about.


  2. JS says:

    Thank you for this most interesting post.

  3. Lizzie says:

    Ulmann came through my area as well, documenting poor White and Cherokee people. Beautiful.

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