Photographs often document big moments in life—the wedding, the baby, the new house. A tradition in Black churches is to mark the end of mortgage payments, the moment when property finally belongs to the residents, with a mortgage burning ceremony. The unusual photo above by Black Detroit photographer Harvey C. Jackson depicts a group ceremony. In it the many residents of the Phyllis Wheatley Home, founded in the late 19th century to keep elderly women out of poor houses, hold on to strings connecting them to the mortgage document. Let’s hope the 1915 celebration took place with only the paper catching fire.
There is an interesting mix of styles here, although all are conservatively dressed for the time. Several wear the light white shirtwaist and dark skirt combination that appealed to women of all ages and social classes. It is what I consider more of a work-a-day outfit than something appropriate for a special occasion. By contrast, others are dressed to the nines in gleaming satin. Many have on the dark dresses—with or without a light lace collar—standard for older women’s apparel. Almost all have their hair up in a Gibson Girl style.
What most caught my eye were the several women in white, or at least very light colors. In popular (Caucasian oriented) style books of the era, light colors were usually recommended to younger women, or reserved for casual occasions on hot summer days. Did African American women receive different advice or develop their own rules? In this photo, the white colors gleam and lose their detail, giving their wearers an almost angelic glow. That is particularly true for the woman standing in the front. Although the details of her outfit are washed out in this photo, we can make out lace trimming at her neck and wrists, and what look like flowers at her waist and hem. It’s a very special dress for a very special day.