By Vicent T. Davis
In the early 20th century, postcard photos were the Facebook of the day. The 3½-by-5-inch cards were snapshots of life—the mundane to the monumental—exchanged with friends and loved ones from one end of the country to the other.
In Texas, the craze prompted novice and professional photographers to lug cumbersome photo equipment across craggy and windblown lands to capture images and stories.
John Miller Morris, professor in the political science and geography department, has set out to capture that world by collecting almost 10,000 antique photographs of the Lone Star State.
In his book, Taming the Land—The Lost Postcard Photographs of the Texas High Plains, published by Texas A&M University Press, Morris shares a glimpse of 24 Texas counties that photographers documented in photo postcard form.
“It’s important to rescue and save history,” said Morris, who specializes in historical geography of the greater Southwest and the exploration and depiction of the High Plains of Texas. “And through a variety of sources and eBay, I’ve tried to gather visual imagery from the period and region and bring it back so we can study, analyze it and capture the lost world of a century ago.”
From the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast, settlers posed for photos at sod homesteads and burgeoning townships, at work with cattle or at rest by a shady creek. The photos documented their world during an era when you could send a five-cent postcard anywhere in the United States for a penny. For a penny more you could mail an image around the world.
“Photography was useful for our ancestors because it was seen as realistic,” Morris said. “You take a photograph of a town, and that proves to other people that the town is viable. Photography was used for promotional and settlement purposes, kind of luring our ancestors into various places to document their world. I think the camera captures a little bit of people’s personality, of their soul.”
Morris utilizes extensive visualization in his classes. Students, he said, use photography as part of their learning style. He said they respond to imagery, such as his postcard exhibits.
“These are lost treasures,” Morris said of photo postcards. “And they have so much information embedded in them.”
But, he added, photographers captured more than one Texas in the early 1900s. The multiple Texas communities frozen on film also included Latino and African American populations. The African American photographic experience, he said, reveals a mirror image of Anglo counterparts, with examples of black Texans at play, school and work.
Morris’ research of ethnic photography showed that out of 1,000 early photographers in Texas, roughly six were African American, with three found in the Houston/Galveston region.
Morris’ collection, which he terms “Visions of Race in Early 1900s Texas,” includes depictions of African Americans from different regions, including a Sunday morning baptism in Central Texas, cowboy Matthew “Bones” Hooks of West Texas and a farmer at work in East Texas.
The collection also features a rare early 1900s photo of a Black Seminole homestead along the Texas/Mexico border. The Black Seminoles, descendants of free slaves in Florida, served as scouts for the U.S. Army along the southern Texas border from 1870 to 1881. The scouts migrated to Mexico in the late 1840s to escape slavers and provided valuable skills at Army border outposts because of their ability to speak English, Spanish and Indian dialects and experience from past skirmishes with Indians in Mexico. Four of the scouts were awarded the Medal of Honor.
“With our demography changing and shifting, it’s important that we save and rescue ethnic imagery, both of Hispanics and African Americans,” Morris said.