’Ghosts of Segregation’ asks Kansans to face their complicity in America’s racist history

Lawrence Arts center to debut traveling photo exhibition Sept. 10.

By: - September 2, 2021 4:26 pm

The Moore Theatre in Seattle maintained the tradition of forcing all non-white people to enter through a side door and up several steep flights of stairs to the isolated second balcony, Frishman writes in his “Ghosts of Segregation” project. An exhibition featuring 40 of his photos will debut Sept. 10 in Lawrence. (Richard Frishman/Curatorial)

TOPEKA — Richard Frishman sees the pervasiveness of racism and oppression throughout much of America’s built environment.

In March 2018, the Pulitzer-nominated photographer set out to document locations emblematic of racial injustices, including segregated entrances and sites of racial violence. For Frishman, who began his career in photojournalism documenting white supremacist groups and racial tensions, this tour through the darker side of U.S. architecture is an honest look at the beliefs and behaviors of the times.

“History is all around us wherever we live, and it’s usually hidden by our own absolute banality, our assumptions and ignorance,” Frishman said. “I want people to open their eyes and be curious about what they’re seeing and ask, ‘Why is that there? What purpose did it serve?’ ”

Frishman has spent the past three weeks driving across the country photographing spots including “colored” entrances to movie theaters, drive-in restaurants and Greyhound stops, adding to his project “Ghosts of Segregation.” A traveling exhibit featuring many of the images he has captured so far debuts Sept. 10 at the Lawrence Arts Center.

A Segregation Wall at Templin’s Saloon, Gonzales, Texas. Richard Frishman hopes his photos force people to confront their own role in perpetuating and maintaining systems that promote racism. (Richard Frishman/Curatorial)

The project kicked off with a four-month trip in 2018 that took him to 30 locations and has since grown to a collection of 75 photos. On this trip, Frishman hopes to fill in some of the gaps of sites he has yet to document.

No matter the city or the location, Frishman said, each stop has a special hold over him. One that stands out is a room and in particular a window, at the boarding house from which James Earl Ray is believed to have shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr.

After returning to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis — where King was staying and was shot — three times, Frishman finally found the right angle for a photo of the bathroom window where Ray is believed to have fired from. While the slightly ajar window isn’t much to look at on its own, the haunting glow of the light shining through into the night has stuck with him since.

“It’s just a little bathroom window half ajar, where (Ray) stood by the bathtub in the bathroom, to take aim at Martin Luther King,” Frishman said. “It’s totally mundane, this window, but it can represent so much.”

Before returning to his home near Seattle in November, Frishman hopes to photograph sites in almost, if not all, the 48 contiguous states. His travel plans will take him across the Midwest, south to Texas, through the South and up the Atlantic coast before heading back home.

While he has yet to photograph any Kansas locations, sites in Lawrence, Topeka and Manhattan are in his plans when he comes to speak at the exhibit shortly after it opens.

“Kansas is of great historical import, and I couldn’t do this project without shooting some of Kansas,” Frishman said.

On May 28, 1961, a Greyhound bus with nine Freedom Riders aboard arrived at this stop in Jackson, Mississippi. That summer, a total of 329 people were arrested in Jackson for integrating public transportation facilities, Richard Frishman writes in “Ghosts of Segregation.” (Richard Frishman/Curatorial)

The traveling exhibition will remain at the Lawrence Arts Center until Dec. 12. While about 40 images from the project are on display, the arts center has planned supplementary events — including panel discussions and film screenings — to deepen the conversation and learning, said Ben Ahlvers, exhibitions director.

Ahlvers and Frishman connected after the New York Times published an article on the project, and the two organized the exhibit, along with California-based art exhibition firm Curatorial. Ahlvers said he was drawn to the complex history in such a simple concept.

“It’s really an avenue for these stories to be shared, and how those stories then propel the viewers to engage and actively fight racism, fight segregation,” Ahlvers said. “This is an active conversation that needs to be happening.”

The exhibit will be the longest-running and largest exhibit the arts center has hosted, Ahlvers said. Admission is free.

“Lawrence was founded in protest of slavery by some who were the activists of their time,” said Margaret Weisbrod Morris, CEO of Lawrence Arts Center. “I’m really glad that we’re going to be showing it here in particular for as long as we are because I really do think it’s a show that everybody needs to see.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.