By Eileen Bailey
ABERDEEN – A young girl gently caresses her elderly nanny’s hand. A boa constrictor is draped across a woman from the traveling circus.
These are just two of the scenes captured on the more than 13,000 dry glass negatives in the F.S. McKnight collection at the Evans Memorial Library in Aberdeen. The collection, which was donated to the library between 1950 to 1969, recently received more than $70,000 in funding for preservation.
The collection and grants were unveiled Tuesday morning at a news conference in the library. Dr. T. Banks Shepherd, chairman of the library’s board of directors, told more than 40 residents who attended that the collection had received funding from the Lucky Day Foundation in Jackson, the CREATE Foundation in Tupelo, the Artists Build Communities Residency Program in Jackson and the Institute for Museum Services in Washington, D.C.
The contributions will be used to organize, preserve and use the collection to enhance the educational and cultural life of the community, he said.
Shepherd said he has found pictures of his wife’s ancestors in the collection. “This collection will allow people to have a picture into the history of Aberdeen,” he said.
The collection of dry glass negatives was taken by Frank Summerfield McKnight from his studio in Aberdeen from 1894 to 1932.
“The McKnight Photographic Collection is a unique window into late 19th and early 20th century Northeast Mississippi for McKnight served a clientele drawn from all classes and races,” Shepherd said. “It provides extensive documentation not only of the individual citizen but of the economic, social and psychological aspects of the past.”
Also in the collection are McKnight’s camera, camera stand, darkroom equipment and original studio registers.
Dana Bullard, the curator of the project, said other libraries have dry glass collections but having the registers listing the people in the photographs makes McKnight’s unique. In the top corner of each negative is a number which corresponds to a number in the register. The register also tells how many pictures were ordered and when the picture was taken, Bullard said.
The images include studio portraits and street scenes documenting the lives of residents, both black and white, who lived in Northeast Mississippi. Aberdeen teacher Marie Cayson, who teaches fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade gifted classes at Prairie and Aberdeen Middle School, said this historical documentation will be helpful in teaching children about the histories of Aberdeen and photography.
Organization will be the first step in making the collection available to the public. Bullard has designed a computer database for storage of the information found in the registers.
Donated funds also were used for staff training, to hire a photographer and to provide proper archival storage for the negatives. The photographer will clean and print each negative, then create copy negatives of selected images. Notebooks of the prints will be available for viewing at the library, and individual prints of images will be for sale.
There are plans for an exhibition of selected images that will travel throughout the region.
One of the most unique aspects of the project is that the collection will be used as an education resource, said library Director Kathy Bailey. The library has received a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Artist Build Communities residency program, which provides funds for an artist to live in a community for a period of time to work with groups of people in exploring the area’s cultural and artistic heritage.
Two consultants have been hired to work with the library and a community planning committee to develop this project for Aberdeen, she said. This portion of the project should be in place by fall with the total project being completed within a year, Bailey said.
McKnight was born in 1848 in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. He was the son of a circuit-riding Methodist minister and grew up in Iuka. McKnight learned about photography from a traveling tintypist he met in 1872. In October of that year, McKnight bought his own equipment and tent and traveled to towns such as Guntown, Saltillo, Rienzi and finally Booneville, where he opened a gallery. He traveled to other areas in Northeast Mississippi such as Holly Springs and Ripley before opening his first studio in Aberdeen in 1894. He remained there until his death in 1934.
McKnight sold his business to John Velhart in 1933, who presented the negatives to the library over a period of time between 1950 and 1969.