“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others … shut out from their world by a vast veil,” wrote W.E.B. Dubois in his 1903 sociology text “The Souls of Black Folk.” Photographer Wendel White draws direct inspiration from Dubois’ famous veil concept in “Schools for the Colored,” a series of digital collages that visually manifests long-standing social and economic divisions.
This body of work spun off from one of White’s long-running artistic projects. In the 1980s, he began documenting endangered, all-black communities in southern New Jersey. These neighborhoods on the Northern edge of the Mason-Dixon line served as havens of education and industry for African Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His images, audio and video recordings, and writings furnish the immersive digital exhibition “Small Towns, Black Lives,” which debuted in 1995 and was updated in 2003. In his current exhibition “Schools for the Colored,” White extends his stomping grounds across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. His subjects are structures (or in some cases, empty plots) that once housed segregated black schools. The artist takes photographs of the various sites then digitally pastes a semi-translucent white screen over each of his images, leaving only the schoolhouses and nearby telephone poles unobscured. Buildings that no longer exist appear as crisp black shadows or ghostly white silhouettes, their outlines reconstructed through historic photographs and White’s imagination. The breadth of White’s project is impressive: he captured the images from 2004 to 2010, and from 50 different towns. The structures he discovered are diverse, ranging from one-room houses to two-story brick buildings with steeples. They are symbols of the larger communities they inhabit, which acted as sanctuaries for a persecuted people—and are now rapidly changing. The fog that encircles them is a clear border, demarcating the schools as shelters but also rendering their surroundings inaccessible and potentially hostile. As a fastidious artist-historian, White renders visible the weave of Dubois’ veil, and challenges his viewers to sense its enduring presence in the contemporary world.