Kennedy: Black portrait photographer featured at Ruby Falls

Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Historian Stefanie Haire, interviewed at the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Thursday, is doing her doctoral dissertation at Middle Tennessee State University on 20th century Chattanooga portrait photographer Horace Brazelton.
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Historian Stefanie Haire, interviewed at the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Thursday, is doing her doctoral dissertation at Middle Tennessee State University on 20th century Chattanooga portrait photographer Horace Brazelton.


Historian Stefanie Haire remembers the moment that sparked her doctoral thesis.

Haire, a historic preservationist for the state's Southeast Tennessee Development District, was scrolling through social media one day a few years ago when she spotted an old photo of a Black mother and her child.

The photo had been shared by Picnooga (now called the Chattanooga Historical Society), an organization that collects and archives historic local images.

A single mother and doctoral candidate at Middle Tennessee State University, Haire said she immediately felt drawn to the photo and wanted to know more about the woman and child in the frame.

"The lighting was beautiful," she remembers, and the last name of the photographer — Brazelton — was stamped at the bottom of the print.

After several years of careful research, Haire has pieced together the life and legacy of Horace Brazelton, the son of a former slave and Union Army soldier, whose legacy as an award-winning photographer and leader in Chattanooga's Black community is showcased in a free exhibit now on display at Ruby Falls.

"(Brazelton's) camera lens captured countless portraits of Black families and individuals, as well as Black church, professional and civic groups, during the era of Jim Crow laws in the South," according to a news release about the exhibit, which will continue through mid-September at the Lookout Mountain attraction.

The two people in the photo, it turns out, were Horace Brazelton's adopted daughter, Lucille Brazelton Jones, and her son, Leon Brazelton Jones Jr. Lucille died not long after the photo was taken, according to Haire's research.

Despite his prominence here, Brazelton, who lived from 1877 to 1956, had largely been forgotten until Haire began to gather facts about his life from census data, old newspaper articles and photographs. Her doctoral thesis, which is still under construction, contains all the facts and insights she has gathered through years of "looking for breadcrumbs."

A portrait emerges of a young man born in the town of New Market in Jefferson County, Tennessee, who briefly attended Maryville College before moving to Chattanooga and becoming a leader in the Black community. In 1903, he opened a grocery store on Grove Street here, but he soon switched careers and became a photographer, opening a studio on Ninth Street (now M.L. King Boulevard).

In a speech, Brazelton once said he had "no great talent" as a photographer, having only taken a few months of lessons in staging and lighting from a German lensman. However, records show Brazelton eventually won several regional and national awards for his photography work. An advertisement for his studio shows he sold photo packages for as little as $4. His portraits are formal, with subjects often posing unsmiling in their finest clothes.

Haire said Brazelton likely became well-known among middle-class Black residents because of his skills, but also because most white photographers in the first half of the 20th century did not accept Black clients. He became the first Black photographer to open a studio here.

In addition to documenting Black families, Brazelton also bought and sold real estate at a time when white bankers often avoided underwriting mortgages in Black neighborhoods. Ironically, though, Brazelton died a renter, Haire noted.

His leadership extended to Black empowerment.

"He helped educate the Black community on becoming registered voters," Haire said in an interview.

Brazelton and his wife, Hetty, led active faith lives and were both leaders in their church.

"It is so humbling to be the vessel to get the word out about the Brazeltons," Haire said. "None of this is my story. I'm just the lucky one who gets to put the breadcrumbs together."

Life Stories is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.


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