Man without shirt and woman on porch, Battle’s Quarters, 1971
By Paul Kwilecki
Battle’s Quarters was the worst of several black slums in Bainbridge (Georgia). It was two one-block streets of cheap houses built as living quarters for Battles & Metcalf Lumber Co. workers. The lumber company closed in the forties and the houses were rented out to blacks who lacked income to live in a decent place. Battle’s Quarters was, as Balzac described the house in Pere Goriot, poverty without poetry.
The streets were dirt. When it rained muddy water stood everywhere, and the smell of urine and stale fried food hung in the air. There was not a tree on either street; people sat in the shade of their houses and moved as the sun moved the shade. In dry weather the dust was suffocating.
Battle’s Quarters was a new kind of slum in which the dehumanization of its tenants was faster and more thorough than before. Many residents received welfare checks for not working or for bearing illegitimate children. Money was given them with no responsibility to use it prudently. Consequently they threw it away and the whole idea of career or job lost its meaning.
The houses were narrow, one room wide. The first two rooms were bedrooms, the back room a kitchen. There was a porch on the front and a stoop in back. About fifty feet behind the house was a privy. There was no way to make the houses comfortable in winter or summer. Consequently most life was lived outdoors.
Street in Battle’s Quarters, children playing, 1970
Both men and women seemed to adjust to living conditions in the quarters by suspending their concept of privacy and any rigid idea of time. They sat in groups of four or five in their yards, on their porches, or on their old cars which were big and banged up. They would leave their group to eat, not on a schedule but whenever they were hungry. They might return or go to bed or lie on the splintered floor of the porch and sleep. Someone else would take their place, so the individuals changed, but the group itself remained. Two blocks away, outside the quarters such behavior would have been bizarre.
At first I was cautious about photographing people and pretended to be taking pictures of the street. I discovered right away that I was not an object of interest; people did not look at me or ask what I was doing. When I realized they were totally indifferent to outsiders, I began getting closer and photographing individuals. I was beginning to see that these people had nothing to fear from anyone: they had lost everything even their self-esteem and with that a good bit of their hold on reality.
Finally Battle’s Quarters became unbearable to the people who lived around it and daily saw what it was doing to its victims. For several years they resolutely protested its indecency, and finally it was demolished. Now there is a dirt road going nowhere. On both sides grass and weeds grow head high. Its as if the place imploded of its own putrefaction and like a black hole took everything with it. A few wild flowers that blow in the fresh air are all that’s left.
Colored waiting room. Trailways Bus Station, 1978
THE TRAILWAYS BUS STATION
The Trailways bus station in Bainbridge is clean. Its ceramic tile floors are scrubbed and polished. The long rows of fluorescent tubes overhead cast blue, flat light over the usual waiting-room paraphernalia: juke box, pinball machine, vending machines, scale, telephones, and rows of chrome and plastic chairs. Once busy from six in the morning until nine at night, the bus station has just four or five buses a day, mostly empty, and freight, not people, keeps it open.
For many years bus travel was a step-child. The bus station was in the back part of a building occupied by Master Auto Parts. Virginia Schultz sold tickets and magazines. She had the biggest newsstand in town, and I remember the smell of magazines mixed with the smell of oil and grease and engine exhaust. The buckled wood floor was dark and sticky with Coke and RC Cola.
After World War II people became more mobile and bus travel flourished. Trailways erected their own bus station. They bought the threadbare but well-bred old Fleming house, and tore it down. The contrast between it and the new bus station was stark. Neighbors shrank from the nocturnal disturbances, but there was nothing they could do about it. Before long the houses around the bus station had turned into a drive-in, a beauty parlor, a drug store, a gas station, and a taxi stand.
Trailways Bus Station, 1978
The Trailways buses out of Bainbridge went to places with names like Ozark, Enterprise, Opelika in Alabama and Vidalia, Arabi, Winder, and Social Circle in Georgia. They went lots of other places too, but most passengers were not going far. Business people fly; young people and families drive. People traveling alone choose buses because they are inexpensive and go where no other public transportation does. Bainbridge is such a place.
MT. ZION CHURCH WITH SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASS ON STEPS
It is hot and still. Clouds as high as mountains hang over the landscape. The humidity is oppressive. In a clearing behind dark woods leans an old whitewashed clapboard church in the shape of an oblong box. It looks thoroughly exhausted and compliant. Both front doors hang open. The preacher’s voice floats into the church yard and cemetery which has been cut out of the surrounding woods like a hole left in dough by a biscuit cutter.
This is Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church five miles south of Bainbridge. It is typical of rural congregations whose membership once lived on nearby farms. The farms are planted in pine trees now and their tenants, most of them laid to rest in the hot south Georgia ground, have passed into the widely censured but poorly understood history of the agrarian south.
Doorway, Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church, 1989
I went there to photograph the building. It was mostly age: the siding split, the paint gone with rain and sun, doors sagging, windows propped open. That the place still existed was improbable enough, but what the preacher was teaching the children in Sunday School was a contradiction of the black message for the last thirty years: that God who was gentle at heart would reward injury and humiliation in this life with happiness and leisure in the life to come.
Had the old church conjured this preacher up from the days of its youth? His lesson was as decrepit and hoary as the building and could have been delivered there on any Sunday morning during the twenties and thirties.
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(Copyright @ Duke University Libraries & Estate of Paul Kwilecki)