The Remarkable Reverend L.O. Taylor: Memphis' Renaissance Man
"Of his own volition, photographer, filmmaker, and oral historian Rev. L.O. Taylor single-handedly documented the African American community in Memphis, Tennessee from the 1920s through the 1960s."
-Center for Southern Folklore
The films, recordings, and photographs that the Reverend Lonzie Odie (L. O.) Taylor made of African Americans in Memphis during the 1930s and 1940s constitute one of the unique documentary records in America. A charismatic and emotional Baptist preacher, Taylor consciously set out to record in movies, photographs, and audio tapes the lives, events, and sounds of the Bluff City’s African American communities in an era of Jim Crow segregation.
As shown in the award-winning 1989 documentary, Sermons and Sacred Pictures: The Life and Work of Reverend L. O. Taylor, the films were about important African American religious and political events. For example, Taylor made movies of his annual trips to the National Baptist Convention, showing his parishioners famous landmarks of the cities he visited, as well as parts of the convention and the legendary ministers who spoke there.
His films from the conventions also demonstrated the inherent inequity of Jim Crow laws as Taylor was forced to travel on segregated trains. In Memphis, Taylor filmed weddings, community celebrations, and perhaps most importantly, commonplace events and average people carrying out their everyday lives. Among the many subjects he documented were baptisms, parades, and African American women learning to type while accompanied by a pianist.
Taylor brought a sense of intimacy and casualness to his documentaries. His films were shown on a regular basis in Memphis at segregated African American theaters and at his church, Mt. Olivet Baptist, where he served as pastor from 1931 to 1956. Taylor made his movies and recordings for many reasons. As others have noted, the films made social statements, assisted in his teachings, and provided a way for people to remember deceased loved ones. He enjoyed being a filmmaker. As a dynamic minister, he possessed a personal charm, an effective theatrical sense, and the ability to create a memorable story, all of which carried over to his moviemaking.
As a community activist, Taylor coordinated Bible classes for men and participated in organizations such as the East Memphis Ushers’ Union.
He also wanted to nurture a positive self-image and identity for Memphis’s African Americans, so his work celebrated their existence in a time when few black faces--except when depicted in often vicious stereotypes--could be found on southern silver screens. Reverend Taylor died in 1977.
Since his death, Taylor’s photographs have gained nationwide recognition and have been featured in exhibitions such as 'A Century of Black Photographers, 1840-1960', which was displayed at prestigious institutions, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
In 2006, Taylor’s photos were showcased at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis as part of an exhibit titled 'Pictures from Home: Six African-American Studio Photographers in the South, 1900-1950'. The Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis has the state’s best collection of Taylor’s amazing documentary legacy. The collection is currently undergoing a digitization process that will make his work much more accessible to scholars and the public.
Article by Carroll Van West and Laura Nickas in Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture