Richard Samuel Roberts photography brought to life in Harlem South

Richard Samuel Roberts, Fernandina, Florida, before 1920, CMA 1993.12.1.
Richard Samuel Roberts, gelatin silver print, posthumously printed from the original glass plate negatives. Gift of Gerald E.Roberts, Beverly Roberts, Cornelius C. Roberts and Wilhelmina R. Wynn.

The Columbia Museum of Art announces the Southeastern premiere of Harlem South: A View Through the Lens, a jazz and theatrical performance of historical fiction chronicling the dynamics of African American life in Columbia, South Carolina, between 1920 and 1936 through the photography of Richard Samuel Roberts. With performances on October 18, 19, and 20, Harlem South features acclaimed jazz musician and composer Dr. Ron McCurdy in collaboration with Darion McCloud of NiA Company and the University of South Carolina School of Music.

“While presenting at the CMA a few years ago, I was immediately taken by the rich photos of Richard Samuel Roberts. I knew this was a story that was worthy of being taken to another level,” says McCurdy. “Harlem South offers a true depiction of African American life through the lens of Roberts. This concert attempts to humanize each of the selected characters, whose stories are told with honesty and integrity. At a time when there is so much social and political divisive rhetoric, Roberts helps us to understand that we as people are more alike than we are different.”

During the day, Roberts was the custodian at the post office in Columbia. On his off days and evenings, he was the photographer and documentarian for the segregated Black community. He captured diverse aspects of Black life in the city, including images of bankers, teachers, manual laborers, and children. In 1922, Roberts rented studio space at 1119 Washington Street. The studio suffered both from insufficient space and poor natural light, so Roberts developed new techniques in response to those problems.

Roberts amassed thousands of portraits that in effect chronicle Black life under Jim Crow since 1920. As the city’s sole Black photographer, he was a documentarian responsible for establishing a Southern renaissance that paralleled the artistic revolution happening “up North” in Harlem. After his death in 1936, 3,000 glass plate negatives were stored under his house at 1717 Wayne Street, where they remained for more than 40 years. Today, the CMA boasts 132 Roberts photographs in its collection.

“Roberts images underscore the concept of identity so relevant in today’s complex social landscape,” says Jackie Adams, CMA director of education & engagement. “In collaboration with NiA’s Darion McCloud, Dr. McCurdy’s contemporary work brings to life the soul of these portraits in a visceral experience that helps us to reconsider the past while also seeing ourselves in the present from a view through the lens.”

McCurdy is professor of music in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC), where he served as chair of the jazz department for six years (2002–2008). He is also past-president of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE). Prior to his appointment at USC, he served as director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at USC (1999–2001). In 2008, McCurdy premiered the orchestral version of The Langston Hughes Project, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and rapper and television actor Ice-T. The multimedia presentation features jazz quartet, spoken word, and images from the Harlem Renaissance. McCurdy is the co-creator of Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words and a performing artist for the Yamaha International Corporation.

McCloud is a theatre professional of more than 20 years. An actor, storyteller, director, designer, and consultant, he is a cofounder of the boundary challenging NiA Theatre Company. McCloud uses theater and storytelling principles to teach and foster communication, creativity, and community with audiences as diverse as corporate cultures, educators, and homeless groups. He has been awarded for his community work with the Andrew Billingsley Award and the Literacy Leader Award. He is a Leo Twiggs Scholar as well as a Riley Diversity Leadership Fellow, Indie Grits Fellow, and The Jasper Project’s 2018 Theatre Artist of the Year, though his most treasured role may be that of the favorite performer for thousands of school children. 

In July 2019, USC Press released the second edition of A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts, 1920–1936, edited by Thomas L. Johnson and Phillip C. Dunn. This book, containing nearly 200 photographs by Roberts, is available for purchase in the CMA Shop.

This project is a collaboration with University of Southern California, NiA Theatre Co, University of South Carolina School of Music, USC Press, and the Friends of African American Art and Culture.

Presented by Baker and Baker Foundation.

Friday, October 18 and Saturday, October 19 | Doors 6:30 p.m. | Concert 7:00 p.m.

Sunday, October 20 | 3:00 p.m.

$35 / $28 for members / $5 for students. Includes admission to the CMA collection.

For more information, visit

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