This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

A Tuba Player from Valdosta, Georgia

09 January 2021

Look at this photo.
What do you see?
A man with a big brass instrument.
Look again. Anything else?
A black man in a suit,
holding a large tuba.
Look closer.
An African-American man, age 20ish, maybe 30,
dressed in a bandsman's uniform,
posed with a silver E-flat tuba
on an antique cabinet card photograph
from Ricks' Studio,
Valdosta, Georgia.


It's a handsome, clear portrait, mounted on large 6" x 8" card stock typical of photos from after 1900. As is the case with many of the photographs of individual musicians in my collection, it has no date and the man's name is unknown. What we see are the only clues to his identity. 

Yet it is a remarkable photo, even rare, for three reasons. The subject is a black musician. It was taken around 1900-15. And the photographer was located in Valdosta, a small city in south central Georgia. If you know American history, those three facts should not go together. In the early 20th century, it was not that uncommon for African-American folk, even musicians, to pose for a formal studio photograph. Lots of them did so in Chicago, Philadelphia, or New York. But in Valdosta, Georgia? Not so many, I think. Certainly very few tuba players.

In my experience as a collector of vintage photos, the vast majority of cabinet card photographs were produced in the northern states. As an example, a search today on eBay for pre-1940 cabinet photos from Pennsylvania produced 5,288. For Georgia, only 98. 

The population of Valdosta in 2020 is around 57,000. But in 1910 Valdosta had only 7,656 citizens, which was a little less than a third of its county population of 24,436. It was a farming town on the Gulf Coastal Plain where the principal agricultural crop was cotton. Since the early 19th century most of Georgia's population were scattered across rural communities, with a smaller portion living in a few urban centers like Atlanta, Savannah, Columbus, and Valdosta. Those were the cities where photographers could find a steady market. In 1904 there were two in Valdosta, both located on the same city block on North Patterson St. across from the Lowndes County courthouse. W. L. Ricks advertised his studio in the 1904 city directory. He was also a dealer in Eastman Kodak cameras and supplies.

1904 Valdosta, GA city directory

Born in 1876, his full name was William Luther Ricks, and his father, D. L. Ricks, was a dentist and surgeon in Valdosta. Ricks' Studio operated in Valdosta for over 40 years, beginning around 1900 and going at least past World War II. According to one brief history on his studio,  W. L. Ricks also worked as a printer and "bill poster" out of his shop, sometimes assisted by his wife Margaret, his sister Ethel Ricks, and son Charles Ricks. From 1911 to 1912 he leased a theater space on the second floor of the Valdosta city hall. It probably had good window lighting. William L. Ricks died in 1962.


Hagerstown MD Morning Herald
01 February 1929




Despite his long career, there are hardly any photographs from W. L. Ricks Studio preserved online. This is not  to say he was not prolific, only that Ricks' (or Rick's) Studio does not produce many hits on Google. In 1929 his byline appeared under a head shot advertising a Valdosta woman's testimonial endorsing Dr. Pierce's Anuric Tablets for her kidney problems.

_ _ 




The style of the tuba player's band uniform is similar to the restrained "cadet" fashion popular with many bands from 1905 to 1925. Somewhere off camera is his hat which might have a cap badge to offer a clue to his band's name. In any case he wears a simple dress jacket with striped trousers. My guess is a dark red maroon color.

His tuba matches the design of a C. G. Conn Co. Wonder model, E-flat tuba with three piston valves. It's made of brass with nickle or silver plate. There is enough clarity in the image to see fancy engraving on the bell. In 1910 it might have cost as much as $150 or $200.

1890 C. G. Conn Co.
E-flat tuba, Wonder model


For 13 years I lived in Savannah, Georgia, about 170 northeast from Valdosta. During that time I may have passed through the city once or twice but it left only a small impression of a quiet farming town. But while researching this photo and its connection to Valdosta, I learned of a grim history that placed this man's portrait into a very different frame. It was an account of a ghastly event that was unexpectedly tragic and cruel. It is such a dark story that I find it very difficult to write, but because it is true, I feel compelled to include it. 

It was May 1918. America had been at war with Germany for a year, but our troops were only just beginning to reach the front lines in France. The scourge of the influenza pandemic was still another few months in the future. 

The following passage is taken from
the Wikipedia page for Valdosta, Georgia.
The news clippings speak for themselves.

Tampa FL Times
18 May 1918

Lynch Negroes Near Valdosta
Indignant Farmers Secured Confession
to Plot Against Smiths

On May 16, 1918, a white planter named Hampton Smith was shot and killed at his house near Morven, Georgia, by a black farm worker named Sidney Johnson who was routinely mistreated by Smith. Johnson also shot Smith's wife but she later recovered. Johnson hid for several days in Valdosta without discovery. Lynch mobs formed in Valdosta ransacking Lowndes and Brooks counties for a week looking for Johnson and his alleged accomplices. These mobs lynched at least 13 African Americans, among them Mary Turner and her unborn eight-month-old baby who was cut from her body and murdered. Mary Turner's husband Hazel Turner was also lynched the day before.

Vicksburg MS Evening Post
20 May 1918

5 Negroes Lynched 
for Single Murder

Shreveport LA Times
21 May 1918

Race Riots Laid at Door of Spies
Negroes Say Germans
Caused Lynching After
Georgia Murder

Sidney Johnson was turned in by an acquaintance, and on May 22 Police Chief Calvin Dampier led a shootout at the Valdosta house where he was hiding. Following his death, a crowd of more than 700 castrated Johnson's body, then dragged it behind a vehicle down Patterson Street and all the way to Morven, Georgia, near the site of Smith's murder. There the body of Johnson was hanged and burned on a tree. That afternoon, Governor Hugh Dorsey ordered the state militia to be dispatched to Valdosta to halt the lynch mobs, but they arrived too late for many victims. Dorsey later denounced the lynchings, but none of the participants were ever prosecuted.

Paterson NJ Morning Call
23 May 1918

Negro Shot Dead In
Fight With Police

State Guard Had Been Called
Out to Prevent His Lynching

Following the violence, more than 500 African Americans fled from Lowndes and Brooks counties to escape such oppressive conditions and violence. From 1880 to 1930, Brooks County had the highest number of lynchings in the state of Georgia. By 1922 local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been revived starting in 1915, were holding rallies openly in Valdosta.

Montgomery AL Emancipator
06 July 1918

For about two weeks the horrible events from Valdosta ran in short reports across the nation. Most of these clippings on the lynchings came from the inside columns of newspapers as their front pages were reserved for news on the war. The full story was not discovered until later by Walter F. White, an investigator for the NAACP. It is believed that 13 black people were executed during the two weeks after the murder on May 16. White also learned that the bodies of the first two men, Will Head and Will Thompson, were supposedly riddled with more than 700 bullets. The Wikipedia page for the May 18 Lynchings provides more information and details on this. 

For African-Americans living in the South, The Emancipator, a weekly national newspaper published in Montgomery, Alabama, was their most trusted source of news on race issues. On May 25, The Emancipator, with pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington on its masthead, ran a front page report with the headline: Four Lynchings in Georgia; One in Tennessee!; Negro Victim Burned to Death by Tennessee Mob; Two Negroes Lynched At Valdosta, GA; Two More Negro Victims Lynched by Valdosta Mob. 

Two weeks later on June 8, the headline was: Six Negroes Victims of Mob Rope, Six Negroes Lynched Near Huntsville, Tex. On June 22, 1918 the headline with the largest point font was: Negro Labor Leader Klu-Klux Victim.

On July 2, 1918 Dr. Robert R. Moton of the Tuskegee Institute reported on the increase in lynchings in the country over the previous six months. During this period there were 35 lynchings, 21 more than the number, 14, for the first six months of 1917, and 10 more than the the number, 25, for the first six months of 1916.

Of those lynched, 34 were Negroes and one was white. Of the 34 black victims, eight were charged with the crime of rape, three were women. The lynchings by state were as follows: Alabama, 1; Arkansas, 1; Florida, 1; Georgia, 8; Mississippi, 2; Illinois, 1; Louisiana, 8; North Carolina, 1; South Carolina, 1; Tennessee, 4; Texas, 7.

The next year, 1919, would be bring even more horrific deaths caused by racial hatred. It became the Red Summer with 76 people killed by mobs or vigilantes, 11 of them veterans of the war. In cities across America so-called "race riots" erupted that pitted white supremist groups against African-American communities. Hundreds were killed. It is a cold and gruesome history that is difficult to read one hundred year later. But sadly not difficult to understand.

* * *

This is not the story I expected to write for the new year of 2021. I wanted to find a photo or postcard of something cheery, lighthearted, even hopeful. I don't think I exaggerate to say that the sadness of the past year of 2020 will remain in our collective memory forever. It's been a year of incredible global stress unlike anything the world has experienced in centuries. What does it mean? What will the future bring? No one really knows. 

But this week on Wednesday January 6, 2021, America witnessed a madness that drove hundreds, maybe thousands, of ordinary citizens to attack the very institution of our democracy, the U. S. Capitol Building. Inside, our representatives were following protocols defined by our Constitution to affirm the election of President Joe Biden. Outside, a huge crowd was gathered for a political rally in support of President Trump's delusional notion that actually he had won, despite countless recounts and judgements that proved he was completely wrong. It didn't matter. The endless lies and grotesque distortions were just too intoxicating. 

The enraged mob walked to the Capitol seeking some kind of response to what they considered an injustice. There was no plan. No manifestos. No lists of political demands. No squads of para-military soldiers in brown shirts. Just an absurd assortment of angry people dressed in clown costumes shouting incoherently. But like a virus, hysteria is contagious. Within minutes, with the whole world watching, the mayhem became violent chaos. Tragically five people lost their lives, including one police officer. Thankfully the disorder was soon under control and our Congress returned to its business. But it was a frightening event to witness. We saw furious people driven by a tyrant's monomania lose any restraint of common sense. The crowd suddenly became a mob, and the result was vandalism, theft, and violence. Yet one mistake, one moment of misjudgment, and the day might have ended much differently with executions or mass murder.

In May 1918 a similar madness infected the people of Valdosta. It was a society that thought itself civilized, though within its own strict rules of racial segregation. Such bigotry poisons the mind. Corrupts a man's soul and allows hatred and vengeance to debase good judgment. Within a moment an ordinary sensible person becomes capable of savage slaughter. This is the power of terror. 

The unspeakable evil that happened in Valdosta in 1918 is not at all the same as the outrageous desecration we saw unleashed upon our Capitol this week. But as 2020 has shown us, that wickedness of racial hatred is still with us, still testing our American dream. And as 2021 has just demonstrated, people who seem perfectly rational can quickly be misguided into participating in an American nightmare. 

I don't know any more than what we see on this photograph. I don't know the tuba player's name or his age. I don't know if he had any relationship that directly connects him to the tragic events in Valdosta. But as a black man in circa 1910 America, it's certain he knew about discrimination and abuse. Knew about the evil of lynching. Knew what it felt like to be in fear for your life because of the color of your skin.

Surely if this musician was still alive in 1918 and learned of the lynchings in Valdosta he must have thought about the time he had his photograph taken in Mr. Ricks' studio. He understood the inhuman conditions that aroused people to commit this barbaric tragedy. He knew about the danger of mob rule.  And so did Mr. Ricks. That's the story and lesson hidden in this beautiful portrait.

Look once more. What do you see?
Courage, dignity, respect.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where time waits for no one.



Sandra Williamson said...

It's hard to look again, and again but we must otherwise we never learn.
Understanding what we are looking at is important, it can tell us so much.
Your photo portrait is intriguing. It would be wonderful if the image could talk us his story.

Alan Burnett said...

And look once more and what do I see? - a fascinating read and a fine mixture of words and images that blend together like the finest of brass band tunes.

Wendy said...

What a journey this photo took you on. Valdasta - DC -- feels like the same story played over and again. The players are different, but the horror is the same.

kathy said...

Thank you for putting words to many of my thoughts. The man in the photo carried himself with dignity in the studio. One can imagine that he often needed to look submissive to avoid trouble. We have a sad history that we must acknowledge or we can never move forward. We can't jump to reconciliation without the work. I made a "civil rights tour" with a pastor friend in September 2019 and was moved in so many ways by what I saw, read, touched, heard, and learned. The "German spies" implication in this story was a new one for me.

Barbara Rogers said...

Excellent comments as to today's news, and yesterday's of the South. I like the tuba playing man who had his portrait made, and now wonder if it was for a lady, or maybe some relations that lived far away. If only the paper could talk. I knew to not try to stop in Valdosta from when I was traveling through N. Florida and S. Georgia in the 70s, 80s and 90s. It certainly had a reputation.

La Nightingail said...

An excellent post with a well written comment on what happened in Washington this past week. Both what happened in Valdosta all those years ago, and what happened in Washington last Wednesday are vivid reminders of how otherwise normal-thinking people can be goaded and roused to mob mindlessness and in last Wednesday's case, by a nutcase madman with no conscience and no commitment to anything or anyone but himself.

Alex Daw said...

Mike I have been so saddened to see and hear what is happening in the good old US of A. Although we've known it for a long time, it was particularly frightening and sobering to hear Nancy Pelosi put it into words last night on the news. I was interested to read the Archivist's account of what it was like inside the Capitol on that day as per here. I also read Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey recently which was set in Georgia. So much work to be done. Stay strong.


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