Black and white photo of a crowd holding signs about jobs, income, and poverty
Protesters at Girard College, 1965, by Jack T. Franklin (American, 1922-2009) ©African American Museum in Philadelphia

Jack T. Franklin: Philadelphia’s Chronicler of Black Life and Protest

Samuel Ewing

Over the course of a career spanning more than four decades, photographer Jack T. Franklin (1922-2009) captured some of the most defining moments of Civil Rights Era protest that took place in Philadelphia. After serving as a photographer for the US Army during World War II as a young man, Franklin returned to Philadelphia to work as a photographer, darkroom technician, and journalist. His photographs of the 1963 Strawberry Mansion protests, 1965 Girard College protests, and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign provide a compelling picture of a decade’s worth of Black political expression in the city and beyond. In 1986, Franklin donated his entire archive to the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP).

Samuel Ewing, curator of the museum’s new exhibition Waiting for Tear Gas, spoke with AAMP’s Dejáy Duckett and artist Richard J. Watson, a friend of Franklin’s, about how Franklin became such an astute and important chronicler of Black life in Philadelphia.

Black and white photo of a stone wall with a No Trespassing sign on it.
Girard College, 1965, by Jack T. Franklin (American, 1922-2009) ©African American Museum in Philadelphia

Richard J. Watson: Jack and I spent a lot of time together back in the sixties. I was a member of the Freedom Theater at Heritage House. And Jack had his darkroom located behind the stage that we used in the basement. We would always hear this machine going off while we were rehearsing, and it happened to be Jack’s answering machine: ”This is Jack Franklin. You’ve reached Jack Franklin. I’m not in right now. Please leave a message.” I said, damn, this guy’s never in! How does he do any business? One day, we saw Jack going in there, and we asked who he was, and he said he’s a photographer. And we said, “Well, you get a lot of calls. You’re never in there.” He said, “How can I be out taking pictures and be here too?” Jack was a hilarious guy, very wry sense of humor, but he was connected to every aspect of the community from top to bottom.

But [Franklin] always wanted to be a junk man, he said. He said all this photography was cool, but he was always dragging stuff in the house. And people would say—

Samuel Ewing: What’s a “junk man”?

RW: People who pick up junk and sell it at the junk yard for money. As a young man, Jack wanted to help support the family, and he would pick up refuse and things, and they would pay you by the pound at the local junkyards. Then Jack’s sister, Eloise, went to a World’s Fair, and she brought back this box camera for Jack. And he said that turned his head in another direction. He was starting to photograph environments and people surrounded by all the elements that he liked. And that begins the story of the sojourn of Jack Franklin.

SE: I love this background and especially thinking about Jack wanting to be a junk man before he became a photographer! This urge to pick and find and transform stuff in your everyday life—there’s an analogy to be made between that and photography. You’re out in the community and documenting and taking pictures and transforming it into art. I also appreciate what you were saying about Jack being part of a broader artistic and cultural community, which I think is important when looking at the archive. It’s not just press and journalistic photos, it’s documenting community events and portraits and important people in Philadelphia.

RW: Along with Jack’s sojourn through the streets, he had some friends in the photography profession, as well. Kendall Wilson and he were partners in crime in terms of beating each other to the story, you know? And then there was John Mosley on another level and Teenie Harris in Pittsburgh. There was a whole cadre of these guys who hit the streets. They beat the pavement for their living.

SE: Within the world of photography, I feel like a lot of folks know Teenie Harris. But the same number of people don’t know Jack Franklin. It’s important to see them as a part of a shared Black photojournalist culture. I also wanted to bring up how I started really thinking about Jack’s work in 2019, and especially into 2020, with all the uprisings and protests of that year in support of Black Lives Matter. At that time, I had just started working on this exhibition devoted to protests. I wanted to signal Philadelphia’s part of that history and immediately thought of Jack’s archive—there’s all of this material from the Strawberry Mansion protests and the Girard College protests and the Selma March and the March on Washington.

Girard College, 1965, by Jack T. Franklin (American, 1922-2009) ©African American Museum in Philadelphia

Dejáy Duckett: Those moments that he was capturing in the Civil Rights Movement and those moments here in Philadelphia are truly key, because without these images, the existence of these moments can come into doubt as we’re moving further and further away in time. He always had his camera. Like even when I would see him in his later years, I don’t remember seeing him without a camera, without him talking about this work in the community. It was really a part of who he was.

RW: On that note, Jack could be chronicled as a great organizer of people of importance and relevance during the Civil Rights Movement. He’s taking photographs of some of the greatest leaders who had an impact on the Philadelphia scene as well as nationally because he was good at pulling people together, like Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and Dr. King and Bayard Rustin and Harry Belafonte—all those people in one shot. He chronicled so many greats throughout his tenure. And he had no compunction about going over and pulling somebody—“Here, come on, come on, come here, come here. Just move in here. Just move in here.”—and he would put people together. When you look at the arrangement of who’s in those photographs, it’s amazing.

SE: This is such a great point, that within all movements for social justice and liberation there are always so many points of view. And that’s the sign of a really wonderful craftsman, someone who’s able to see the scene, to intervene, to capture it, and to kind of mold it in a certain way.

DD: Yeah. It’s like almost he was ahead of the moment. [Franklin is] like a time traveler in that he’s seeing these moments unfold and is able to capture them just at the right moment and pull together the scene. He had this innate ability to do that. It’s striking.

SE: Within the history of photography, some of my most important touchstones are Frederick Douglass’s many portraits in the nineteenth century as a kind of symbolic visual demand of recognition, or Gordon Parks viewing the camera as a weapon in the struggle for social liberation. We can see Jack Franklin within that legacy.

DD: It’s true, I think we can look back at Douglass and connect Franklin to how he thought about and used photography.

Protesters at Girard College, 1965, by Jack T. Franklin (American, 1922-2009) ©African American Museum in Philadelphia

SE: I have been thinking about other kinds of iconic photographs from the Civil Rights Era, like the Birmingham Campaign and the Selma March. The scholar Martin Berger has written about how a lot of the iconic images focused on police and vigilante violence visited upon passive Black protestors, and how these images held a kind of allure in the white press. When I was looking at Jack’s pictures, it seems like he was presenting a different picture of Black solidarity. I wonder how you view some of Jack’s protest pictures or that moment in general and compare it with other iconic images of civil rights protest.

DD: It’s interesting, because those images [of state violence against Black bodies] are very much part of Franklin’s collection as well. And sometimes folks don’t want to see those images, but he definitely did not shy away from them. He was also very aware of presenting Black joy and Black families. He was not just on the scene photographing the trauma—it’s the everyday life and the coming together of these communities. It’s hard for me to compare [Franklin] to many other photographers who are known for this certain genre, whether it be protest photography or photography of entertainers who are coming to Philadelphia or of scholars of the city, because he did all of these things. It’s all treated equally in his work. I find it amazing as I try to look through these 500,000 images that are in our collection, I’m hard-pressed to think of something I don’t find of Black life in the city.

SE: I like the comment you made about how Franklin was also drawn to capturing moments of Black joy and celebration and solidarity, even within the moment of protests. One of the pictures that I was excited to bring into the exhibition shows what looks like a bandstand at the Girard College protests. It’s wonderful to find this combination of dissent and joy and celebration, all at the same time.

DD: Richard, do you remember seeing [Franklin] at that Girard College protest?

RW: I have vivid memories of that, man. I lived a block away from Girard College. So every day I was there, from May 1st on up to September, October—seven months and seventeen days, we did that. And Jack was a constant part of that experience. It seemed like we had a driving compulsion to be there all the time. Sometimes it was a lot of us. Sometimes there’d only be three or four of us out there.

At night when the picket line ended, we felt lost. We said, “Wow, wow, it’s over?” It’s like a party ending. We hung out together at Green’s restaurant and Wimpy’s down on Broad Street. We just did not want to go away from the urgency of being involved with that. The young people, anyway.

And there were other things going on, too. The Revolutionary Action Movement, called RAM, and the Black Panthers and all the police. The environment and the atmosphere for police brutality was really torrid. You didn’t have to be an activist to encounter the police when you’re Black in North Philadelphia at that time. A lot of people became involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a reaction to being either assaulted or offended or insulted by the police at that time.

Protesters at Girard College, 1965, by Jack T. Franklin (American, 1922-2009) ©African American Museum in Philadelphia

SE: Richard, any last thoughts or stories you want to share about Jack?

RW: I was always impressed with Jack’s sense of humor, you know? He was just a natural person who was very authentic. He was such a people person, and he knew the streets very well. He knew, like I said, how to navigate the terrain everywhere he went. He would get on a plane to go to Mississippi or Alabama, somewhere on a campaign, and he wouldn’t have any money to get back because he was just going to shoot the show. People would let Jack come, carte blanche, because they knew he was going to capture something different than the other photographers who might be there. Jack knew what to shoot that would mean something to his people. So that’s what I’d say. He was a man of courage and integrity and I miss him now.

Dejáy Duckett is the Director of Curatorial Services at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Over the last five years at AAMP she has organized 16 exhibitions, including Collective Conscious and Sonya Clark: Self Evident. Duckett earned her B.A. in Art History from Spelman College and an MA in Museum Studies from Seton Hall University, where she researched the evolving role of the culturally specific museum in the 21st Century. In 2019, Duckett was awarded the Distinguished Alumna Award from the College of Communication and Arts at Seton Hall University. 

Richard J. Watson has been an artist, civil rights crusader, mentor, and educator at the African American Museum in Philadelphia for nearly 40 years. A 1968 graduate of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Watson is best known for his pastoral scenes and the murals located in Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate.

Samuel Ewing is a former Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography and currently Adjunct Professor of Art History at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the curator of Waiting for Tear Gas, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through July 17.