When Miami junior Raechel Root took the podium at the Oxford Community Arts Center last Friday, she immediately asked former Miami professor Hugh Morgan to stand for recognition. All eyes turned to the back of the room.
But nobody stood.
“Put your hand up, Hugh,” Root said, eager to celebrate the man responsible for the night’s featured exhibit.
But again, Morgan refused to make himself visible. He was here to cast a light on others, not himself.
On the second Friday of every month, the OCAC hosts a celebration of the arts, complete with music, food and art exhibitions. This past “Second Friday” featured Morgan’s photography exhibition, “Shining a Light on People in The Shadows,” a collection of photographic portraits of the historic African-American communities in Oxford.
The exhibition, which was supported by the Oxford branch of the NAACP, highlighted a wide variety of images from these communities — families and friends, churches and places of business, people laughing and people kissing, serious faces and stoic faces. As Root explained, these images presented a part of Oxford unknown to many in the Miami community.
“It’s kind of an invisible part of the community, as the title suggests,” she said. “I like that it was generated by members of the community… And I think there’s kind of a tension there sometimes between Oxford, the town, and Oxford, the campus of Miami.”
Root, who is the art director at Kofenya, had worked with Morgan before on the “Humans of Kofenya” project. A regular at the coffee shop, Morgan came in one day and told her about his idea for this new photo project.
During his years as a journalist, Morgan had covered the civil rights movement and had met many civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ever since, he has been deeply passionate about the fight for equality.
“It opened my eyes to the fact that we are all equal and that we should do everything we can to proclaim that message,” he said.
Morgan asked Root to help with the design and publicity for the event. She also offered to assist with the technological aspect of it after she took a look at his computer and found 200 separate image files saved on the desktop.
Morgan also enlisted the help of Barbara Cox, a member of the Oxford branch of the NAACP. Like Root, Cox saw this project as a wonderful opportunity to feature Oxford’s lesser-known communities.
She described the university as the “In-community” in Oxford, explaining that many individuals on Miami’s campus don’t know much about those who have lived on the outside their entire lives. This inspired her to title the project, “Shining a Light on People in The Shadows.”
“They’re in a sense marginalized,” she said. “Hugh wanted to spotlight them and give them the recognition they deserve.”
Cox helped Morgan set up interviews and photo opportunities. Their mission brought them all over Oxford, from barbershops to political rallies, from weddings to family reunions. Cox described this as an eye-opening experience.
“It’s been amazing for me because I’m African-American, and I am connected to the university community and not so much to the African-American community,” she said. “I got to really know people I didn’t know before.”
The majority of those attending the event seemed equally impressed with the project, flocking to Morgan throughout the night to congratulate him on a successful exhibition. But Morgan remained adamant that the night was not about him.
“I am the least important person,” he said. “What’s important is not who took the pictures. What’s important is the people in the pictures. And what they represent.”
Root expressed confidence in the success of the exhibit, citing the power of photography to instill empathy in the viewer.
“I’m glad, especially now in 2017, post-election, that this exhibit is happening and that people are seeing a very powerful representation of communities that other people may be trying to marginalize,” she said.