(article) Gallery Exhibit: The Upshaws of County Line

Excerpt of a review from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, a Texas State Historical Association publication, about the book "The Upshaws of County Line: An American Family" by Richard S. Orton

"In The Upshaws of County Line: An American Family, documentary photographer Richard Orton chronicles the Upshaws, an African American family of the rural East Texas community of County Line, during the years 1988–2009. There are no formal divisions within the presentation of the photographs. However, the photographs themselves, coupled with quotations from Upshaw family members, move the reader along through a loosely narrative organization.

A foreword by Thad Sitton introduces the history of “freedom colonies,” the name given to “independent communities of African-American landowners and land squatters that formed in the eastern half of Texas during the years after Emancipation in 1865” (vii). Sitton notes that freedom colonies represented freedom not just from slavery, but also from repressive Jim Crow-era social codes imposed by the dominant white culture. The County Line community was founded around 1870 in western Nacogdoches County near the Angelina River. Its founders were three brothers, Gus, Jim, and Felix Upshaw, each contributing skills of farming or mechanical artisanship. Other families joined the Upshaws, and County Line grew as large as some twenty dwellings by the mid-twentieth century.




Roy Flukinger’s preface situates Orton’s work within the context of twentieth-century documentary photography. Flukinger compares Orton to Russell Lee, particularly in terms of his respect for his subjects, creating art that celebrates human dignity. Orton’s introductory text shares his belief in the universality of human experience, and how his curiosity about the freedom colonies brought him to the Upshaw family.

Orton begins by considering the community’s founders. His Stonewall Cemetery (1990) shows upward-reaching trees behind the headstone of Gus and Ella Upshaw, with its epitaph, “Their life was beauty, truth, goodness, and love.” Orton’s next photographs focus on Monel and Leota Upshaw, the couple who originally accepted Orton’s request to, in his words, “make photographs” (1) within their family circle. Orton’s Grandfatherly Advice (1998), which is also the book’s cover image, is a powerful and tender photograph of intergenerational love and passed-down wisdom.




Orton segues into the larger community by way of the County Line Baptist Church. This church and the school were the two main community organizations and gathering places until 1968, when the school was closed after desegregation. Orton also records the family’s Homecoming, or August Meet, over several years. Other photographs document the younger generation and issues of education, followed by a section on activities including hair styling, hog butchering, and domino playing. The passage of time asserts itself in photographs of a birthday and two funerals. Orton’s Monel Upshaw (1909–2002) is a striking photograph of Upshaw’s open casket, recalling nineteenth-century photographic likenesses of deceased loved ones, with a matter-of-factness that is unusual in today’s death-denying culture. The closing photograph of The Remaining Siblings (2009) is followed by thoughts from Upshaw family members on the future of County Line.

Richard Orton has served both today’s reader and posterity well by creating these turn-of-the-twenty-first-century images of an American family, still influenced by the initiative of their nineteenth-century ancestors."

Texas Folklife will be featuring photographs from "The Upshaws of the County Line" in our gallery starting May 10th. We will be holding an event for the gallery opening on this day which will feature the author/photographer Richard Orton as well as commuinity member Elia Ali who will be discussing the photographs. For more information, please visit the event page here.