James Lowry Receives an Award, 1988
Authored by Sarah Jane Kline ’21 in “Who is Included? Black Staff and Study at Davidson College“
last updated 02.09.2021
Noticing the ways in which the photographs – what is in them and what they say about Black study at Davidson – change or do not change across time, provides an interesting final mode of thought for “James Lowry Receives an Award” (1988). Upon first glance, the viewer sees an award being held by both a full grinning man in a cap and a wide-smiled woman wearing pearls (“James Lowry receives an award,” 1988). The man in the cap’s name is James Lowry, a Black staff member who worked for physical plant, and in this moment, was one of the recipients of the “Faithful Black Employees” award which reads in bold letters: “Whatever Your Life’s Work Is, Do It Well…” (“James Lowry receives an award,” 1988). As a recipient of this award for his “life’s work,” I question what exactly was Lowry’s life like before this photograph was taken. Giduz (1990) writes in the Davidson Journal that Lowry’s “life’s work” supported the students, faculty, and administrators but in a “low-paying, insecure position” (p. 16). The quotation on the plaque, “Whatever Your Life’s Work Is,” through the word “Whatever,” glosses over the real and full importance of Lowry’s work which Davidson thus failed to recognize. I acknowledge that perhaps the quotation was meant to inspire Black staff in a way that means something like: no matter the circumstances, dedication and loyalty should be recognized. However, after analyzing photographs of Black staff who came before Lowry, “Whatever Your Life’s Work Is,” written on a plaque given to a Black custodian and member of the janitorial staff, reads to me that exactly what it is Lowry does on campus is understudied or realized. “Whatever” is a non-specific and vague word. Second, this quotation is purposefully vague. The vagueness offers an excuse to avoid naming aloud, or writing on the plaque, the exact nature of his work. Nevertheless, even if this plaque represents a form of progress on behalf of Davidson to begin recognizing the essential work and nature of Black staff on campus, as Giduz (1990) notes, “while a regular paycheck for honest work and occasional recognition are fine … much remains to be done” (p. 16). Accordingly, this plaque was dedicated to all Black employees on campus further homogenizing their distinct contributions and experiences to Black study and Davidson’s academia writ large (Giduz, 1990, p. 16).
While I initially assumed this award was presented to Lowry himself, I later realized that the plaque was to recognize the entirety of Davidson’s Black employees, meaning that the way this photo reads changes. The Black Student Coalition spearheaded the effort to present the plaque of appreciation, meaning that what has come out of this historical moment captured through this photograph is the marking of an intellectual and workplace community (Giduz, 1990, p. 16). The Black students, fighting for representation in curriculum, I posit turned to the Davidson community at hand, to inwardly focus their study, attention, and analysis on Davidson’s treatment of Black staff and employees as a site for change and community (Mukenge, 1990, p.11). What this has to do with this photograph is that the community of people surrounding the plaque are all collective recipients of it; from left to right, Brenda McCain, James Lowry, Amy Edmonds ‘80, Henry Withers, and Georgia Black are pictured (“James Lowry receives an award,” 1988). Positioning all of these Black staff members as equally as appreciated is crucial in recognizing that this photographer captured the community that being a Black staff worker at Davidson ensured. Additionally, the product of that community organizing is of equal interest. Edmonds as a member of the class of 1980 who was present at the reception of the plaque represents a bridge between Black staff and Black students showcasing that the connection between Black staff and Black study is wrought with community. This community perhaps shared a collective knowledge. In imagining this image as a site for theoretical knowledge production about Black study, similar to looking at the original location of “Davidson College Servants” (1898) in the Quips and Cranks, in the 1990 Davidson Journal all members in the image are cropped out except for Lowry and Edmonds. This literal exclusion ultimately eliminates the tangible sense of community evident in this photograph, not to mention the subsequent scanning of the issue blurred many of the details such as the words on the plaque.
Seeing how individuals originally included in the photograph were subsequently excluded, I must return to my ultimate idea of excluding Black staff members from conceptualization of Black study at Davidson. The Davidson Journal repurposed this image to make a claim about the “black experience” at Davidson from the perspective of Black staff members. However, another irony is revealed: in an edition designed to include Black experiences in critiques of Davidsons’ race relations, the edition eliminated individuals inherently involved in that dialogue and community. On a conceptual level, then, the cropping of this image excludes individuals and limits understandings of this photograph’s relationship to Black study if we take the Davidson Journal as an archival site for knowledge production. Indeed, the knowledge produced from this photograph is limited by the exclusion of individuals initially depicted in it. The final irony, then, that I want to address in light of said exclusion, is that the plaque was hung “in the foyer of Chambers building,” as Giduz (1990) writes (p. 16). Therefore, a plaque of recognition for Black staff was hung in the primary academic building on Davidson’s campus, a building in which one hundred years earlier (with respect to my project’s photographic archive) Black staff members’ presence was deliberately excluded despite their inherent involvement. Then, I counter, this irony has a dual meaning, such that the plaque perhaps lives on after this image, taking up space, reclaiming that space. While the plaque is certainly not enough, it is an interesting byproduct of this photograph that forty years later places Black staff in the space of Davidson’s academic building. Maybe this is why all of the Black staff members in the photograph are smiling. They smiled at the prospect of troubling the relationship between Black staff and Black study as oppositional and mutually exclusive (“James Lowry receives an award,” 1988).