Type to search

Allison Joyner

Friends, colleagues remember career of Doris Derby

Civil Rights photographer Doris Derby dies at the age of 82. (image provided by Doris Derby)

The civil rights activist and photographer died of cancer at the age of 82.

By Allison Joyner

Last week, acclaimed author, photographer and civil rights activist Dr. Doris Derby passed away, but the memories she left with the people she loved didn’t.

“She was a scholar, an artist and chronicler of our culture so she will definitely be remembered,” said Susan Ross, documentarian and historian and Derby’s dear friend. 

When I interviewed Derby for a column shortly after Christmas, she was recuperating from her chemotherapy treatments but excited to speak with me. My 30-minute appointment went for almost an hour as she told me about selecting images for her new book, “A Civil Rights Journey,” and all of the people she met along the way. 

Unfortunately, my computer had some technical issues and it did not record a single word. 

Cover of “A Civil Rights Journey” by Doris Derby.
Credit: Mack

I called her and told her what had happened and she was not feeling well enough to answer all of my questions again but I assured her that I would not take up as much time as before. When she agreed, I could hear the fatigue in her voice and I profusely apologized for taking up more of the short time we both knew that she had left. 

“She’s been a mentor to many students, photographers, and community activists,” Ross said. “Everything she’s been involved in, she tried to uplift the regular people.”

When Derby was growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., her parents, grandmother and uncle, were all fighters for social justice. Following in their footsteps, Derby became active with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when she attended Hunter College. The organization transferred her to Jackson, Miss., where she became a field secretary and taught an adult literacy program at Tougaloo College. Derby later earned a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She retired as the director of Georgia State’s Office of African American Student Service and Programs and anthropology professor. 

“Doris was always thinking and coming up with ways to promote African American history and culture,” Ross said.

It was while she was living in Mississippi, though, that Derby began documenting the oppression of the Jim Crow South. 

“[It] covers the people living there and fighting and surviving and coming up with ways to deal with violence and intimidation and develop solutions to get out of the situation segregation put them in,” Derby said. 

Photographer Doris Derby
Credit: Daniel Fitch

“As a cultured anthropologist, she appreciated living as living learned culture to document ordinary people and not just the “movers and shakers,” Ross said. “She did her photography as part of the work she did as an activist in the South but not just what happened in Jackson, Miss, but what happened outside of Jackson, Miss.”

 Like Ross, Derby’s friends will remember her for the kindness that she projected to every person that she met.   

“She took me under her wings,” said Lois Richardson, former Charter Dean of Liberal Arts at Georgia Gwinnett College. 

Richardson met Derby in 2007, shortly after she moved to Atlanta.
“She introduced me to all of her colleagues and people in higher education,” Richardson said. “She was very supportive and I remember her fondly for doing that because she didn’t have to.” 

The two would eventually work together while members of The Atlanta (GA) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated

“She was such a valuable person to our chapter. Always contributing, always concerned,” Richardson said. 

She remembered working with Derby on several projects for the Auburn Avenue Research Library and international projects in Haiti and Brazil while being a staunch supporter of the arts.

Anna Harris Parris, Derby’s former student and salsa instructor, gave testimony on the impact she had in her life during a memorial for Dr. Doris Derby. (image provided by Susan Ross).

Last Friday, Derby was scheduled to attend to receive the Lillian C. Lynch Citation Award from the Athens (GA) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, during the Black History Celebration at the Georgia Museum of Art on UGA’s campus. 

“Dr. Derby’s life seemed to parallel Lynch, so when I read the criteria for the award, I thought who better than Dr. Derby to be nominated,” Richardson said.

During Derby’s final days, she called Richardson and asked if she would accept the award in her absence. Richardson was happy to oblige. 

When I asked Ross how people today should fight for justice, she emphasized that life is a continuation and we have a lot of struggles to go through. 

“The struggle is done by ordinary people who do extraordinary things and even in what you’re doing now, you can find a cause and contribute to that and make a difference in this world,” Ross said.

When I asked her how her friend would have answered the question, she responded, “it would be for young people to think less of themselves and more of their community and what can be done to improve it and that’s through politics, literature, the arts, film. Find a way to make this a better place and have fun doing it.”  

“A Civil Rights Journey” is on sale now on the book’s publisher, Mack and Amazon





You Might also Like

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.