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STREETSEEN  |  Dr. Noelle Trent

Photo by Steve Roberts

Dr. Noelle Trent: All roads led to the National Civil Rights Museum

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

Dr. Noelle Trent, a native of West Chester, PA, moved to the Washington, DC area as a teenager. She remained in DC for college, and earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, at Howard University, where she was Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude graduate. Although she started college with an undeclared major, it soon become clear that American history was her calling.

“It wasn’t a great surprise for me that my career path led me to working in a museum,” explained Dr. Trent. “I grew up going to art museums, history museums and African-American museums. But even more influential was my relationship with one of our church members, an anthropologist who had a collection of black dolls, some dating back to the 1830s. These African-American images made me wonder about the stories connected with those dolls. That curiosity spilled over into questions about people. I found I was passionate about their histories and experiences. And being in DC, that’s like being in the ‘Hollywood’ of public history.”

Dr. Trent’s academics were combined with internships at some of the nation’s most prominent institutions, like the National Archives and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. She later worked as a Park Ranger at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. These experiences cemented her desire to preserve people’s stories and their legacies. After graduation, she worked as a freelance researcher and contributed to the permanent exhibitions at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. With an eye toward doing something different, she began a job search that led to a posting for a position at the National Civil Rights Museum.

“I had only been to Memphis once for a brief stay, but I liked what I had seen,” recalled Dr. Trent. “After a series of interviews and an in-person tour of the museum that included meeting a number of staff members, I waited to hear their response. When the phone call came that they wanted to hire me, I was on my way to Memphis within two weeks. That was in August 2015.”

Now as Director of Interpretation, Collections, and Education at the National Civil Rights Museum, Dr. Trent is having a profound effect on the face and the future of the facility. “If you want to look at, learn about or donate something, you come see me,” explained Dr. Trent. “I have team of five staff members that facilitates how the public interacts with the core exhibitions, items, programs of the museum.”

Also, Dr. Trent works with the museum’s Collections Manager, discussing possible acquisitions and traveling exhibitions. She explained that the exhibit “MLK 50: A Legacy Remembers” will include rarely seen photos from 1968, Dr. King’s last year. Of the museum’s 23 galleries, Dr. Trent recommended starting with the introductory film.

“It gives background to help understand why the civil rights movement needed to happen,” said Dr. Trent. “Another place not to be hurried through is the Memphis Sanitation Workers exhibition. I think the museum does a really great job of honoring the voices of the sanitation workers. Also, through our presentation guests can hear a recording of Dr. King talking about his commitment to the workers. And what everyone wants to see is “The King Room,” Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel. That room has a very strong sense of ‘power of place’. It is one of the things that sets our museum apart, being on location where history happened.”

Dr. Trent also pointed out that the museum’s outside courtyard offers iconic views and interpretive facts. “We want to inspire people to see themselves as part of the continuum for positive change,” concluded Dr. Trent. “Now, as it was then, regular, everyday people deciding to step up and take action.”

For information about the National Civil Rights Museum and planned events, visit mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org.


STREETSEEN  |  Richard Copley

Photo by Steve Roberts

Richard Copley: Capturing history with his photographs

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

Richard Copley grew up in Memphis. He went to Kingsbury and was a member of the first class to attend there for all 12 years. Upon graduation in 1964, he had begun to develop an interest in photography. In that way, the proverbial apple didn’t fall from the tree.

“My father was a really good amateur photographer,” recalled Copley. “And, my mother was gracious enough to let him use our only bathroom as his dark room. I fondly remember negatives and prints dripping from the shower rod over the bathtub to dry.”

One of Copley’s first jobs after graduating high school was at Blue Light Studio, on the corner of Main Street and Beale. On Friday and Saturday nights, he said, “every walk of life would come in to get their picture taken.” Copley also found that he could earn extra income shooting weddings. Things moved up a notch while Copley was a student majoring in journalism at Memphis State. One of his fraternity brothers hooked him up with a part-time student job in photo services.

“It was there that I met my mentor, Gil Michael, who was director of photo services at that time,” said Copley. “He called me in one day and told me that there was a union that needed some pictures taken. I was 22 years old at the time and had no idea what I was stepping into. It turned out to be the most important job of my life.”

The union of reference was involved in the 1968 sanitation strike.

“On Dr. King’s first visit to Memphis at Mason Temple, I covered that speech and he promised to come back to lead a march,” said Copley. “Then came a huge snowstorm that completely shut down the city, so the march was postponed. But on March 28, Dr. King led a march that started at Claiborne Temple and went to Beale Street. Sadly, the march turned violent. There was screaming and glass breaking — all hell broke loose. Almost immediately I was sprayed with pepper gas and tear gas, but I could still hear what was going on. It was a very sad day in Memphis.”

Copley continued, “The National Guard was called in with tanks and patrolled the streets of Memphis. The next day there was a peaceful march that went on without incident and I managed to take my favorite photo of the civil rights movement.”

That photo, titled, “Dignity,” features two sanitation workers wearing their Sunday best and stern looks, with the word “Dignity” stenciled on a sign. However, Copley said his most famous photo from that time in Memphis is called “I am a Man”.

Copley thought his goal was to become a photographer with National Geographic, but that didn’t happen. Five or six days later the sanitation strike was settled and he was back to being a college student — without any idea of the magnitude of the pictures he took being as important as they are today.

As Copley’s career progressed, he became notable for other Memphis photos featured on CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and shot live pictures from a helicopter showing limousines pulling out of Graceland for Elvis’ funeral. Copley worked in New York City providing photo coverage for NBC, CBS and ABC. He covered Katrina from Biloxi, and was on the top floor of “30 Rock” with Tom Brokaw doing the news the night of the 9/11 attacks.

Fifty years after the MLK assassination, Copley’s iconic images are still taking him places.

“I have an exhibit on display at the Stax Museum, as well as a show called ‘Striking Voices’ at the main library,” explained Copley. ”The latter photos are combined with photographs by Darrius Williams, who took portraits of family members of the sanitation workers.”

Also, Copley is starting a country-wide tour to take his images to places that held significant events during the Civil Rights Movement, such as Greensboro, NC, where the International Civil Rights Center & Museum is located and where the now famous sit-in took place at a Woolworth counter.

“The AFL/CIO is putting up an exhibit of my images in Washington, too,” added Copley.

Copley’s iconic images are back in circulation, helping to tell the unforgettable story that happened right here in Memphis.

For more information about Richard Copley and his photographs, visit https://www.facebook.com/Richard-L-Copley-Photography-122796538477005/.