Clifton Johnson Goes South

A girl pupil and the teacher

Black teacher and student in West Virginia School

Between 1901 and 1902, Clifton Johnson made at least one journey through the American South. Originally, he was hired by the Outlook magazine to take photographs at the Tuskegee Institute for a June, 1901 article written by Booker T. Washington entitled “Chickens, Pigs, and People.” Johnson also gathered material for an installment of his American Highways and Byways series, which followed his travels through the United States and documented the people, culture, and sights he encountered. Highways and Byways of the South was first published in 1904, and in 1906 he published Highways and Byways of the Mississippi Valley, which covered some of the same themes.

Digging peanuts

Digging peanuts in South Carolina

In all the Highways and Byways books, Johnson focuses on the rural areas of the American countryside. He generally avoided larger, urban areas and instead focuses on the hardworking, but generally rewarding aspects of rural life. This reflected his personal values of Puritan hard work and appreciation of the outdoors and nature and is related to nineteenth century ideas of Transcendentalism.

A street car that the boy made himself

Black boy building a toy street car

Johnson sympathetically photographed the everyday moments in his subjects' lives. This gives the viewer a intimate glimpse into both the extremely difficult conditions that poor black Southerners faced but also the familiar connections of children and family life.

Read a letter to Booker T. Washington from the editor of Outlook magazine asking for an article that is "picturesque, readable, and perhaps somewhat personal" that is to be accompanied by photographs taken by Clifton Johnson.