In conversation with New York based Photographer and Film-Maker Brian Palmer

We’re delighted that Brian Palmer was finally able to talk about his work for #phonar – last week and the week before Brian was out pitching in to the relief effort after Super-storm Sandy hit his hometown of NYC and we were worried we were going to miss him but, we got him and what’s more we got a chance to be a part of Brian’s current project: how many people with the surname of “Hobson” do you know…..?

The building, the York River Presbyterian Church, is the only structure that remains of a Virginia, USA, community called Magruder. The community, a group of towns, was segregated, like the rest of the American South (and parts of the north). York River was Magruder’s white church. Black churches such as Oak Grove Baptist and Mt. Gilead Baptist were allowed to decay and were then destroyed by the military after it took the land to build a training facility during World War II. My father’s family and hundreds of others lived in Magruder until then. 
The base, called Camp Peary, is now a classified Department of Defense facility. My great-grandfather Mat Palmer’s grave and the cemetery in which it is located is now behind Camp Peary’s electrified fence, off limits to the general public. Descendants of those buried there—and at York River Presbyterian’s graveyard—may request permission to visit.
I call Mat Palmer an “extraordinary ordinary” man. Ordinary in that many people endured similar fates—and were similarly, purposefully written out of American history. But extraordinary because of the trajectory of his life and his accomplishments. Born enslaved in a rural Virginia county by the Hobson family, whose roots are in England, Mat somehow made it to Richmond where he enrolled with the Union Army, whose Commander in Chief was, of course, Abraham Lincoln. After serving for roughly a year, he made his way to a patch of swampy but not especially fertile land along the York River, which became Magruder. Along the way, he married a woman named Julia; they had 12 children, including my grandfather. Mathew and Julia passed down their land, which they had purchased and molded into a home and a farm. My great-grandfather went from being property, literally, like a broom or a horse, to owning property. It was this land the government took from his children and grandchildren.
Both black and white families had their land taken, but because of the institution of Jim Crow, the informal name for American apartheid, black Americans found it more difficult to resettle and recover. Not only were there fewer economic opportunities, but blacks were discriminated against, even terrorized, with violence. Stiil, they resettled not too far away and made do with even less than they had before. Some people thrived, others were less successful, but they worked hard to rebuild the cohesive community they had in Magruder.


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Phonar - [fo-'när] is a free and open undergraduate photography class run by Jonathan Worth

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