Mrs. Larcie Smith Browning with Dr. J. G. McCracken, May 28, 1964
She seems emotionally overwhelmed. Mixed up in her expression are uncomfortable humility, intense gratitude, and the restraint of someone who knows to stay in the place society has left for her. If her stifled tears and nervous smile weren't emotionally powerful enough, there's the white dress, white gloves, and white powder she has used to dress up for one of the biggest occassions of her adult life.
Growing up at the turn of the century, she would have come of age in one of the worst periods for African-Americans in South Carolina. The generation in power at that time went to great efforts to prevent the chaotic social upheaval that had marred their own youths during Reconstruction by constraining African-American progress. New voting rules legally disenfranchised blacks and the reinvention of the KKK ensured that African-Americans stayed in their white-defined place in society.
That sense of a "proper place," especially in regards to interacting with whites, defines this photo for me. As a black woman employed by this man, she very clearly has a subservient role to him. Yet, this photo documents a ceremony given in her honor. She seems to struggle with that place of honor while maintaining her "proper place," and I wonder if that is what her expression (and the awkward physical space between them) is all about. Combine that with all the memories of working for decades as a teacher in her struggling community and it's certainly an overwhelming experience.
This photo didn't come with any label and it took some effort to find her name. There was a newspaper article in May of 1964 that covered and photographed the retiring of three white teachers with a note in the final paragraph that a similar ceremony would be held a few days later for two negro teachers. As might be expected, no article or photo appeared in the newspaper for that event. I later found an older photo of teachers at Highland Elementary that included one of the retiring teachers, Mrs. Larcie Browning, the woman shown above. That provided the link to clarify her identity, and that's how I'm able to say who she was and what was happening in her life on May 28, 1964.