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Finding the girl in the photograph

Today’s guest post is from Edith Lee-Payne.

Edith Lee-Payne at the March on Washington. The original caption reads “Photograph of a Young Woman at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., with a Banner, 08/28/1963,” photographed by Rowland Scherman (National Archives Identifier 542030)

The dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial will take place this Sunday, October 16. One of the women in attendence will be Edith Lee-Payne.

You might recognize her. Photographer Rowland Scherman snapped a photo of Edith, then a 12-year-old girl with her mother, holding a banner at the March on Washington.

But although the photograph was taken in 1963, Ms. Lee-Payne did not know about the image until 2008. With the help of a librarian and an archivist, she was able to locate the photograph of herself at the march.

Here, in her own words, is her story of attending the march on August 28 and finding her record in the National Archives more than 40 years later.

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Washington, DC, was home for my mother before settling in Detroit, Michigan. After Dr. King led a march in Detroit on June 23, 1963, my mother scheduled our vacation to attend the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, which also happened to be my twelfth birthday.

I lived the dream Dr. King spoke of. My neighborhood was integrated. We attended the same schools and sometimes shared worship experiences. We dined at restaurants with lunch counters without incident and drank from water fountains without signs distinguishing “color.” My mother never learned to drive, so buses and cabs were our primary mode of transportation, also without incident.

At the age of 12 years, it was inconceivable to know that people who looked like me, separated by a few hundred miles, suffered such horrific experiences and limitations in their daily lives, including death. What I had learned in school about the Constitution, Emancipation Proclamation, freedom, and opportunities caused me to question the validity of these documents and concepts. There were no exceptions in these documents or caveats allowing these dreadful differences to happen, yet they did.

In late October 2008, my cousin Marsha phoned saying she saw a picture of me on the cover of a 2009 Black History Calendar. She said I was holding a banner that read something about a march. I immediately recalled the March on Washington in August 28, 1963. She went on to say the picture was in a museum. From there my search to find the picture’s origin began.

My search began with the Smithsonian since my only lead was a museum, and then on to the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. I am thankful to Jan Grenci of the Library of Congress, who located the photo online credited to the National Archives and Records Administration, while sending me other websites where the photo had been featured.

My first contact with the National Archives was with the very kind and extremely patient and helpful Rutha Beamon. Not only did Ms. Beamon provide me ordering instructions, she informed me two other photos were taken at the March. These photos include my mother, making them especially memorable. My best description of this moment is “overwhelming.” Something I could never have imagined is reality. Grasping it is not easy.

It is very humbling and gratifying to have been captured in photos viewed and used around the globe, by an unknown photographer that I have great respect, gratitude, and appreciation for. At that moment, the photographer captured my indescribable and unbelievable feelings as I listened and felt and saw, simultaneously, despair and hope on the faces of people around me, including my mother. It’s also humbling that my image identifies me as a civil rights demonstrator, associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the historic March on Washington that will be seen throughout history.

It is with great pride and humility that I return to Washington, DC, to celebrate my sixtieth birthday and the dedication of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., National Monument. Although his dream is not yet realized, his tireless leadership to bring a nation together will never be diminished as I and others continue to keep the dream alive.

Edith Lee-Payne

This photo montage, provided by Edith Lee-Payne, blends the original photo with a photo of herself in the present day, holding the banner after it had been cleaned and mounted by a textile conservator, Howard Sutcliff, Detroit Institute of Arts.

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Comments

Comment from Rowland Scherman
Time November 16, 2011 at 3:25 am

I was “the unknown photographer”. My name is Rowland Scherman. USIA neglected to add my name to the thousands of pictures I made that day for the US Government. I’m sure they meant to, but the agency no longer exists.