Historic tourism is one of my favorite pastimes. A little over a year ago, I took a trip to Helena, AR to visit some of the town’s famous sites, the Delta Cultural Center, Fort Curtis, and Centennial Baptist Church. Catty-corner to the church and beside Fort Curtis I noticed a photography studio. Given its location in the heart of such historic sites, I decided to visit. Little did I know this experience would be life changing!
I entered the building and was immediately greeted by a gentleman behind the counter and a beautiful lady standing beside the front door. I introduced myself and informed the two that I wanted to learn a little bit about the studio. I looked around and immediately noticed some amazing black and white photos. As I was taking it all in, the man behind the counter, Rogerline Johnson, Jr. introduced himself and then introduced the beautiful lady at the door, his mother, Ludie Johnson. I looked behind the counter where Rogerline stood and saw a sign behind him that read, “Rogerline Studios, est. 1952.” The black and white photos I saw began to make sense.
Rogerline Jr. informed me that the studio was founded by his late father, Rogerline Johnson, Sr. Mr. Johnson was a renaissance man who played football and the saxophone in the band at Arkansas AM&N College, served as a teacher in the Arkansas Delta, and ran for a seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives. However, what he is best known for is his brilliant photography.
I asked Rogerline to tell me about the photos and the history of the studio. With a smile on his face, he grabbed some of the amazing black and white framed photos and the storytelling began. He showed me a picture of young B.B. King and his band playing in Helena in 1950 and told me that photo is one of the earliest photos of him performing with his band. He showed me a portrait of the famous artist Dewitt Jordan whose art went from the Arkansas Delta to all over the world. He showed me baptism scenes that his dad shot while floating down a lake in a boat. He showed me a picture of a local juke joint with Black and Mexican field workers socializing and enjoying music, food and drinks. He showed me pictures of activists who used their voice to boycott stores in the Delta that discriminated against Black citizens. He showed me a picture of young Mavis Staples performing in the Delta. With a collection of over 25,000 negatives, the photos and stories were endless.
One story Rogerline Jr. shared spoke to Rogerline Sr.’s social activism. Rogerline Sr. took pictures of the school facilities at the segregated black and white schools in Helena. The pictures showed the disparities between the facilities. His photojournalism led to the construction of a new school for black students, Eliza Miller High School. In true Rogerline Johnson fashion, he was there early on the first school day of the 1955-56 school year to photograph the raising of the flag at the newly opened school.
The discovery of Rogerline Sr.’s work was accidental, but his images opened me to the Delta life I could only experience through pictures. I’ve visited the studio a few times since my initial visit and I continue to be inspired by the photographs. Last year, Rogerline Jr., his siblings, and mother hosted a show at Eliza Miller and of course, the picture from the schools opening day was on display.