William Bullard, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, worked as a photographer without a studio, visiting clients around the town with his camera strapped to his bicycle.
From 1897 to 1917, Bullard, who was white, took portraits of his predominantly black and Native American neighbors capturing them in their yards, gardens, and living rooms.
Bullard identified over 80% of his sitters in his logbook, making this collection especially rare among extant photographic collections of people of color taken before World War I and enabling the photographs to tell specific stories about individuals and recreate a more accurate historical context.
Moreover, Bullard’s portraits examine the role of photography as the vehicle for a “new Black identity” during the nascent years of the Black movement.
Offering a photographic narrative of migration and resettlement in the aftermath of Emancipation and Reconstruction, Bullard’s portraits address larger themes involving race in American history, many of which remain relevant today, notably, the story of people of color claiming their rightful place in society as well as the fundamentally American story of migration, immigration, and the creation of a community in new surroundings.
The photos, and the stories of the families featured in them, are presented in “Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard” an exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum.
Portrait of the Thomas A. and Margaret Dillon Family. Virginia-born coachman Thomas A. Dillon and his wife, Margaret, a domestic servant and native of Newton, Massachusetts, pose in the parlor of their home at 4 Dewey Street with children Thomas, Margaret, and Mary. A poster on the wall commemorates President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to the Worcester Agricultural Fair in 1902.
Bullard also traveled far beyond Worcester—by trolley, train, and wagon—to forty-five different communities around New England and as far afield as Buffalo, New York. His subjects reflect his wide-ranging interests—portraits, streetscapes, trains, trolleys, parades, and military encampments.
It is still an open question as to where Bullard acquired his superior skill in photography but he appears to be self-taught, as he has not been found listed as an apprentice to any master photographers.
Remarkably, he scratched numbers into approximately 980 of the 5400 negatives and then wrote a corresponding number and description in his logbook, which survived with the negatives.
His logbook has a few notations that indicate he received money for some of the prints but detailed records of the profitability of his work do not exist. There is, however, evidence that he worked as a school photographer in Holden, Worcester, and the Brookfields.
Bullard never married and lived with his mother and at least one brother his entire life. His death, by suicide, came in late April 1918 when he was 41. He was found by his brothers, Marcus and Herbert, as he had not been seen for a few weeks and they went to look for him.
According to his obituary, he had been depressed and in ill health and for many months had not been active in his trade. That combined with the very recent passing of his mother Ellen appears to have been what led to his suicide.
Portrait of James J. and Jennie Bradley Johnson Family. James J. Johnson, of Nipmuc, Narragansett, and African American descent, and Jennie Bradley Johnson, a migrant from Charleston, South Carolina, pose with their daughters Jennie and May. James worked as a coachman and belonged to the King David Masonic Lodge. He died soon after this portrait was taken. Jennie later worked as a laundress.
Portrait of Mrs. Louden’s Relative. 1901.
Portrait of Raymond Schuyler and his Children, Ethel, Stephen, Beatrice, and Dorothea. A native of Troy, New York, Raymond Schuyler migrated to Worcester in 1887 to work for the Worcester Wire Works and later worked for the Boston and Maine Railroad. Active in All Saints Episcopal Church, the Masons, and Knights of Pythias, Schuyler was the oldest member of the Worcester Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when he died in 1956. 1904.
Portrait of a Mixed-Race Group, Including a Woman With a Guitar. This group may have been entertainers at an Old Home Days celebration, a popular event at the turn of the century held to commemorate the area’s rural past. 1906.
Portrait of Hattie, James Harold, and Clarence Ward. Hattie, Louis, Clarence, and James Harold Ward were the children of Mary Elizabeth Ward Wilson, a migrant from New Bern. James Harold, better known as “Boot,” eventually became a jazz drummer. Given the moniker “Hooks,” Clarence became the proprietor of a restaurant. Hattie worked as an assistant in a dentist’s office. 1901.
Portrait of Richard G. Brown. Richard G. Brown was born in Virginia and worked as a laborer in a Worcester broom factory. In 1904, he opened a restaurant, Richard G. Brown & Co. 1900.
Portrait of Martha (Patsy) Perkins. 1901.
Portrait of Eighteen Girls and Boys at Sunday School. These girls and boys are probably Sunday School students from Bethel AME Church, dressed in black and white for the communion service held once a month, a tradition that continues to this day. 1901.
Portrait of Louise and Martha Harra. Fondly remembered by many present-day residents of Worcester, “Weezy” and “Marty” were the children of Herbert and Mary E. Price Harra and resided for many years on Mason Street, where Bullard took this photograph. 1912.
Portrait of Betty and Willis Coles. Posing on the porch of their home on Park Avenue, these Virginia migrants arrived in Massachusetts in the 1890s. Willis, who was a day laborer when this portrait was made, later became a pastor in Springfield, Massachusetts. 1902.
Portrait of Mary E. Price Harra. 1912.
Portrait of Alonzo Shannon and George Ringels. 1900.
Portrait of Boy Sitting on Grass. 1904.
Portrait of Claude Clark on a Rocking Horse. 1902.
Portrait of Anna Lovett Latham’s Mother. 1901.
Portrait of Woman in Confirmation Attire. 1908.
Portrait of Susie Idella Morris and Harry Clinton Morris. Susie and Harry Morris were the children of barber Sandy Morris, a migrant from New Orleans, and Susie Arkless Morris, of Narragansett descent. They were the great-great-grandchildren of Sampson Hazard, a Revolutionary War veteran. 1901.
Portrait of Zenobia Clark. Claude and Zenobia Clark were the children of barber Joseph C. Clark, a migrant from South Carolina, and Laurie Harden Clark, born in Georgia. 1902.
Portrait of Ralph Mendis. Ralph Mendis was born in 1897 and is seen here at about age five. His mother, Frances, was part of the New Bern, North Carolina, migration to Worcester. His father was one of a handful of Jamaican immigrants who resided in the city. 1902.
Portrait of Rose Mabel (May) Johnson. 1900.
Portrait of Thomas A. Dillon. 1903.
Portrait of Edward Perkins in His Garden. Camden migrant Edward Perkins poses in his lush garden of collard greens in the Beaver Brook neighborhood, demonstrating the literal transplantation of Southern culture to the North. 1902.
Portrait of Members of the Worcester Veterans Firemen’s Association. This photograph was likely taken at a firemen’s muster in Worcester’s Elm Park. Musters usually lasted two days, attracting the attendance of thousands and consisting of skill based competitions between local and visiting fire companies. 1907.
Portrait of David T. Oswell with His Viola. David Oswell, born in Boston, emigrated from St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada, to Worcester in 1877. Oswell taught violin and guitar to prominent white families, writing musical scores performed throughout the city. 1900.
Portrait of Rose Perkins Posing with Her Bicycle. 1900.
Portrait of Waiters at Green Hill. 1904.
Portrait of Waiters at Green Hill during Training for the Wellington Rifles. 1905.
Portrait of Isaac (Ike) Perkins Wearing a Top Hat. Ike Perkins was a member of the Improved Benevolent Order of Elks of the World and posed for Bullard informal wear, worn by Elks for special ceremonies. Ike died in 1920 during a flu pandemic. 1901.
Portrait of Lon Edwards. Though Bullard lacked a professional photography studio, his logbook indicates payment for some of his neighborhood photographs. Lon Edwards paid twenty-five cents for this portrait. 1900.
Portrait of Thomas Doughton, Jr., Working on the Railroad. 1916.
Portrait of Grace Stevens Reading a Book. 1904.
Portrait of William Ward. Born in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1880, William Ward was part of an extended family that began migrating to Worcester soon after the Civil War. He worked as a driller at the Harrington & Richardson arms factory in the Beaver Brook neighborhood. 1900.
Portrait of Reuben Griffin Seated against a Tree. 1901.
(Photo credit: William Bullard, Courtesy of Frank Morrill, Clark University and Worcester Art Museum / The Citizen Chronicle / Wikimedia Commons / Mashable).