Meredith was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1895, the youngest of Emma and Samuel’s four children. Before her professorial tenure at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (now VSU), Meredith was first a student at the university. In 1926, she would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Teacher’s College at Columbia University, followed by a master’s degree in art education in 1934. But it was while enrolled at Virginia Normal and Industrial pursuing a teaching certificate (awarded in 1922) that she met Colson, who was seven years Meredith’s senior. A fellow Lynchburg native, born in 1888, Colson would become a prominent supporter of access to higher education for Black students in Virginia as well as voter enfranchisement movements in the state. Architectural historian Jacqueline Taylor posits that Meredith’s and Colson’s relationship may have begun as early as 1915, situating their friendship and partnership within a context of changing public notions of womanhood in the twentieth century. According to Taylor, both women “developed a new sense of self as they spent increasing amounts of time testing their independence and self-reliance while traveling away from the comfort of familiar expectations and surroundings.” Highly educated and upwardly mobile, Meredith and Colson were part of the emergent Black middle class as they traveled, taught, wrote, and organized politically. In Meredith’s work as an artist and architect (although she was never formally trained as the latter), and in Colson’s role as an educator and political organizer, the two women could be aptly labeled “race women.” They were women of a relatively privileged milieu who, Taylor asserts, refused certain conscriptions into the normative roles assigned to them as Black women.4
As I search for further imprints of Colson on Meredith’s papers, I come to a folder that contains a photograph of the two women, later in life, set against a backdrop of trees, greenery, and their carport. Colson is eighty-five, seated in a wheelchair with her clasped hands resting in her lap. A white jacket is draped over her shoulders. Her expression is stately. Standing to her left is Meredith at seventy-eight. She wears an almost startled look, although the photograph appears to be posed rather than candid. Meredith’s left hand grips the left armrest of the wheelchair as her right hand holds onto the back handle. Though they don’t smile, they are alert and attentive. A comfort lingers between the two women.5
The folder containing this photograph is dated 1973, twelve and eleven years before Colson’s and Meredith’s deaths, respectively. Ms. Meredith, Dr. Colson, let’s just get one before I leave, I won’t be back in town for a few months, I imagine a companion saying while holding the camera. It’s a plea that mimics the way I plead with the elders in my life to take photographs with me when they would prefer not to be bothered.
Meredith and Colson do not touch in the image. Perhaps they are tired or uninterested at the end of a long afternoon of hosting, which they were known to do quite often. Meredith, especially, actively kept in touch with her former art students who loved keeping her abreast of their travels, families, and thoughts about contemporaneous Black life at home and abroad. Perhaps this photograph has caught the two elders right before their evening rituals. It might not be an intrusion but rather a punctuation to a day that has been so full for two retired octogenarians.
How many photographs does one amass in the course of a life that spans almost ninety years? What intimacies have been captured between these two women who have carried one another for almost fifty of those years? What did it mean for these two Black women to choose a queer life beyond the legible frameworks for Black mobility, safety, and romantic love? What were the terms under which they named themselves?
Among the ideological scripts that Meredith and Colson tossed in pursuit of self-actualization was that of a respectable public marriage to a “good Black man.” In an outline she wrote of her life in the fall of 1980, Meredith recalled that she was once engaged to a man named Clarence. Colson, Taylor notes, was also once engaged. It is a comment that seems almost a footnote, given the depth of Meredith’s and Colson’s relationship, and yet perhaps it is something that needed to be acknowledged, as if to say: This was an expectation that did not fit me. These were not my terms.6
There is one box included in the Meredith papers that is not publicly available, although it seems this material was once made available to researchers. Taylor cites several letters between Meredith and Colson that are sourced to this no-longer-public box. In a short excerpt from a letter written by Meredith, then enrolled at Teacher’s College, to Colson back in Virginia, the artist shares updates about her coursework and sweetly offers to recreate masterpieces to be hung in Colson’s dormitory. I am curious about the current obscurity of these exchanges and will continue to ask more questions about their present-day locations and the institutional decisions that prevent me from accessing them. As a researcher, I cannot think of Meredith’s archive as complete but rather as one in an elastic state. Who has said “no” and “not anymore”?7
This was an expectation that did not fit me. These were not my terms.
As a writer, I am asking these questions from a practical standpoint. What does it mean to responsibly and imaginatively write about, in response to, or alongside the legacies of individuals who have died? In my return south, I ask these questions because what Colson and Meredith embody is an act of radical self-fashioning toward which I am compelled. In love, I spend an excessive amount of time trying to image my lover so I can return to them when they are gone, when I have lost them, when I need to remind myself that I once knew the shape of their body. How many photographs have I lost, misplaced? And when and if I find them, what do these images prove to me?
Of all the images included in Meredith’s tightly organized archive, this particular image of her and Dr. Colson, well into age, together, feels most weighted to me. It is an image of two elders who were responsible for quietly shaping an institution of higher education. It is an image of two Black women who took great measures to commit to the US South and contend with the complex sociopolitical dynamics of the place that birthed them in and throughout the first half (and then some) of the twentieth century. It is an image of two women who have spent their entire lives together and now, perhaps, are at peace with the tenure of their intimacy. I have wondered if it is appropriate to also say that this is an image of two people in love. I am hesitant because I have seen very few images of (southern) queer, gay, and lesbian elders in love. There is a magnitude that I am daring to wrap my arms around, and I am fearful because if I say that this is an image of two people in love it implies the possibility of a future for my own self with which I am not yet ready to contend, where I too could find a profound love.
Among grand notions about what romantic love must look like, almost all of it heteronormative, I stare at Meredith and Colson in awe that I have found another example of that which we are still learning to name. Maybe it is enough to know that these two Black southern women have chosen to save and protect this photograph, such that it remained in the record, such that one day I would find it. Or that one day it would find me, like the photograph of the two unnamed women that came to me in New Orleans. If I look at each photograph and listen closely, it is possible to imagine each pair as a version of the other with time marvelously compressed and then decompressed. Maybe this, then, is part of that which is Black and Queer and Southern. To be in and out of time. To be illegible to most. Our lives, captured, become their own texts, an insistent language that only becomes legible if we truly know how to see.
This essay is from the Art & Vision Issue (vol. 26, no. 2: Summer 2020).
Jessica Lynne is a writer and art critic. She is a founding editor of ARTS.BLACK, an online journal of art criticism from black perspectives. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Art in America, The Believer, BOMB Magazine, and The Nation. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about love, faith, and the American South. Jessica lives and works in coastal Virginia.