{ subscribe_url:'//blogs.loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/folklife.php' }

Collection Spotlight: Ellis Ross’s Photographs

Two of Ellis Ross’s friends in uniform standing next to tent outside. Ellis Ross Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/45353.

Maybe you saw their photo on our homepage recently. Arms akimbo, the two men look at the camera straight on, wearing matching aviator sunglasses and khaki uniforms and with twin grins on their faces. A tent peeks out from behind them. Who are they?

These two newcomers to our website were captured on film a little over 70 years ago, and their photograph announces our newest online exhibit: Equality of Treatment and Opportunity: Executive Order 9981. While the buddies’ exact identities are a mystery, more is known about the photographer of the image: Master Sergeant Ellis Ross.

A West Virginia native who was drafted into the Army in 1940, Ross documented his time in the Quartermaster Corps during World War II through a vast array of snapshots. His VHP collection contains 278 of these photographs, and along with the Ross’s handwritten captions, they offer a fascinating glimpse into his experience serving in and traveling through Europe in 1944 and 1945.

Ross sitting on bench with Eiffel Tower in the background, Paris, France. Ellis Ross Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/45353.

As our cover photograph indicates, Ross focused his lens on his service buddies, documenting their time on and off-duty. His photos depict sailing trips, time spent at the beach, and countryside scenes in Italy, France, Austria and Germany. Sight-seeing was clearly a primary form of recreation, and Ross’s photos are peppered with iconic European landmarks, such as the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps in Rome, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame in Paris, and Westminster Abbey in London. While a handful of photos portray wartime devastation, most show the “greatest hits” of Europe much as they appear today.

Veteran at sidewalk café with five year old Parisian girl Yvette Doray, Paris, France. Ellis Ross Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/45353.

Ross’s photos also illustrate his interactions with European civilians. Ross appears to have made friends wherever he went: there are photographs of him eating, drinking, and socializing with local families in Italy, France, and Germany. One of my favorite photos of the collection depicts Ross posing with a small, curly-haired girl at a sidewalk café while two bemused adults look on.

Veteran looking outside from the full-length window of his room, Paris, France. Ellis Ross Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/45353.

In many ways, Ross’s photos appear similar to modern vacation snapshots taken in the age of Instagram. In one photo, he drinks coffee on the terrace. In another shot, taken by a friend from behind, he gazes out the window of his hotel to the streets of Paris below. Perhaps Ross’s photos were composed to convey the role of a suave, cosmopolitan traveler, just as photographs in today’s social media feeds are curated to project a particular persona.

Arguably, Ross would have particularly relished the chance to occupy this role because it was likely unavailable to him in his civilian life. In many parts of the country, including Ross’s native West Virginia, segregation made recreational travel uncomfortable and arduous for African Americans, and very often dangerous.  No wonder, then, that Ross made the most of his opportunity to explore foreign cities without fear.

Veteran standing in front of Castel S. Angelo and St. Peter’s in the distance. Ellis Ross Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/45353.

One photo that jumped out at me shows Ellis on a wide sidewalk in Rome, with St. Peter’s Basilica silhouetted in the background. In viewing this photo, I was reminded of a contrasting anecdote related by veteran Silas Gross, in which a friend was threatened with lynching for refusing to cede the sidewalk to a white woman in the southern United States. While traveling through Europe offered exposure to architectural wonders such as Notre Dame and St. Paul’s Cathedral, it also provided Ross and other African American servicemen with a very different experience of walking down the street than they might have encountered at home.

For additional stories of veterans who served before and after desegregation of the military, check out Equality of Treatment and Opportunity: Executive Order 9981. Within the exhibit, Johnny Butts and Harry William Brooks offer particularly rich collections of photographs. If you’re a veteran, please consider donating original photographs that document your service experiences to the Veterans History Project.

 

“The Mermaid”: the Fascinating Tail Behind an Ancient Ballad

Mermaids are among folklore’s most beloved magical creatures, especially among children. Usually depicted as beautiful women with long, fishy tails, they’ve captured the imagination of many kids, and a few adults too. Most youngsters, and most parents, are aware of the sympathetic character from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Little Mermaid, and its […]

Who’s that Lady?

It might have been her eyes. Perhaps it was that hint of a knowing smile. Or maybe it was the culmination of it all—torso leaning in, chin on fist, legs crossed, nails polished and hat tilted. Whatever it was, it grabbed my attention when I first saw the sepia-toned image several years ago. Its subject […]

King David Kālakaua: Royal Folklorist

This blog post is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. King David Kalākaua (1836 – 1891) is often known outside of Hawai’i by his nickname, the Merrie Monarch, so-called for his patronage of Hawaiian music, dance, and culture.  He […]

VHP’s Newest Online Exhibit: “Equality of Treatment and Opportunity”

In 1942, Stewart Fulbright was a man on a mission: he desperately wanted to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Just shy of the weight requirement of 125 pounds, he gulped down half a dozen bananas on his way to his physical exam, only to find out that a lengthy written exam was […]

When a song became a road map: the Tom Hoskins collection and Mississippi John Hurt

This is a guest post by Marcia Segal, a Processing Archivist at the American Folklife Center. Legendary blues singer Mississippi John Hurt’s song “Avalon Blues” appears on numerous recordings in the Tom Hoskins collection: “…Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind…” Hurt first recorded the song in 1928. In 1963, musician and blues music fan […]

Caught My Ear: The Ballad of J. B. Marcum

On May 4, 1903, a prominent and well-respected attorney and U. S. commissioner, James Buchanan Marcum, was shot and killed on the steps of the Breathitt County courthouse in Jackson, Kentucky. “The J. B. Marcum Song,” more widely known as “The Ballad of J. B. Marcum,” preserves the memory of this important Kentucky citizen and the […]

The Homecoming of the James Madison Carpenter Collection: A Transatlantic Collaboration

On March 27, 2018, at Cecil Sharp House in London, the English Folk Dance and Song Society and the Elphinstone Institute of the University of Aberdeen hosted the public event ”40,000 Miles in Quest of Tradition: A Celebration of Carpenter Folk Online.” The event celebrated the launch of AFC’s James Madison Carpenter Collection at the Vaughan […]