A wedding photographer who left a legacy of images
This is the story of an educator who apparently saw himself as much more than that. In the back room of an auction house recently, I came across tons of his freelance photos, proofs and slides of brides in white, children at play in a school yard, a man sitting on a bench in Central Park, him as a young soldier.
There was so many memories captured on film that I wondered if the photographer Leslie Pernsley had ever thrown any of it away. I was not the only one amazed at the quantity. I overheard another auction-goer – a dealer looking for something easy to sell – wonder out loud, what would you do with so many old wedding photos.
It reminded me of a question asked of me some time ago about why anyone would want someone else’s photos. It’s a good question, especially regarding photos of weddings when there are much too many of them. I suspect that’s why Pernsley’s stash ended up on the auction table; his family didn’t know what to do with them, either.
Pernsley’s photos were of African American men, women and children, and appeared to be from the 1950s and 1960s. They chronicled a life of a people quite distant from how popular culture saw them and characterized them. These photos showed African Americans getting married, serving their country, attending public schools and colleges, and writing books. These images – as I saw later – not only told the life of the people in them but the story of Pernsley himself.
Having left so much of a photographic legacy behind, Leslie Pernsley became a man whom I wanted to know more about. I knew there were plenty of amateur photographers like him in cities and towns across the country. Many never reached the public level of a James Van Der Zee in Harlem or Addison Scurlock and sons in Washington or Teenie Harris in Pittsburgh or John W. Mosley in Philadelphia or Richard Samuel Roberts in South Carolina, whom I only recently learned of – all of whom put a different and realistic face on black people.
But the Leslie Pernsleys were just as important to the thousands of people who counted on them to make their weddings or any other event special.
In my Google search, I found a pretty complete obituary of Pernsley. Here’s what the family wrote about him for the Daily Local News newspaper in West Chester, PA, in 2012, along with some of the photos at auction that matched his life:
Leslie Pernsley, who was known as Les, was born in 1923 in Marcus Hook, PA, the son of a farmer Samuel and his wife Beatrice. “He often bragged about how lucky he was to grow up on a 200-acre farm because that experience enabled him to learn how to do many things which he enjoyed doing,” according to his obituary.
A photo from 1944 showed what appeared to be a young Pernsley at his family’s farm. The inscription on the back read: “Leslie Pernsley Taken May 20, 1944, Madryn, R.D. 1, West Chester, Penna. ‘Hello son how is this for a real farmer.'”
He was raised in West Chester and attended West Chester High School, where he was captain of the track team and the cross country team, and participated in the Penn Relays. He excelled in track, breaking several championship records. At auction were newspaper articles and other papers documenting his accomplishments. He graduated from high school in 1942, and enrolled at West Chester State Teachers College but was drafted into the Army the following year.
Pernsley entered an Army that had been forced to accept African American recruits, and I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him. Most African Americans who served during World War II did not engage in combat – except for the Tuskegee Airmen and those who fought in the Battle of the Bulge – with most in construction work or menial roles. His photos from that time show nothing of what life was like; instead, they offered the common image of a soldier proudly wearing a uniform without an etch of worry on his face. He was a technical sergeant and mechanic.
After being discharged, he resumed his studies at the teacher’s college, meeting his would-be wife Vernell – whom he married in 1946 – and earning a degree in 1948. They would remain together for 57 years and produce a son Leslie Jr. She was a public school teacher for 36 years, and after her death in 2003, he set up the Vernell Pernsley Scholarship for Aspiring Teachers. It is administered through their National Bullock Family reunion organization.
Pernsley was also a teacher, starting his career at Philadelphia’s Meade and Houston elementary schools. He got a master’s degree in educational administration in 1954, and later got a principal certificate from Temple University in 1968. He worked as a principal at Thomas Mifflin Elementary School starting in 1970 until his retirement 15 years later.
He was apparently doing photography on the side while he was at Meade because I found at auction several class photos, along with student essays from 1961 about the school.
“While I attended the Meade school I have gained many things, friends, leadership and a better personality,” one student wrote. “I also gained education. … Meade is a very big and wonderful school. The auditorium is very big but the lighting in it could be better.”
The obituary also mentioned that Pernsley was among the hundreds of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial for the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I would love to have seen his photos of that event, but I did not find them among the photos at auction. They could’ve been hidden in the pile.
Pernsley loved fishing, according to his obituary, and was fond of relating “fish tales,” with photos to prove that he was not being hyperbolic. He was also an avid photographer – including a freelance wedding photographer – and was a member of the Philadelphia Lens Guild, which was described in the obituary as an African American photography club. It was a member of the Photographic Society of America.
Attached to the backs of some photos were exhibitions he participated in: International Club Print Competition of the Photographic Society of America, the Philadelphia Lens Guild, the Los Amigos Camera Club in El Paso, TX, and the Photographic Group of Philadelphia.
“He loved to take pictures of family and friends, special events and scenic views,” according to his obituary. The photos at auction attested to that.
Pernsley shot photos at an event for a woman named Ruth Hinton Martin, a teacher who in 1960 published a book of biographical poems about African Americans called “Endearing Endeavors.” From what I could learn, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1954 as an education major. She taught elementary school in Maryland and Philadelphia for 38 years. She retired from Overbrook Elementary School in 1980, where she had taught for 10 years. An entry on the website of the Brown Betty Dessert Boutique in Philadelphia noted that Hinton was the only one of nine children and the first in her family to go to college. She died in 2000.
His scenic views: