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Ralph Waldo Armstrong III photographed the African-American community of Little Rock (Pulaski County) for more than fifty years. Between 1951 and 2006, a period of dramatic social change, he accumulated an invaluable archive of thousands of photographs of Little Rock’s black citizenry, houses, churches, schools, and professional and civic organizations.
Ralph Armstrong was born on February 23, 1925, in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Ralph W. Armstrong II and Callie Armstrong; he had one older half-brother and two younger sisters. His father worked in a Little Rock furniture factory, and his mother took in washing to help the family meet expenses during the Great Depression. Later, she, too, worked in the factory. Armstrong developed an early love for classical music listening with his parents to the Texaco-sponsored broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons. He played the saxophone in the Scipio A. Jones High School band and, after high school, studied music for a year at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. However, Armstrong was drafted into the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1943 and spent the next two years first at Great Lakes Naval Air Station north of Chicago, Illinois, and then in the South Pacific on Eniwetok Atoll.
After the war, Armstrong returned to Little Rock for six months and then headed back to Chicago to study at the American Conservatory of Music. In 1946, he landed an audition with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, a steppingstone to the prestigious Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His major teacher thought he had earned the seat, but he was denied it, apparently because of his color. Armstrong thus abandoned his long-held ambition to play classical music and turned his artistic talents to photography. He completed a one-year course at the Chicago School of Photography and set up a business with a friend from school, Robert Stokely. The two of them took every kind of job they could find—building surveys for insurance companies, forensic work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others, wedding pictures, family portraits—and prospered in their highly competitive business. While establishing himself in his new profession, Armstrong married Ruby Joshua Stanton, herself a Little Rock native who had come to Chicago to study nursing. Married in 1947, the couple lived in Chicago until 1951, when they decided to return to Little Rock to raise their family, which eventually included two sons and a daughter.
Back in Arkansas, Armstrong found that he could not immediately make a sufficient living in photography, so he took the civil service exam and became a letter carrier. He continued working for the post office for thirty-seven years, for most of those walking a commercial route in downtown Little Rock. But his photography business picked up quickly: “I’d be in the dark room all night, sometimes,” he said, “just trying to keep up” with the demand. In addition to processing his own pictures, much of his painstaking dark-room work came to involve restoration of old photographs, including one of pioneering African-American civil rights lawyer Scipio Jones. While he often shot pictures of buildings about to be demolished, especially in Little Rock’s historic 9th Street district, he gradually began to specialize in portraits.
Armstrong tended not to impose his vision on his subjects, as many photographers do. Instead, he explained, “you get a sense of how your subjects want to present themselves, and you work to capture that for them.” As a result, his portraits, while formal, never seem contrived. The social and professional achievements documented seem natural elements of the richly accomplished lives portrayed.
Ralph Armstrong was eighty-one when he died on November 10, 2006. He is buried in Haven of Rest Cemetery in Little Rock.
For additional information:Brazzel, Kyle. “Photographic Arkansas Youthful Shutterbugs Link Church’s Past, Present.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 14, 2007, p. 1E.
Marren, Susan. “Black Life in Postwar Little Rock: The Photography of Ralph Armstrong.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 63 (Autumn 2004): 232–259.
Susan MarrenUniversity of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated 5/7/2013
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