He joined the marchers and gained unfettered access to everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, and Bayard Rustin. “I had five cameras slung around my neck,” he recalled. Over the five-day, 54-mile march, Somerstein took about four hundred photographs including poignant images of hopeful blacks lining the rural roads as they cheered on the marchers walking past their front porches and whites crowded on city sidewalks, some looking on silently-others jeering as the activists walked to the Alabama capital. Somerstein sold a few photographs to The New York Times Magazine, Public Television and photography collectors, but none were exhibited until 2010, when he participated in a civil rights exhibition at the San Francisco Art Exchange.
Rather than choosing photography as a career, Somerstein became a physicist and worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and at Lockheed Martin Company. It was only after his retirement in 2008 that he returned to his photography remarking that he wanted “to have exhibitions of my work and that I realized that I had numerous iconic as well as historic photographs.” Among those photographs were his moving photographs of that memorable march to Montgomery in 1965.
Support for this exhibition is provided by Bank of America and the Henry Nias Foundation.
Dozens of all-black teams emerged during the Black Fives Era, in New York City, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlantic City, Cleveland, and other cities where a substantial African-American population lived. The Black Fives Era came to an end in the late 1940s with the growth in stature of black college basketball programs combined with the gradual racial integration of previously whites-only collegiate basketball conferences and professional basketball leagues. The overarching significance of the Black Fives Era is that it is as much about the forward progress of black culture as a whole as it is about the history of basketball. This history is relevant today not only as a realization of our collective basketball roots but also as a search for identity.
The exhibition will be a collaboration and partnership between the New-York Historical Society and Claude Johnson, a historian and author who is the founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation, whose mission is to research, preserve, exhibit, and promote the inspiring pre-1950 history of African-American basketball teams in order to help teach life lessons, while honoring its pioneers and their descendants. Among its activities, the organization maintains a collection of artifacts, ephemera, memorabilia, objects, photographs, images, and other material relating to the period.