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Getting to Know Geleve Grice

One of the most prolific Arkansas photographers of the 20th century, Geleve Grice captured both historic moments and everyday life. His insatiable desire to document what he saw made him one of the most important photographers in the state’s history.

Does the name Geleve Grice ring a bell? It should. During a career that spanned six decades, Grice was Arkansas’ most prolific photographer, an artist best known for his powerful and evocative images of African American life. Although some of Grice’s photography was featured in national publications, most of his work highlighted the common people and events of the Delta region in Arkansas.

Grice’s story begins in 1922 in Tamo, a small Jefferson County farming town not far from Pine Bluff. At the age of thirteen, he moved with his family to Little Rock. It was here where his interest in photography took root. Before he graduated from Dunbar High School in 1942, Grice had already had images published in the Arkansas State Press.

Grice entered the U.S. Navy immediately after graduation in the heat of World War II, eventually serving in the Pacific. While in the Navy, Grice was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Air Station in Illinois and often went to Chicago on leave. It was there where he took amateur photos of the city’s nightlife, capturing unique images of famous black Americans like Joe Louis, Louis Armstrong, and famed guitarist T-Bone Walker.

After completing his military service in 1946, Grice enrolled at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). In addition to playing football for the Golden Lions, Grice took photos for the school’s yearbook. His work impressed Art Department Chair John Howard so much that in 1947, he hired Grice as the school’s staff photographer.

In 1948, while still a student, Grice was asked to document the integration of the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville. Silas Hunt, accompanied by attorneys Wiley Branton and Harold Flowers, became the first black student to enroll at an all-white Southern university since Reconstruction. Grice’s photos are the only known photographs of this event.

Geleve Grice shot thousands of images largely capturing African American life in the Delta and south Arkansas.

By the time he graduated from AM&N College in 1950, Grice had already opened his professional photography studio in Pine Bluff where he would earn his living for the next forty years. Grice’s photos appeared in such national publications as Ebony, Jet, and Life magazines, as well as in the Arkansas State Press and on KARK and KTHV television stations. He spent much of his time outside the studio, producing thousands of photographs over the years for weddings, proms, graduations, funerals, parades, recitals, athletic events, beauty contests, and concerts. In 1958, Grice photographed Martin Luther King Jr.’s commencement address at AM&N College. He captured many images of other notable black Americans, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Ray Charles, Thurgood Marshall, and Muhammad Ali.

In between professional assignments, Grice snapped thousands of images with no commercial motive. His desire to capture what he saw was insatiable. No subject was too mundane. Vegetables from his garden, abandoned buildings, old farm equipment, men drinking beer, little girls showing off their Sunday clothes—they were all worthy subjects of Grice’s lens. This went on for half a century and, in the process, Grice assembled a rare and rich portrait of Arkansas Delta life.

In 1998, the UAPB art department sponsored an exhibit of Grice’s work. The Old State House Museum in Little Rock followed suit in 2003 with a more extensive exhibition. That same year, the University of Arkansas Press published a book featuring many of Grice’s most captivating photos.

Grice died in 2004, but his indelible portrait of Arkansas life lives on in books, exhibitions, museums, and this video, which traces his life and career.

Source: Encyclopedia of Arkansas

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