Photographer James Terry documents years of Baton Rouge and Louisiana history

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church on Sora Street was unpacking framed photos and photo albums when 9News recently visited.  It's because the Willie Harris Photo Collection was about to be mounted on exhibition at the church.

The Harris collection will help church members appreciate the life and culture of Baton Rouge's Black community from the 1950s onward.  News Photographer James Terry is unloading the precious cargo from his car.  Terry has been curator of the collection ever since he saw it in bags on the curb awaiting garbage pickup outside the Harris home following the death of the photographer.

Harris had been Southern University's police chief as well.  So the photos have a wide array of photos from the campus too.  In the 18 years since Terry rescued the photos, they've become his consuming passion.

"We never counted the 5x7's.  We only counted the 8x10's.  We have 40,000 8x10's!" said Terry.  The pictures can with no identifying information, and so exhibitions at churches, clubs, and schools have helped get them before people so that they can identify the faces they know in the photos.

Standing in the Scotlandville Library with WAFB's Donna Britt , Terry gestures at the wall of photo albums.  "We have 14 wedding albums, one row for nothing but social groups, one for social groups on Southern's campus, plus one for just historical pictures."

In a side room of the library, Terry says that Harris also shot photos in Pointe Coupee parish and New Roads because people would request his services.

The Library has an exhibition hanging of the New Roads Carnival parade of 1964.  Terry points to a photo and says, "This was the first time the Southern Lab band played in the New Roads parade..and who do you think is in the front row?" The slender trombone player in the front row of the band is none other than the late Baton Rouge Federal Judge Ralph Tyson.

In the white spiral albums that represents books James Terry has managed to publish, they find a photo of a child's birthday party.  It is held at the fire station on Rosenwald.  When asked, James Terry says that Scotlandville often used fire stations for parties because there were not many places to hold them.  And, Terry said, "Look at the birthday cake in this photo.  One tiny cake for all these children!"  There in the front row of children in the photo, James points to a small boy and says "And that's James Terry!"

In his photography career, Terry spent some time working for the Baton Rouge News Leader, which he says at its peak delivered to 125,000 subscribers.  Terry says he worked for the News Leader before he began his journey in national news with UPI.

At the News Leader, Terry said he had worked with a reporter named Melvin Holden, known to us now as Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden. Uncle Sam's draft sent him to Germany in the 70s and James came back to work with the news service United Press International.

"At first, my assignments with UPI were national disasters and civil disorders.  I covered riots and hurricanes."

In 1972, James Terry was covering state government when Edwin Edwards won his first election.  His wife was Elaine back 40 years covering the capital, his office is where he can see everyone coming and going. The small room in the basement of the capital is dead center where everyone enters the legislative area.  Terry covered news all over the South. He covered presidents, including President Reagan, Carter, Clinton, and Obama.  He's photographed celebrities, dignitaries,  plus beaucoup sports.

Over all the years, Terry says he knows racism may have kept him from jobs he should've gotten, but... "I'm quite sure I missed some jobs along the way.  But true believers say when God closes a door he leaves a window open.  Well for me there have been windows and windows."

Many people may know it, but for a few years, James had a quiet project.

"Every Sunday I'd go up on the banks of the Mississippi River and I'd take a picture of  the sunset.  Did it 3 years and never saw the same sunset twice."

As you watch the changing skies of South Louisiana over the mighty Mississippi, you might realize that the essence of a guy like James Terry is taking pictures of things we see every day, but showing us what's fascinating in our world.