Charlotte’s Black community through the eyes of photographer James Peeler

CHARLOTTE — As Channel 9 honors Charlotte’s Black community and its contributions to the city’s culture, we’re highlighting West End photographer James Peeler.

His daughter, LaTrelle Peeler, spoke to Channel 9 about who her father was and his impact on the people who surrounded him.

“James Peeler was not only my father,” she said. “But he was also known by the city of Charlotte as one of the most distinguished photographers in the Black community.

For nearly five decades, James G. Peeler documented Charlotte’s Black life through a Black lens.

“He captured us as members of fraternities, sororities, churches, community groups. And he also did work for people, for weddings and funerals,” LaTrelle Peeler said.

“As a little girl, were you curious about your father’s work?” Channel 9′s Almiya White asked her.

“I was oblivious,” Peeler said. “But he did share enough for me to understand, really, what he was doing was important to people.”

Peeler’s photography collection started in University Park, a neighborhood formed in the late 1950s and occupied by the growing Black middle class. His images captured segregated schools and neighborhoods, protests in the Carolinas, local and national civil rights leaders, and the everyday life of West End residents.

>> To view the collection, click here.

Suzanne Carothers lived a couple doors down from the Peelers.

“He was in and of the thing he documented,” she told White, adding, “Whatever happened in that community, he got a picture of it.”

That included visits to the Queen City by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“You’ll see a lot of familiar faces in that collection,” LaTrelle Peeler said. “Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Julius Irvin, Thurgood Marshall.”


While Peeler’s work captured one generation moving forward in time, his approach to photography inspired those around him.

“He gave several of the neighborhood students, teenagers jobs,” his daughter said.

Suzanne Carothers was one of those employees.

“The first thing I learned how to do was to dry photographs. I learned how to oil paint,” she told White.

Joe Anderson was another of Peeler’s neighbors and former employees.

“Most of the work that I did was right there in the studio. It was developing prints,” Anderson said.

“I ended up working for Eastman Kodak Company -- I mean, the largest photographic company in the world,” he went on to say.

“Once I realized later on, you know, the impact of what he was doing, it became even more valuable as I look back.”

Peeler’s still images were often a way of recording history.

“Back in the ‘60s during the Civil Rights era, the students at Johnson C. Smith called him when they were going to do a protest,” LaTrelle Peeler said.

“They knew that the police would not touch them, they wouldn’t beat them, they wouldn’t abuse them when my father was recording the moments of the protests,” she explained.

‘Extraordinary gift’

Peeler’s collection is now housed at the James B. Duke Memorial Library at Johnson C. Smith University. It’s the very place where he received his education. Brandon Lunsford is the director of the JCSU library.

“But when the Peeler collection came, I was the archivist,” Lunsford said, adding, “They brought 37 Rubbermaid tubs full of these unprocessed photos, these old sleeves right here.”

Lunsford said they sorted through more than 200,000 photos.

“How difficult was it trying to make out when was this, who is this?” White asked.

“I mean, it’s extremely difficult,” Lunsford said.

“Sometimes, you look at the cars that are in the picture and can tell make, the model, yes, the clothes people are wearing. So you can at least narrow it down sometimes.”

“One time someone called ... they want to know if I could find them the collection because they had not seen their own wedding photos ... I was able to look through the names and find their name and pull that negative and, sure enough, there was their wedding photos,” Lunsford said.

“You can kind of let people see a part of their lives they felt was kind of lost forever; Mr. Peeler captured,” he added.

Peeler captured a different side of Black life. It’s one that wasn’t showcased often.

“What did you see in your father’s photos?” White asked LaTrelle Peeler.

“Oh, wow, that’s interesting,” she replied. “I did see people in their best, at their very best. He did his best to capture us as beautiful as we could be.”

“As an ordinary neighbor and ordinary photographer in an ordinary neighborhood, it’s the power of his extraordinary gift that he has left as his legacy,” Carothers said.

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Almiya White

Almiya White, wsoctv.com

Almiya White is a reporter for WSOC-TV