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A young child in a white dress stands on a posing stool before a painted backdrop.
Albumen photographic print mounted onto a cabinet card created at W.J. Cassaday’s photography studio in Waco, Texas.

This is a story of Franklin C. Wilkerson (1897-1964) of Waco, Texas. What follows is an attempt to give a name to a boy found in the archive and an account of the man he grew to become. The inspiration for this piece isn’t an actual body, but rather, it is a memory of a child preserved in an albumen print photograph mounted on a cabinet card. Drawing upon archival provenance, census records available on, and theories in visual and sonic cultures, I aim to foreground the lives that can be heard in a photo as it travels from personal collections into institutional spaces. As a chronicle of this young person’s life in Jim Crow America, this history is useful for listening to the changing soundscape of a Texan town at the turn of the twentieth century.

Back of a cabinet card with a pencil inscription reading "Little Frank Wilkerson"
The back of a cabinet card portrait with a penciled inscription reading “Little Frank Wilkerson.”

This history begins with an encounter of someone’s lingering memory of “Little Frank Wilkerson.” It opens by gingerly extracting a worn cabinet card with a black-and-white image of a slightly out-of-focus young child standing on a posing stool before the camera of William J. Cassaday (1845-1917). Beneath the curling edges of the peeling print, swooping imprinted lettering situates this transactional event arranged by, presumably, a parent paying for a photograph of their child at Cassaday’s Waco Studio, which was located for years on 3rd Street by the city’s public square before moving further up Austin Avenue as many businesses did as the city’s economic activity grew in the early 1900s.1

Before we get too far into this narrative, it’s important to clarify that I cannot confirm that this toddler-aged child in a white dress posing before Cassaday’s painted backdrop is Franklin Wilkerson. A penciled inscription on the back of the stained eggshell-colored card reading “Little Frank Wilkerson” leads me to believe he could be. I hope he is. But there’s no way to truly know without consulting a relative or other images of this child with a firmer provenance. Knowing this name, though, connects this image of an otherwise unidentified child to a real person. As an act of naming and potential recording, it is a reminder that this object has social connections outside beyond its physical parameters that embed it within networks of people and their relationships. It enables us to place this brief moment within a lifetime of memories that animate the histories of African American working-class families in Central Texas.

Following the example of Tina M. Campt in her book Listening to Images, which demonstrates how to attune oneself to listen for the multiple registers of an object such as a quiet photograph, we can appreciate this portrait as a sonorous material that leads us away from the sterile environment of the archive and into the life world of Franklin Conner Wilkerson, the eldest child of Etta Wilkerson (1874-1950).2 Stepping into the historical thingliness wrapped up in this image of a boy before a camera forces the listening viewer to take a moment to appreciate the smaller details that tell a bigger story of a mother’s love for her son and how she imagined possible futures for him. The albumen print becomes a building block in a narrative that utilizes Saidiya Hartman’s example of critical fabulation to represent Wilkerson’s experiences using materials from the shadow archive.3

Taking time to let the eyes linger over the precious little boots the boy wears, his hair arranged high on his head, and the impression this photograph gives us of a spotless, well-pressed dress Etta Wilkerson likely sewed for her young son to wear takes the viewer into the haptic repository contained in this hushed image.4 These elements are visual clues that prompt an attentive viewer to hear the motherly labor of a woman who worked as a domestic in various roles as a cook, washer, and farmer while she raised her four children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.5 Noting the tufted shoulders of Little Frank’s dress moves us into the sonic historicity of the image that amplifies the care and intentional presentation a young mother fashioned for her son around the turn of the century in Jim Crow America.

Peering at this child’s innocent face frees a viewer to imagine and retrace the audible potential of Etta’s love felt in this cabinet card. Searching for noises in the silence, we can tune in to the echoes of the soft scratching of Etta’s needle and thread moving through the fabric of what would become her son’s dress, the melodies she might hummed while bent over her work, the sounds of her fussing over her little Frank as she arranged him for the camera, and the words she spoke that made this image possible. Looking at the photograph of her son challenges the person looking at this portrait she purchased to focus on hearing how she operated in the space of Cassaday’s studio. How did she sound when she spoke with Cassaday? Did she negotiate a price? What did she say or do to urge her son to stay still for the camera’s gaze? Tuning into the sonic antecedents of the visual unfurls the scene of this interracial interaction in Cassaday’s studio playing out within the soundscape of Waco’s growing community and commercial sectors.

Wilkerson’s young appearance supports a tentative dating of this image to about 1900 or 1903 when he would have been between two and four years old. At this time, Waco was Texas’s sixth-largest population center. It was developing into an important cultural and economic hub that benefitted from train traffic, cotton farming, and recently established factories and educational institutions.6 The population of Waco was also transforming in Wilkerson’s youth as more and more Black people and foreign settlers arrived in the area in search of better opportunities. This contributed to the city’s longstanding racial tensions and hostility towards Black people that stemmed from Waco’s strong ties to the Confederacy. Young Black children in Waco, like Frank Wilkerson, grew up in a segregated society scarred by violence. The Ku Klux Klan’s grip on the city’s governments and business districts made it difficult for Black residents. Still, interracial interactions and transactions did occur in spaces like the city’s public square, where farmers of all races sold their products, domestic laborers picked up work, and businesses located themselves nearby to tap into the square’s traffic.7 This is the setting that we can imagine Etta Wilkerson navigating when she set out to have an image made of her young son Franklin.

A map of Waco, Texas showing the city's wards and neighborhood sections straddling the Brazos River.
Map of Waco prepared by McCall-Moore Engineering Company prepared in 1913. This is from the collections of Baylor University and is featured in their online exhibition Mapping Waco: A Brief History | 1845-1913.

This exercise of re-hearing Frank Wilkerson’s portrait demonstrates how we might better understand the social performance in this visual object as a surviving fragment of Black women’s quotidian practice of refusing the societal limitations placed on their bodies and those of their children.8 It is a vehicle to seeing how Black domestic laborers like Etta Wilkerson navigated the political economy and carved out space in a segregated society to imagine alternate possible futures for their children. We should treasure it as a portal into a sonic event that took place when Etta traveled along Waco’s dirt roads from her home at 13 Clay Avenue, likely by foot, with Franklin in her arms or walking beside her on the short walk to a local photographer’s studio nearby the public square to obtain a photograph that she could share with her friends and family. It’s a moment in a family history that stages a Black mother’s defiance of the stereotypes, tropes, suspicions, and repetitious structural violence that haunts and surveils Black boys who grow to be Black men.

But who did Etta share this image with? Is it her handwriting on the back identifying her son? Or did someone else receive the photo and hold onto it as a fond memory of a young boy they loved and were proud to know? It’s the moments immediately after the portrait’s creation that are unclear. The record of where this image traveled after its creation drops off suddenly and can only be picked up again when it appears in the markets of antiquarian booksellers. This image, starting with Etta’s purchase of it, moved between consumers and collectors for over a century. The encounter that began this narrative, that surreal moment of drawing Franklin’s image from an archivally sound box of file folders hidden amongst other possibly identified and yet-to-be-identified women, men, and children, was only possible because of another transactional event that rendered this memory of him valuable. This exchange happened in 2021 when the University of Delaware purchased twenty cabinet cards and one tintype from Houston-based antiquarian bookseller Langdon Manor Books.

Screenshot from a Langdon Manor catalog.
Screenshot from a 2020 Langdon Manor Books catalogue advertising a lot twenty photographs and one tintype.

The University Library’s purchase of these portraits suggests their procedural determination that these items were worthy of being included in their Special Collections and cared for in perpetuity. It is a curious transfer that prompts more questions about the sonic journeys of Franklin’s image alongside other children in this lot of photos. What educational use did the University Library’s curatorial team envision for these portraits? How did it figure into their strategic plans and process for obtaining objects?9 Asking these questions leads us closer to the impetus for the importance of Wilkerson’s image and the futurity it suggests. It is a material that is instructive about the circulation of African American material culture in the market of historical antiques and ephemera. It takes us further into the object’s haptic temporalities with opacities and questions we cannot answer. Where did these images come from? Who saved them over the years? When did they enter the market as re-collected things severed from the memories of someone who loved them? This is where we can hear the low frequencies of the archive’s violence and the impossibilities created by its neglect. What futures lie in store for Franklin Wilkerson’s memory in the archive? Projects like the University of Delaware’s Curating Hidden Collections animate this questioning. The score they arrange on platforms like a library finding aid, an ArtStor catalogue entry, and an essay like this on WordPress facilitate discovery in a wider range of sonic registers.

This portrait is one of several images of this group, which Langdon Manor Books purchased from an unnamed seller. Neither the dealer nor the University can confirm or deny that the images portray family members. No one currently studying this collection has a personal connection to these figures that could illuminate their identity, histories, and genealogy that would explain the assemblage of people tucked away into folders within boxes resting quietly in the storage spaces of the University of Delaware’s Special Collections. Instead, we can only piece together some potential parts of this collection’s stories. Fortunately, a name was written on the back of the cabinet card, identifying “Little Frank Wilkerson.” It allowed us to attach this name to a boy in a photo who could be followed in the trail of census records, city directories, and paperwork that give us a glimpse of who he would become.

To learn of the future that must have been for this boy, we must move past his childhood portrait to hear the broader archive of official records documenting his life. This is how we can come to know the man Franklin Conner Wilkerson. Digitized records produced by the federal government’s various agencies as well as Waco’s City Directories available on online platforms like, join his childhood photograph in fleshing out his trajectory.

Looking to this collection of documents allows a rehearing of this portrait of Etta Wilkerson’s son and this trace of him found in the archive. Investigating this captured moment in his life leads to imagining what happened after he posed before W.J. Cassaday’s camera. The 1910 census records extend the sound of his portrait into the space he grew up in alongside his three siblings in a Clay Avenue house Etta shared with her mother, Charlotte, and brother, Lewis. The trail goes silent there until a military passenger list from June 19, 1918, includes Wilkerson as part of the 317th Sanitary Train of the Army’s 368 Ambulance Company embarking for the Western Front, where Wilkerson served in France until February of 1919, when his company was transferred by ship to Camp Upton in New York.

Census record with lines of data organized into columns and rows.
Page from the Thirteenth Census of the United States documenting the population of Waco, Texas in 1910.

The silent gap between 1910 and 1918 seems vast. This was when Wilkerson came of age. He grew up around the daily noises of a busy household, his school classroom, and an industrializing city. He perhaps heard horrific things in Waco too, such as the lynching of Jesse Washington that took place publicly when white spectators seized sixteen-year-old Washington after he was pronounced guilty by a kangaroo court of raping and murdering Lucy Fryer, the wife of his employer.10 We can only speculate on how Wilkerson, then a seventeen-year-old, felt about this event. It is easy to imagine that Wilkerson, like many Waco residents, was on edge and emotionally drained. The lynching drew nationwide attention and focus to Waco, as public figures like W.E.B. DuBois and other members of the NAACP condemned the violence and encouraged public support of the anti-lynching movement. The silence in the archive leads one to wonder if Wilkerson read this coverage? Did he alter where he walked or spent his leisure time? How did he carry himself as an older brother? Did he watch out for his siblings and teach them how to evade white people’s vitriol? Looking at the portrait of Wilkerson as a child can continue the critical fabulation to historical events like Washington’s death that impacted entire communities.

We can infer how Wilkerson further matured into a man while serving in France transporting and caring for injured soldiers. But silence again abounds after his service. It is unclear how his service shaped him or altered him when he returned to Waco. The 1920 census reports his marriage to Bessie McKenney Wilkerson and notes his employment as a farmer. Bessie’s death certificate from 1932 marks Wilkerson’s new identity as a widowed veteran and father of two. Wilkerson’s 1940 draft card lists him as unemployed and provides his mother’s information as the person who will always know his address. The paper trail continues sporadically all the way to March 20, 1964, when a Waco-area coroner documented Franklin Wilkerson’s death on March 17, 1964. The formal document lists the Wilkerson’s employment as carpentry and the informant was his daughter, Lula Mae Wilkerson. Finding out what must have been reveals the whole life of a man who survived the horrors of Jim Crow America and the First World War to return home to his mother in Waco, where he built a family and ultimately died. Touching this photo in an archive can, as this story demonstrates, be the beginning of a journey through the world as Franklin C. Wilkerson heard it.


  1. Waco City Directories listed the address of Cassaday’s studio as 121 ½ S. 3rd. (1900), 324 ½ Austin (1904), and 320 ½ Austin (1906).
  2. Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 23-24.
  3. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26, no. 2 (June 2008): 11.
  4. Campt, Listening to Images, 72.
  5. This is how Etta Wilkerson’s employment is described in the 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses. She was listed as divorced or widowed and often lived with her family members in her older age. She died in 1950 while living with her grandchild and his family.
  6. Roger N. Conger, “Waco, TX,” Handbook of Texas, n.d.,
  7. Margaret Logue Sudderth, “The square from every corner,” Waco History Project,
  8. Campt, Listening to Images, 43.
  9. Dr. Curtis Small, the Research Manager of the Library’s Special Collections explained in a November 2023 email, that these photos, like other batches in the Collection, were bought by members of the library’s curatorial team from various dealers located across the United States. This particular batch of images from Texas is unique though, as most of the acquisitions comprising the Black Portrait Collection represent Mid-Atlantic Black populations.
  10. Patricia Bernstein, The First Waco Horror: The lynching of Jesse Washington and the rise of the NAACP. (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2005).

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