Historic Memories As Heirlooms

Henry Colquitt of Chicago, Ill., consoles his daughter Jackie Colquitt, 13, outside the late singer Michael Jackson’s childhood home at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary, Ind., Friday, June 25, 2010. A ceremony unveiling a monument took place at the home Friday, commemorating the first anniversary of the singer’s death.

There’s a select few events in our country’s history that have created defining, indelible memories in the minds of those who lived through them. People can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when the news of these events broke. When I was a child, these events were often ones relegated to our parents’ memories, and passed along like cherished, historic heirlooms. They told of being curled up in front of black and white TV sets watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon, or of school teachers running into classrooms in tears with the news that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

For me, my first major indelible news memory came on September 11, 2001. A poster map of Manhattan (eerily enough) fell off the wall above my bed and woke me around 8am, and I heard radio host Mancow in an unusually serious tone asking listeners to get to a TV, if they could, to witness history. I sat up and fixed my gaze on the screen just in time to see the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center towers live.

A close second memory would be the death of pop singer Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009. I was on set with the crew from Mas Media 7 in Gary, Indiana, working on the last hospital scene of the short film Swan Song (a teaser of the finished product is in my video gallery). The building we were filming in is constructed with lots of steel and concrete, and as a result, cell phones get little to no service, especially in the room we’d used as our set.

At around 4pm central time, just after we’d wrapped for the day, a custodian came into the room and announced that he’d heard on the radio that Michael Jackson was dead. This particular custodian had been awkwardly joking with us all day, so we took his scoop with a grain of salt and continued packing up our gear. It wasn’t until I went outside to back my truck up to the doors for load out that my cell phone got signal, and almost instantly, began lighting up with texts and missed calls from almost everyone I regularly talk to. They confirmed what we’d heard, The King of Pop was no more.

Several missed calls on my phone that afternoon were from my photo editor at The Post-Tribune, asking me to quickly head over to Michael Jackson’s childhood home at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary. I was asked to document the mourners who had gathered there to hold vigil. I spent about six hours there that evening, standing on the lawn of the Jackson house photographing people in prayer, in tears, or simply reflecting.

Mourners on the lawn of Michael Jackson’s childhood home last year (left) on the day of his death, and this year (right) on the one year anniversary of his passing (click both for larger views). The house at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary received many upgrades over the past year, including a new roof, fence, landscaping, and a monument in the front yard honoring the late pop singer.

Photographing the one year anniversary of Michael’s death yesterday offered many of these same moments occurring before my lens, only now the mourners and fans were relegated to the streets surrounding the house rather than on the lawn (an imposing wrought iron fence has since been erected around the house, which is only slightly larger than a two-car garage).

The emotional atmosphere this year meshed with my experiences last year as well. Moments of prayer and silence were juxtaposed with Michael’s hits (Thriller, Billy Jean, Bad) emanating from stereos up and down the block. Smoke from freshly barbecued ribs twirled gently above the heads of performers twirling in the streets, imitating Michael’s famous dance moves at what was still technically a “memorial service” (only at a memorial service for The King of Pop could you not only get away with showing your moves, but also, have your dancing be encouraged by the crowd).

Justin Olokum, 10, of Chicago, Ill., dances across the street from Michael Jackson’s childhood home at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary.

(From left) Gary Mayor Rudy Clay stands with Katherine Jackson, mother of the late pop singer Michael Jackson, and her granddaughter Genevieve Jackson, in front of the former home of the Jackson family at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary.

One thing I have grown to love about photojournalism is that it allows me to meet and talk with new people while allowing me to be in my comfort zone (with cameras). Here’s another morsel of truth for you: Despite my outgoing nature with friends, I’m actually quite shy around people I don’t know. When I’m in “action mode” with my cameras, however, I instantly have an excuse to strike up a conversation with anyone I see, even if it’s just a brief one to get their name for a caption. Yesterday at “MJ Fest”, my conversations led me to sharing the experience on a more personal level with people who came from all across the country (and beyond) to pay their respects to their favorite entertainer.

Mateka Tate of Chicago, Ill., holds a custom Michael Jackson umbrella her son had made for her outside the late pop singer’s childhood home at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary.

Donnie King of Portage, Ind., holds paper mache dolls he created of The Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson in front of the pop singer’s childhood home in Gary.

Georgina Lopez of Toronto, Canada, helps her daughter Indiana Williams, 2, put on a sequin glove outside the late pop singer Michael Jackson’s childhood home.

One of the last people I spoke with and photographed was Georgina Lopez and her two-year-old daughter Indiana Williams from Toronto, Canada. Georgina, like this year, traveled to Gary from Toronto in 2003, the last time Michael Jackson visited his hometown. Lopez was lucky enough to meet and receive an autograph from Jackson during that visit. Lopez also had tickets last summer for two of Michael’s ill-fated This is It performances, and was devastated when she learned of Michael’s passing. She felt it appropriate to venture back to Gary to pay her respects at the former Jackson home. As for her daughter Indiana, complete with her own miniature sequin glove, she got her name from the state where her mother’s favorite pop icon was born.

Sirmack of Gary, Ind., holds Michael Jackson incense he was selling behind Michael Jackson’s childhood home at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary.

Vincent Conner of Gary, Ind., plays the soprano saxophone outside the late pop singer Michael Jackson’s former childhood home at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary, Ind., during a memorial service held Friday, June 25, 2010.

Michael Jackson fans fill the intersection of 23rd Ave. and Jackson St. near the late pop singer Michael Jackson’s childhood home during a memorial service held Friday, June 25, 2010.

As I strolled up and down Jackson Street in the fading afternoon sunlight, I witnessed a steady throng of people walking for blocks north towards 23rd Avenue, on the last steps of their pilgrimage for a hometown hero. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d be out here again in a year covering another celebration for the second anniversary of Michael’s death? How many years will go by before Michael’s legacy fades into the background of all but his most die-hard fans?

Say what you will about Michael Jackson. Despite his bad press and decidedly curious persona, Michael Jackson was one of the foremost cultural icons many of us will ever experience or know of. And, like those indelible memories of historic occurrences our parents shared with us, the moment we learned of Michael Jackson’s death will likely remain etched in many of our minds for the rest of our lives.

Signatures cover a post behind Michael Jackson’s childhood home at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary, Ind., Friday, June 25, 2010. A ceremony unveiling a monument took place at the home Friday, commemorating the first anniversary of the singer’s death.

Posted in Music, Photography, Photojournalism, Pop Culture by Guy Rhodes on June 26th, 2010.

3 Responses to “Historic Memories As Heirlooms”

  1. Lisa D. says:

    Great blog, Guy

  2. Michelle From Ohio says:

    I truly enjoyed reading your blog and looking at your photos. Thank You for sharing!

  3. Jahaira says:

    Great writing! where can i get the incense?