Rufus Cornelius (R.C.) Hickman, celebrated photographer and author, was born on August 16, 1918, in Mineola, Texas. He lived in Mineola until some time in the 1920s when his father, a railroad Pullman porter, moved the family to Dallas. After the family’s move, his father became a cook at the Baker Hotel.
Hickman began collegiate studies at Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in Austin, Texas. His studies were interrupted by a draft notification he received during World War II. While in the United States Army, he learned the art of photography from a fellow soldier while stationed in Saipan, Japan, and eventually did some work as an army photographer himself. Hickman returned to Dallas after his army discharge and went to work in the darkroom at Hall Gentry Studio. Under the GI Bill, he enrolled in the Southwest School of Photography and Mortuary Science. He then began an approximately thirty-year career capturing photographs in Dallas.
Hickman said that as a photographer he captured Dallas “on the Black side.” He spent the 1940s through 1970s taking pictures of what major media ignored. He captured the civic, social, religious, and professional lives of Dallas’s black community. “He became official photographer for the local NAACP, recording scenes to be used by the civil rights organization in numerous desegregation cases, and he often was called to court to testify about his pictures.” His NAACP assignments involved Hickman chronicling the local response to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. On one assignment, he traveled to Mansfield in order to photograph a mock lynching (see MANSFIELD SCHOOL DESEGREGATION INCIDENT). Participants of the mock lynch mob saw him, and a lengthy car chase ensued. Hickman was chased from Mansfield to Fort Worth and only escaped by “ducking into a friend’s funeral home parking lot and closing the gate.” Hickman’s photographs of African-American schools depicted “overturned desks, littered floors, and broken windows,” making it clear that these separate facilities were far from equal and that the pathway to integration would be far from smooth.
Hickman worked for the Star Post for twelve years as photographer and circulation manager. He also photographed for the Dallas Times Herald, the Dallas Express, and was staff photographer for the Kansas City Call. His pictures appeared in national magazines such as Ebony and Jet. During his career, he took as many as 10,000 photographs and became known as “one of the two most revered photographers [the other was Marion Butts, Sr.] of black history in Dallas,” as well as a local icon.
Hickman not only captured the lives of Dallas’s black citizenry, he captured photographs of prominent people of any race who visited Dallas. His collection of famous faces included those of Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, and Joe Louis. In 1994 Hickman compiled his photographs into a book entitled, Behold the People: R.C. Hickman’s Photographs of Black Dallas, 1949-1961.
Hickman retired in the 1970s and received several honors and distinctions for his photographic work. Among those honors was the Artist and Elaine Thornton Foundation for the Arts’s decision in 1997 to rename their Young Photographer’s Workshop (which Hickman helped launch) the R. C. Hickman Young Photographers’ Workshop. Two Dallas mayors, Annette Strauss and Steve Bartlett, “cited him for his accomplishments in documenting the lifestyles of his community,” and the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Black Journalists recognized Hickman for his contributions in chronicling Dallas history.
After retiring from photography, Hickman began working in retail sales and management. He became the manager of Decorative Interiors, Inc. He maintained an active social life with his friends at the Elks Lodge and the Cotillion Idewild Club who helped him celebrate his seventy-eighth birthday in 1996. He also spent much of his time lecturing at various schools within the DFW area and mentoring youth who wanted to follow in his footsteps. Hickman maintained his residence in the heart of the community he photographed—in the Oak Cliff community of Dallas at 1654 Corinth Street.
R.C. Hickman died at his home on December 1, 2007. His wife of forty years, Ruth, preceded him in death, and they had no children. His funeral services were held at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas where he was a member. His collection of photographs is archived at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin. Despite Hickman’s prolific career and momentous accomplishments, he took a humorous and humble approach to describing his life and career. He once summarized his photographic career by quipping that he “specialized in weddings.”