Black Pioneers: Ralph Waldo Armstrong III

Ralph Waldo Armstrong III
Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hearn Alexander.

Ralph Waldo Armstrong III photographed the African American community of Little Rock for more than 50 years. Between 1951 and 2006, a period of dramatic social change, he accumulated an invaluable archive of thousands of photographs of Little Rock’s Black citizenry, houses, churches, schools, and professional and civic organizations, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Ralph Armstrong was born on this date in 1925, in North Little Rock to Ralph W. Armstrong II and Callie Armstrong; he had one older half-brother and two younger sisters. Armstrong developed an early love for classical music listening with his parents to the Texaco-sponsored broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons. He played the saxophone in the Scipio A. Jones High School band and, after high school, studied music for a year at Philander Smith College. However, Armstrong was drafted into the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1943 and spent the next two years first at Great Lakes Naval Air Station north of Chicago, and then in the South Pacific on Eniwetok Atoll.

After the war, Armstrong returned to Little Rock for six months and then headed back to Chicago to study at the American Conservatory of Music. In 1946, he landed an audition with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. His major teacher thought he had earned the seat, but he was denied it, apparently because of his color. Armstrong thus abandoned his long-held ambition to play classical music and turned his artistic talents to photography. 

He completed a one-year course at the Chicago School of Photography and set up a business with a friend from school, Robert Stokely. The two of them took every kind of job they could find — building surveys for insurance companies, forensic work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others, wedding pictures, family portraits — and prospered in their highly competitive business. While establishing himself in his new profession, Armstrong married Ruby Joshua Stanton, herself a Little Rock native who had come to Chicago to study nursing. Married in 1947, the couple lived in Chicago until 1951, when they decided to return to Little Rock to raise their family, which eventually included two sons and a daughter.

Back in Arkansas, Armstrong found that he could not immediately make a sufficient living in photography, so he took the civil service exam and became a letter carrier. He continued working for the post office for 37 years, for most of those walking a commercial route in downtown Little Rock. But his photography business picked up quickly. In addition to processing his own pictures, much of his darkroom work came to involve restoration of old photographs, including one of pioneering African American civil rights lawyer Scipio Jones. While he often shot pictures of buildings about to be demolished, especially in Little Rock’s historic 9th Street district, he gradually began to specialize in portraits.

Ralph Armstrong was 81 when he died on Nov. 10, 2006. He is buried in Haven of Rest Cemetery in Little Rock.