In 1958, a couple was awakened in the middle of the night and arrested — just for being married. That is, just for being an interracial marriage. The craziest part: Their last name was Loving.
Richard and Mildred Loving had gotten married five weeks earlier in Washington, D.C. But interracial marriage was still illegal in several states, including Virginia, where they lived.
After several days in jail, the Lovings were told that they must leave the state — and could not return together. They moved to Washington, D.C., and after several years away from home, decided to take their case to the ACLU.
Finally, in Loving vs. Virginia, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to prohibit mixed-race marriages.
“It wasn’t that long ago. That’s what’s frightening and fascinating,” says Erin Barnett of the International Center of Photography (ICP). “So many people, especially younger people, don’t know, nor can they conceive, that that’s the way the United States was.”
Barnett is the curator behind The Loving Story: Photographs by Grey Villet, currently on display at the ICP museum.
Two years before the Supreme Court decision, South African-born Life photographer Grey Villet was sent to photograph the Lovings in Virginia, where they were living again, in a different county, under the radar.
“He was particularly sensitive to racial injustice — or injustice of any kind,” Barnett says of Villet. Of the 2,400 or so frames he shot over the course of two weeks, only nine made it into the magazine. The published photo edit focuses on the Lovings’ legal struggles; the last image, for example, shows them seated across from a lawyer, brows furrowed and faces straight.
But the rest of the unpublished photos, which Villet gave to the Lovings, tell a different story. “The amazing thing that the extended essay shows is that [Villet] was able to capture their unguarded love for each other,” Bennett says. “He captures the reason they were fighting.”
These photos were discovered by director Nancy Buirski, in the making of The Loving Story, a documentary airing on Valentine’s Day on HBO. Twenty of them are on display at the ICP through May. You can read more of the Loving story (including how they met) on The New York Times.