Incredible pictures capture everyday life of African Americans in Jim Crow-era Nebraska


This incredible set of antique glass negatives gives a rare glimpse into the everyday life of early 20th century African Americans and immigrants in the Midwest.

The photographic negatives are part of a wider collection of 280 photographs that capture the dignity of Lincoln, Nebraska’s minority communities from 1910-1925, with wedding and family photos, individual portraits and pictures of pets.

During that time, the New Negro Movement was moving across the country, giving African Americans a voice and an opportunity to speak for themselves in an otherwise stifled and segregated time in American history. Jim Crow laws prevented African Americans from using the same facilities or having the same opportunities that other Americans had, like jobs and housing.

The New Negro Movement, which preceded the Harlem Renaissance, was mostly documented in big cities, with portraits being taken in more professional studios.

But in Lincoln, African American photographer John Johnson did something different with his photographs. Instead of taking people to professional studios, Johnson met them where they were, taking portraits on front porches and inside homes.

Johnson worked as a janitor at Lincoln’s post office and courthouse, but even as an amateur, Johnson took beautiful photos that dignified and respected his family, friends and community. Today, Johnson’s photography gives a rare view into the empowerment of African Americans and immigrants across the country, not just in large cities.

From 1910-1925 amateur photographer John Johnson (right) took hundreds of photographs of the African American and immigrant communities in Lincoln, Nebraska. Johnson married Odessa Price (left) on August 20, 1918. She was 27 and he was 39. This is believed to be their wedding portrait and someone would have helped Johnson trigger his camera's shutter. John went to Lincoln High School and was a member of the track team. He graduated in 1899 and briefly attended the University of Nebraska where he played football. He worked as a janitor at the post office and courthouse in Lincoln, but also did work as a laborer and drayman (someone who delivers beer for a brewery). Johnson and his wife died within months of each other in 1953

Budding photographer and high school student Doug Keister, then 17, found those glass negatives in 1965. He bought the box of negatives from a friend so he could practice making prints.

There are currently 60 of those negatives on display at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which they acquired in 2012 and which is publishing.

Doug Keister, pictured, discovered the box of 280 glass negatives when he was 17 in 1965. He bought them from a friend because he was just learning photography and he needed practice making prints. Today he is 68 and is still trying to identify Johnson's photographs

Today Doug is 68 and a professional photographer and writer. For years and with the help of Nebraska historians, he has been trying to identify the people in the portraits.

‘These are images of great dignity and great hope,’ Doug told ‘They’re so important because they are showing there was a time of great hope.’

As African Americans moved out of the South after the Civil War, Lincoln, Nebraska became home to a small community of African Americans. By 1900 Lincoln had a population of 40,000, with about 1,000 African Americans. At the time there was also a significant community of Russian-German immigrants who came to Lincoln.

Despite its distance from the South, Jim Crow laws, stereotypes and segregation were still present in Nebraska. African Americans were limited in their housing options and their job opportunities and interracial marriage was illegal. There was even a significant KKK presence in Lincoln.

Undeterred by those obstacles, Johnson took hundreds of photographs of the African American and immigrant neighborhoods from 1910-1925. He documented the everyday life of those communities and took photographs that showed the subjects as dignified and ennobled citizens.

‘It’s a glimpse of a small community within a small city in the Midwest… It’s hard to match,’ said Lincoln Nebraska’s Historic Preservation Planner Ed Zimmer.

Doug added: ‘To have these photographs in Lincoln, Nebraska, that are ennobling environmental portraits is extraordinary. Sometimes you’ll find pictures from that era, but they’re usually places like New York or Washington, D.C., maybe Chicago, maybe some other places, but usually big cities. You do not see things like this from America’s heartland.

‘It’s wonderful. This is a period of – I used to say this is African American history. No, this is American history. I think that’s one of the things we need to say. That this is not just African American, this is the history of America. And the inclusion and people uplifting themselves – it’s an American story.’

Margaret moved in with her son after her husband Harrison died in 1900. She was a prim and proper lady, according to 95-year-old Ruth Folley in 2001. Ruth was photographed by Johnson in 1914 and knew some of the subjects of Johnson's rediscovered negatives. Margaret is pictured in front of Johnson's home

When Doug bought the prints from a friend in 1965 they cost $15 (about $115 today), which he paid in monthly installments. His friend found them through a want-ad in the newspaper and gave them to Doug because he was just learning photography.

He used the 5×7 negatives to make his first-ever prints in a makeshift darkroom in his parents’ basement, but didn’t do much else with them. As he got older he kept the heavy box of negatives, even taking them with him when he moved to California.

Years later at Lincoln’s Planning Department, Ed Zimmer had a graduate student intern, Kathy Colwell, now Kathy Colwell Hill, who was interested in doing her master’s work on historic African American sites in Lincoln.

Near the end of her research in 1999, Colwell had a lead for a box of 36 glass negatives that were found in a woman’s closet. Though she didn’t have time to include the photographs in her research, Colwell passed the lead onto the photo historian at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Later that year, Doug received a letter from his mother with a newspaper clipping from the Lincoln Journal Star. The article was about the negatives that had been found through Colwell’s research.

When Doug saw the pictures in the newspaper clipping, he realized the style and locations of those photographs were the same as the ones he had found in 1965 and quickly got in touch with Zimmer and his new intern, Abigail Anderson, who still collaborates on the research today.

At the time, the photographer was still unknown, though they believed the pictures were taken by Earl McWilliams. In 2001 they discovered the photographer was actually John Johnson after they spoke with a 95-year-old woman named Ruth Talbert Greene Folley who was actually in one of the photographs as a young girl with her family in 1914.

She knew both McWilliams and Johnson and remembered sitting for Johnson to do the portrait. In an interview with Zimmer and Anderson, Mrs Folley confirmed: ‘Mr Johnny Johnson took our picture.’

Johnson's wife Odessa was from Kansas City, Kansas. She is pictured on their porch swing in Lincoln wearing what could be her wedding ensemble and reading the Ladies Home Journal from August of 1918, when she was married. Odessa worked at Lincoln's Hardy Furniture Company

With this picture, Johnson experimented with exposure, capturing the three subjects of the picture twice each, making it look like there are six people. Though two of the people in this photograph are unknown, Johnson's wife Odessa is the woman who standing on the farthest left and sitting in the middle of the image

Once Zimmer knew the photographer, identifying the people and places in the pictures got a bit easier because ‘the knowledge keeps building on itself’.

What is essential for Zimmer in sharing the photographs is being able to tell the stories behind them.

‘I’m trying to make sure we know as much about the individual as we can,’ he said. ‘Without knowing more of the context, you could get the story wrong. You need a historical piece to go with it to understand Johnson – it’s a much richer and more important story… Even the beauty of the picture can distract you from what’s the true story of the picture.’

But Zimmer added that photographs can trick people and give the wrong impression simply because of when we live today.

‘You look with 21st century eyes, not with 1910 eyes.’

For example, even John Johnson’s life is important in telling the story of the photographs and the New Negro Movement. Zimmer doesn’t think Johnson was specifically trying to be a part of the movement, but instead was simply trying to dignify his neighbors and friends.

The son of a Civil War veteran and a hotel cook, Johnson was a janitor and an amateur photographer with an excellent eye for pictures in environmental settings.

Unlike many studio portraits during the New Negro Movement, Johnson photographed the African American and immigrant communities in Lincoln on their front porches, in their yards and even inside their homes.

Aside from their unique locations, Zimmer said Johnson used excellent technique for his photographs.

The composition and poses also show how comfortable people were with Johnson who was ‘carefully arranging the subjects to show their strength and dignity in an artistic form’, Zimmer said.

Johnson photographed Luther and Ida Allen, center, on their wedding day in 1912. Luther (1885-1969) was a prominent member of Lincoln's Prince Hall Masons and worked as a chauffeur for the Lincoln Star newspaper publisher. Luther was also among the black leaders from Omaha and Lincoln in 1929 who met with the governor to alleviate tensions after a racial incident in North Platte. His wife Ida (1887-1983) was the daughter of Reverend George Maston and worked as a maid at the Miller and Paine store. The newlyweds are pictured at their home, 828 B Street, in Lincoln

In their years of research, Zimmer and Doug have found information about many of the photographs and their subjects, but there is still so much they don’t know.

So far, Zimmer knows of 500 of Johnson’s photographs, whether negatives or prints.  but Zimmer said ‘there’s no reason to think that’s the total’. And as they discover more information about the photographs, sometimes more prints or negatives will come forward.

Doug said: ‘It’s like a treasure hunt. And any treasure hunt there’s moments of great frustration because you go, oh, just one more little piece… This has been a 50 year journey for me. It’s been pretty incredible. It’s kind of like the antiques roadshow – except it takes 50 years.’

Doug also compared the project to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. And Zimmer agreed.

‘It doesn’t stop,’ Zimmer said. ‘It feels like it has significance… It’s been very satisfying to work with.’

As the two men continue to find the stories behind the negatives, they each have different hopes for the message that the photographs will bring.

As Lincoln becomes more diverse, Zimmer hopes the photographs will remind residents of Lincoln’s deep history of accepting immigrants and African Americans.

And Doug hopes that in a time of political turmoil, the photographs will remind Americans of a more uplifting time.

‘With the way the country is going now, it’s like going backwards again because there’s all this divisiveness… I’m hoping people will get energized by seeing these images. That’s my hope.’

The Talbert family, pictured, came to Lincoln in 1913 from Guthrie, Oklahoma. Reverend Albert W. Talbert, far left, served as a minister until 1920. His wife Mildred, or Millie, far right, worked as a hairdresser to help Ruth, front center, as she went through Lincoln High School and went on to earn a two-year teaching certification from the University of Nebraska in 1926. The family, including Ruth's brother Dakota, rear center, is pictured in front of the Newman Methodist Episcopal Church at 733 J Street in 1914. Albert was 55, Millie was 40, Dakota was 16 and Ruth was 8. Though this glass negative was a part of Doug Keister's discovered collection, Ruth Talbert, who went on to become Ruth Folley, kept an original print of the portrait. She is the one who, at 95, identified John Johnson as the photographer of the pictures

Ruth's brother, Dakota Talbert was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1898. When he was 15 his family moved to Lincoln. During World War I, Dakota served in the army in France. He is pictured sitting on a concrete wall that may have been part of a bridge in Lincoln

 Dakota, left, is pictured sitting on a concrete wall with one of his friends, right. Dakota's sister Ruth identified the friend as most likely being Vernon Howard

Leona Dean was a hairdresser in downtown Lincoln, working for Minnie Davis, a white woman. Leona and her husband James (Jim) Dean are still remembered as leading members of their community. Leona is photographed reading a small book in the shade of this porch, which may have been at the house of William Cotton, who lived near Johnson and worked with him as a letter carrier at the post office

This is one of several portraits of Leona Dean with differing poses and accessories. In this image Leona is wearing a plumed hat and carrying a purse but in others she goes without. Leona's husband Jim worked at the Lincoln Country Club and provided part-time work waiting tables at the club, for African American men in Lincoln

This  man is sitting on a stool in front of a backdrop, wearing a Masonic emblem attached to his lapel. He is believed to be Arthur Williams, who was listed as a laborer at the Oliver Theater in 1915. In 1920 he worked as a porter for the Lincoln Photo Supply Co. and in 1924 he worked as a laborer. He was married to a woman named Bona

John Johnson. Scan of a glass plate negative in The Douglas Keister Collection of Glass Plate Negatives from Lincoln, Nebraska circa 1910-1925.  Cora and Alonzo (Lon) Thomas operated a small grocery from the front room of this house at 715 C Street. Four of their five children are portrayed here. Baby Lonnie, born in 1909, sits on Herschel's lap. Agnes stands at left, and eldest son Wendell stands at the center. The young man at right is probably Lucius Knight, their mother's half brother. Wendell worked a typical variety of jobs in Lincoln--waiter, clerk, porter, laborer, and janitor--before founding the Thomas Funeral Home in Omaha. The Thomas family and many other African American families lived in the South Bottoms, a neighborhood mainly of Germans from Russia, Lincoln's largest immigrant group. The little blonde girl who leans into the right edge of this view serves as a reminder that Lincoln's residential neighborhoods were not segregated by race in the early 20th century--poor p

Though historians have done years of research, many of the people in the photographs are still unknown. The woman and boy pictured here in front of a backdrop are unidentified

Manitoba 'Toby' James is pictured with three of his five children: his eldest son Mauranee, on the far right and his daughters Myrtha, left, and Edna, center. Toby later had another daughter and another son. He worked as a waiter and porter in the 1900s and a cleaner in the 1910s and 1920s. He and his family moved around Nebraska for several years, but in the 1930s they moved to Oakland, California, where Toby owned Owl Cleaners. Toby died in 1951 in Oakland

Johnson sometimes included pets in family portraits. This baby and pet dog are unknown, but the baby's jacket suggests it was a chilly day when the portrait was taken

The house pictured is 623 C Street in the neighborhood of Lincoln known as the South Bottoms. This area was primarily populated by German immigrants from Russia, but many African American families lived there as well, like the O'Donnells who lived at this house. James O'Donnell (1872-1930) was the owner of a lunch counter in downtown Lincoln

The three children with dark hair are siblings, children of Lebanese-born Alexander and Anise Zakem. James is holding the bike on the far left beside his younger sister Lillian. Their older sister Adeline is standing on the far left and the boy with blond hair in the middle was one of their playmates. The children were identified by James's son Jim in 1999 after he saw the photograph in Newsweek magazine. Jim's grandfather Alexander immigrated to Nebraska in the 1890s and moved to Nebraska around 1900 and married Anise. When she died, Alexander went back to Lebanon, remarried and came back to Nebraska in 1918 to join relatives who had settled there. Alexander operated restaurants in Lincoln and other small Nebraska communities

This house, 1821 South 16th Street, was the home of Julius and Tillie Miller in 1912 to 1913. Julius was listed as a glazier with a glass company and a laborer

Johnson photographed these schoolchildren in front of Lincoln High School, though the children in the front rows do not appear to be high school age, though some of the girls in the front row are holding piano music. The University of Nebraska and Lincoln's public schools were integrated, though the public schools did not hire an African American teacher until the 1950s

Johnson is known to have taken at least 500 photographs. Among those portraits, Johnson captured images of his friends and family, including his mother, Margaret Johnson, pictured. Margaret was born in Mississippi in 1854, probably in slavery, and died in Lincoln in 1926. She is pictured in front of Johnson's house

More photos at The DailyMail

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