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.
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 DailyMail.com is publishing.
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 DailyMail.com. ‘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.’
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.’
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.
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.’