On Sunday April 7, 2013, more than 120 long-time Baltimore residents, many dressed in their Sunday best, filled the auditorium of the Maryland Historical Society to help rediscover Baltimore’s African-American history. The event, Revisiting Our Past: Identifying Paul Henderson’s Photographs of the African-American Community in Maryland, ca. 1935-1965, was co-hosted by MdHS and the Pierians Baltimore Chapter. The two groups collaborated to identify the scores of unnamed people and events in photographs taken by Paul Henderson who worked for the Baltimore Afro-American. I was lucky enough to be there as a volunteer.
Members of the Pierians, an organization “dedicated to the purpose of promoting and encouraging the study and enjoyment of the fine arts,” took the lead in the preservation of their community’s history. Last summer, they approached Jennifer Ferretti, former curator of photographs at MdHS, who had curated an exhibition of Henderson’s Civil Rights Era photographs and in doing so, drew much deserved attention to the collection. The Pierians told Ferretti they were sure they could identify people and places in the photos. The photographs had long languished at MdHS and their previous home in the Baltimore City Life Museum. But even before the Pierians’ offer, Ferretti had invested significant time into organizing, printing, and compiling the 6,000 negatives and prints so they could be presented to the community in an accessible manner. The project was well worth it. Scores of volunteers, staff members, and community members turned out to put names to faces and stories to still images, investing the photographs with deeper meaning.
Though the exact number of identifications has not been calculated, the number of people, places, and events that were recognized is upwards of a few dozen. Participants found and identified a host of lesser known faces alongside the more famous entertainers, politicians, and civil rights activists that Henderson captured with his camera. Concise descriptions abound: “Graduation class from Apex Beauty School,” “Thurgood Marshall,” “A. Jack Thomas, First African Amer. Conductor of Baltimore Symphony Orch.,” “Dr. Frederick Dedmond, Language Professor at Morgan State,” “Mrs. Ada K. Jenkins—My former Piano teacher.” The experience was exhilarating for participants as they found photographs of themselves, their loved ones, and role models from decades ago. Most were seeing the photographs for the first time in a long while; many for the first time ever. Yvonne Lansey let out a joyous cry when she found herself and her sister in a photograph of their class at the Garnett School #103. In the photo, taken on Halloween, the two girls were dressed in costumes made by their mother.
Participants also identified (and described) places that held memories and meaning for the community as a whole, including The Little School, “a private school for African-American children in West Baltimore,” and many now closed businesses on Pennsylvania Avenue. They also named sites we might prefer to forget, like the Druid Hill Park Black Tennis Courts and the Black Swimming Pool.
The value of this research is profound, for historians as well as for community members. Participants shared personal anecdotes about the photos that will provide researchers with otherwise hard-to-get historical insight. For example, some informants could list the present-day names of institutions alongside their historical names. Further, personal anecdotes are rare in official historical archives, but they provide a sense of community attachment that cannot easily be identified in images or formal documents. On one identification form, Betty Williams identified the members of a wedding party and noted, “I was her only bridesmaid.” Finally, and perhaps more importantly, community participation empowers historical communities to participate in the process interpreting their own past.
The visual record is important, but often overlooked by historians of the twentieth-century. Having photographs to accompany written documents can bring readers closer to the topic at hand. But even more importantly, as some scholars have noted, the visual record also carries the potential to revise established histories in significant ways. Activist and scholar Kathleen Neal Cleaver wrote about the Civil Rights Movement:
“The visual record always documents the presence of women, but in the printed record, texts of academic accounts women’s participation tends to fade.”
Henderson’s photographic documentation of the world-famous as well as the unknown suggests that he was attuned to the importance of the visual record for capturing multiple stories. For social movement histories as well as for cultural, community, and political histories, visual records tell an important story that can corroborate written histories, but also tell new stories. Thanks to the dedication of MdHS employees and volunteers, and the experiences, memories, and interest of those who have taken part (and will continue to take part) in the identification of Henderson’s photos, we can look forward to a future filled with new stories about Baltimore’s past. (Amy Zanoni)
Amy Zanoni completed an MA in History from UMBC in May 2013. Her MA thesis, a place-based history of Baltimore’s second-wave feminist movement, investigated the ideas and political activism of feminists and other social movement actors in Baltimore in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Amy will continue her historical research as she pursues a PhD at Rutgers University starting in the fall of 2013.
Kathleen Neal Cleaver, “Racism, Civil Rights, and Feminism,” in Adrien Katherine Wing, ed., Critical Race Feminism: A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 36, in Williams, “Black Women and Black Power,” OAH Magazine of History (July 2008): 22.
For more information and to see more work by Paul Henderson please visit the Paul Henderson Photograph blog. To browse MdHS’s inventory lists of Henderson’s photographs please click here.