A garage-sale snap-up is the origin story of a new photography exhibit, “Black and White in Black and White: Images of Dignity, Hope, and Diversity in America,” that is showing through Jan. 7 at the Park City Museum.
The exhibit’s curator, Douglas Keister, was a 16-year-old living in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1965, when his friend discovered a collection of 280 photographic-plates, also known as glass-plate negatives, at a local garage sale, said Courtney Titus, Park City Museum’s curator of collections and exhibits.
“Douglas was interested in photography at the time, so his friend gave him all of these negatives,” Titus said. “When he started making contact prints from the negatives, Douglas discovered the collection depicted many different African American families and people living in the neighborhood.”
The black-and-white images, Keister learned, were taken by African American photographer John Johnson and date from 1910 to 1925, according to Titus.
“John Johnson was born in Lincoln, and went through the city’s school system, which was integrated at the time,” she said. “He even attended the University of Nebraska for a while, but because of the restrictions society had put on African Americans at the time, the only jobs available to him and others in his community were in the service sector.”
Johnson worked as a janitor in the main post office in Lincoln, but also set up a side business as a professional photographer, Titus said.
“Although he didn’t have his own studio, all of his photos were taken outside or inside people’s property — porches and backyards — local parks and city buildings,” she said. “So his neighborhood was his studio, and these photos give viewers a sense of where these people in the photos lived.”
Lincoln, between 1910 and 1925, had a small African American population that was 1.5% of the city’s entire population, Titus said.
“There were roughly 900 in a city of 60,000, and many of the African Americans lived in North Bottoms and South Bottoms, two lower-income neighborhoods where other ethnicities lived,” she said. “There were German and Russian immigrants who lived in these places as well.”
The “Black and White in Black and White: Images of Dignity, Hope, and Diversity in America” exhibit features large-scale reproductions of some of the photos that were developed from Keister’s negatives. The images not only document life at the time, but also portray the New Negro Movement that was happening during that era, Titus said.
“That movement evolved into the Harlem Renaissance a few years later,” she said.
The Harlem Renaissance was the New York-based cultural arm of the movement that was happening around the country — in urban centers and rural towns — at that time, according to Titus.
“You can see the movement demonstrated in these images,” she said. “Viewers can see hope and dignity on the subjects’ faces, and they are dressed in their best clothes.”
In addition, many of the subjects are holding books and magazines to show that they value culture and education, Titus said.
“These images are blown up to a scale where viewers can really see the subjects’ facial expressions and what is in the background,” she said. “Through years of research Douglas, with the help of the African American community who lived in Lincoln, has been able to identify many of the subjects, and some of the places that these photographs were taken.”
The exhibit also includes a short documentary film, as well as display cases filled with objects from the time period, including samples of glass-plate negatives, and a vintage field camera like the one that would have been used to take the photographs.
“We also have a lecture with Douglas Keister planned for Dec. 9 in conjunction with the exhibit,” Titus said. “He will talk with us about the glass-plate negatives of which these images came from. And he will talk about his research into the lives and the community of the people in the images that followed the discovery.”
After Titus booked the exhibit, she did some of her own research and found some parallels between John Johnson and a former Park City resident, Howard Coleman Jr.
Coleman’s father, Howard Coleman Sr., a World War I veteran who died in 1981, was an African American who said he was the “only Black man in Park City” when he first arrived into town in the early 1900s, she said.
The elder Coleman worked as a custodian of the town’s post office, and his adopted son, Howard Coleman Jr., a World War II veteran, grew up in Park City’s integrated public school system, Titus said.
“Howard Jr. also loved photography,” she said. “When he moved to Denver, he followed in his father’s footsteps and started up his own janitorial business.”
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