pictures of black Lincolnites to hang in new national museum
August 05, 2013 4:00 am • By NANCY HICKS / Lincoln Journal
This story of discovery
began with an article in the Lincoln Journal Star about 36 stunning
And it ends with
the likelihood that pictures of Lincoln residents from the early
1900s -- black Lincolnites featured in the work of a black photographer
-- will hang in the new National Museum of African American
History and Culture in Washington.
“It’s one of those
'Antiques Road Show' kind of stories. Even better,” said Doug
Keister, a Lincoln Southeast graduate who, for decades, saved
heavy boxes of glass negatives he bought in Lincoln as a teenager.
They turned out be
an artistic and historic treasure.
In May 1999, former
Journal Star reporter Clarence Mabin wrote a story about 36
glass negatives, beautiful photographs of Lincoln’s black community
in the early 1900s, taken by an unknown photographer.
“I was expecting
some amateur work, and these pictures just knocked me for a
loop. So well proportioned, such a brilliant use of space and
sense of composition, such amazing rapport with his subjects,"
John Carter, historian for the Nebraska Historical Society,
said in that story.
"It’s obvious he’s
doing more than just taking a picture. He’s doing portraiture.
And social commentary.”
Mabin’s article led
to the discovery of Keister’s collection of several hundred
pictures, taken in Lincoln roughly between 1910 and 1925 by
photographer John Johnson.
Keister, a photographer,
author and Lincoln native, has donated 60 large-scale prints
made from that collection to the new museum, due to open on
the National Mall in 2015.
“They speak to a
time and a place where African Americans were treated as second-class
citizens but lived their lives with dignity,” museum curator
Michele Gates Moresi said about the exhibition in an article
in the February 2013 Smithsonian Magazine.
For decades, the
photos were simply a heavy load that Keister carted from house
to house, taking up valuable storage space.
Keister got the
glass negatives from friend Doug Boilesen and his father, Axel,
who bought the negatives from a Lincoln family during their
search for antiques, including an Edison phonograph, the “holy
grail of phonographs,” Keister said.
One of the negatives
was of a girl standing beside an Edison phonograph.
Keister bought the
boxes for $15.
Keister printed some
of the negatives -- O Street, construction of the Miller & Paine
building and the post office (now the Grand Manse) -- and sold
them to local history buffs like Jim McKee, years before anyone
recognized the value of the entire collection.
And Keister took
the boxes with him when he moved to California, continuing to
cart them around the state as he moved.
In 1999, Keister’s
mother, Kay Keister, clipped and sent the Journal Star story
about the 36 negatives to her son. She remembered he also had
some glass negatives, so she thought he might be interested.
his were likely the work of the same photographer.
He brought his boxes,
containing almost 280 glass plates, back to his hometown and
met with Lincoln historian Ed Zimmer.
Since then Zimmer,
a historical sleuth, has identified the photographer, put names
to some of the faces and Lincoln locations, and found more negatives
and pictures, 400 to 500 of them: the Keister collection plus
others, many saved by descendants of those photographed.
Jennifer Hildebrand has used the pictures as examples for an
article on the New Negro Movement, a precursor to the Harlem
In an era when black
Americans faced severe discrimination, "new Negroes evinced
pride in self, in their African heritage, and in the color of
their skin. Often the images that they shaped convey a great
sense of confidence, strength and determination," Hildebrand,
an associate professor of history at the State University of
New York, Fredonia, wrote in a 2010 Nebraska History Quarterly.
"The beauty of the
black race and the shared goals and aspirations of white and
black Americans were at the heart of the NNM," she wrote.
The 36 plates that
were the focus of Mabin's story were discovered as University
of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student Kathryn Colwell was researching
historic black landmarks in the city and interning with Zimmer.
Ed Wimes, now an
executive vice president at UNL, told her about the plates,
owned by the McWilliams family, information she passed on to
the Historical Society's Carter.
Carter went to the
home of Victor and Juanita McWilliams to see the negatives.
They were in a Harley-Davidson
boot box, he remembers, the negatives carefully separated by
Carter picked up
the first one, he said: "And it wasn’t a good photograph, it
was a phenomenal photograph. The hair stood up on the back of
"I picked up the
next one -- and next one -- all were just phenomenal."
Mabin, who now works
in the Legislature’s performance audit office, had seen prints
of some of the pictures when he interviewed Art McWilliams Sr.
in 1989 for a story about the McWilliams family's long history
in Lincoln. He remembers instinctively knowing that they were
Zimmer concluded, was John (Johnny) B. Johnson, an 1899 graduate
of Lincoln High School who briefly attended the University of
Nebraska, where he played football.
In an era when black
Americans were not hired by white businesses for anything other
than menial labor, Johnson was a janitor at the federal building,
drove a wagon and photographed Lincoln's small black community.
Johnson was born
in 1879 to Harrison, a Civil War veteran, and Margaret Johnson,
both former slaves. He married late and lived most of his life
in a home built by his father at 1310 A St.
Some of the photos
appear to be commissioned portraits. Others feature co-workers,
family and friends. And some show Lincoln architecture, construction
sites and the men who worked there.
Some are elegant
portraits, with the families of Lincoln's black leaders at the
time -- the McWilliamses, Malones, Deans, Talberts, Burckhardts,
Williamses -- among the subjects.
In addition to their
beauty, the photos have historical significance because there
are so few photographs from the era depicting African Americans
in small- and medium-size towns taken by a black photographer.
Keister calls them
a “rare glimpse into the everyday lives of an African-American
community on the Great Plains.”
The young lady on the right is Florence Jones (later Clark).
Her companion has not been identified. Jones was a student at
Park and McKinley elementary schools and Lincoln High School,
graduating in 1923. The photograph is among many taken in Lincoln
on black and white glass negatives by African-American photographers
John Johnson and Earl McWilliams between 1910 and 1925. 2001
Backyard picnic Mother's touch Baseball player Florence Jones
This photograph was taken on the front porch of a house that
still stands at 715 C St. in Lincoln. At the time Cora and Alonzo
Thomas ran a grocery store in the front room of the home. Four
of the Thomas children and two friends are in the photo. The
baby is Lonnie Thomas, born in 1909, who became a championship
golfer. Lonnie’s daughter Deborah Thomas was a backup singer
for several groups including Lionel Richie and Diana Ross. The
little white girl at the side is Marie Busch, who lived next
door at 703 C St., the daughter of Germans from Russia immigrants.
JOHN JOHNSON, Courtesy Douglas Keister
Mamie Griffin, who worked as a cook, lived at 915 U St. in
1914 with her husband, Edward, a waiter at the Lincoln Hotel.
Their little house and other humble residences stood on a dirt
street among railroad tracks and industrial uses north of downtown
Lincoln. Far from humble are the dress and demeanor of this
woman, posing confidently with her romance novel, "The Wife
of Monte Cristo." JOHN JOHNSON, Courtesy Douglas Keister
Two women show off their pit bull terrier, circa 1910-25. JOHN
JOHNSON, Courtesy Douglas Keister
In this photo by John Johnson of Lincoln, 10 people and a dog
share in a backyard picnic, circa 1910-25. The scene appears
casual, but the picnic benches have been angled out from the
table to allow each person to be seen, and to lead the eye to
the couple serving as host and hostess. Johnson documented African-American
life in Lincoln in the early 20th century. JOHN JOHNSON, Courtesy
After this John Johnson photograph was featured in Newsweek
magazine in November 1999, collection owner Douglas Keister
received a call from a radiologist in Atlanta, Ga. The man,
Jim Zakem, said the child on the far left was his father, James.
Zakem's grandfather, Lebanese-born Alexander K. Zakem (1879-1942),
and his wife Anise had three children. James, born in Michigan
in 1917, is pictured at left beside little sister Lillian. The
blond boy was a playmate. Older sister Adeline (at right) was
born in Montreal in 1916. JOHN JOHNSON, Courtesy Douglas Keister
Manitoba "Toby" James had three daughters and two sons. Pictured
with him here are his firstborn son, Mauranee (in the hat at
right), and his daughters Myrtha (left) and Edna (center). JOHN
JOHNSON, Courtesy Douglas Keister
This scan of a glass plate negative by photographer John Johnson
shows early Lincoln history. JOHN JOHNSON, Courtesy Douglas
The address on the house behind these well-appointed gentlemen
suggests it was the home of George and Fronia Butcher at 2001
U St. Butcher (thought to be the taller man) was born in Philadelphia
in 1874, and died at the VA Hospital in Lincoln in 1958. He
worked for the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad as a porter and
for Burlington as a laborer in the Havelock Shops. Fronia Butcher
was even more long-lived, reaching 100 years (1879-1979).The
dapper man with the cane remains unidentified. The photograph
is among many taken in Lincoln on black and white glass negatives
by African-American photographers John Johnson and Earl McWilliams
between 1910 and 1925.
Doug Boilesen's NOTE: We unfortunately didn't
find an Edison Phonograph at the time of purchasing these black
and white glass negatives and have never acquired any Edison
that would be considered the holy grail of Phonographs
as reported in this newspaper article. Nevertheless, we are
honored to be a part of the story of preserving these wonderful
images and I know Dad would have loved to have read this article
and to later have seen these photos on exhibit when they finally
made their way back to Lincoln and were displayed at the Nebraska
History Museum in April 2019.
UPDATE April 15, 2020: The PBS Nebraska
Educational Televsion Station has just released their production
of this story as part of their NET "Nebraska Stories"
series. This episode is titled "Forgotten
Stories" and is really well done. Here is how it's
"Forgotten World" His photographs of black
families living in Lincoln during the early 1900s has made
John Johnson one of the great African American photographers
of the 20th Century. All of the Johnson's work could have
easily been lost to the ages but for a teenage boy who, in
1965, spent 10 dollars to buy a box of 280 glass plate negatives.
Doug Keister's NOTE April 20, 2020: I continue
to be astounded how my half-century journey with the John Johnson
glass negatives continues to evolve. Like most adventures it
has been a mixture of serendipity, good luck, hair-pulling frustration,
dogged perseverance, ah-ha moments and continual heart-warming
discoveries. I fully expect photographer John Johnson and the
significance of his photographs to be fully realized as the
story continues to unfold.
One major vehicle that puts the photographs
in public view is a traveling exhibition of Johnson’s photographs
arranged by Exhibit