Axel and the Glass Negatives

 

August 05, 2013 4:00 am • By NANCY HICKS / Lincoln Journal Star

 

Century-old pictures of black Lincolnites to hang in new national museum

August 05, 2013 4:00 am • By NANCY HICKS / Lincoln Journal Star

This story of discovery began with an article in the Lincoln Journal Star about 36 stunning photographs.

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.

Keister realized 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.

History Professor Jennifer Hildebrand has used the pictures as examples for an article on the New Negro Movement, a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance.

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 kitchen towels.

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 my neck.

"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 extraordinary pictures.

The photographer, 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 and companion

 

 

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 Douglas Keister

 

 

 

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 Keister

 

 

 

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.

 

For more details about how Doug and Axel acquired the glass negatives, a video was made by Doug Keister and is available HERE.

 

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 summarized:

"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 Envoy.