Emory University’s latest archival windfall — one of the largest photographic libraries of black history ever assembled — includes depictions of famous achievers such as the ripe and brazen Billie Holliday, mid-sashay with a microphone. Mostly, though, the collection of 10,000-plus photographs, from the 1840s through the 1970s, focuses on ordinary folk from all stations of life.
There are daguerreotypes of rural women wearing modest sack dresses and head rags and ladies with haughty expressions in Edwardian gowns (and, in a few cases, no clothing at all). Men box, preach, plow or play with their children. All kinds of workaday commerce are represented, along with some carny shots of a natty dwarf in a top hat and a giant wearing a fez.
“This archive reveals the richness of African-American daily life,” says poet Kevin Young, curator of literary collections for the university’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, or MARBL. “There are just a few of the stereotypical images you might expect, with the watermelons and barbecue, but most are family snapshots and portraits, as well as pictures taken by house photographers at nightclubs, cabinet cards and calling cards of black deejays,” he says, holding up an eight-by-ten of Daddie-O, who was billed as “New Orleans’ First Colored Disk Jockey.“
The depth and breadth of the collection, acquired from Philadelphia bookseller Robert Langmuir for an undisclosed amount, is expected to lure scholars from around the world and invigorate mightily the fields of African-American studies and American history. Young used some of the images in his recent book “The Grey Album,” and his Emory colleague Kimberly Wallace-Sanders is eagerly combing the files for a work-in-progress about black women who reared white children, to be titled “Mammies, Nannies, and Love Slaves.”
“I’ve been running all over the country, from Mississippi to the Library of Congress, to chase down images for my book,” says Wallace-Sanders, who expects this hometown trove to cut down on her travel expenses. “Most of the time, the white children are named, but the black woman might just be listed as ‘nurse.’
“This archive, though, provides some names and other information about some of these women, and it’s all right here in Atlanta. I believe as more of these photos are publicized, more people will come forward and say, ‘That’s my grandmother!’ and help restore these issues of identity.”
Historically, record-keeping for African-Americans, when it existed at all, was shoddy at best, if not caricatured or downright harrowing, as in the case of public lynchings. Langmuir worked to supplement the images with as many contextual materials as possible: professional licenses, diplomas, contracts, concert schedules, payrolls for vaudeville troupes. For example, a well-preserved nursing certificate from 1949 accompanies a portrait of Edith Marie Brown, who wears a corsage on her uniform, a tilted nurse’s cap and a smile with the power to heal.
“What we have here is the subjects of photographs defining themselves, black folk defining themselves and controlling how they are presented to the world,” says Randall Burkett, curator of the MARBL’s African-American Collections.
For about 15 years, Burkett has been amassing both high art and ephemera such as funeral parlor fans, church records and political pamphlets. It’s “an entire world of publishing that has gone under the radar of historically white institutions,” he says.
Inevitably, the curator struck up an association with Langmuir, a passionate, longtime collector of African-Americana. Langmuir achieved fame, and every antiquarian’s dream, in 2003 after he bought a cache of possessions that had languished unclaimed in a Bronx warehouse. Photos depicting the black manager of Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus had been snapped by a young Diane Arbus. The episode inspired a 2008 book, “Hubert’s Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus,” and speculative buzz about Philip Seymour Hoffman starring as Langmuir in a movie.
“You can look at a picture a hundred times and not see something until you come across another similar photo, and then patterns and connections start to emerge,” Langmuir says.
He cited a portrait in the Emory collection from Mississippi’s notorious penitentiary, Parchman Farm. “This tall guy with a banjo looked like Howlin’ Wolf to me, but I wasn’t sure. Eventually I hired a forensic investigator, who analyzed the bone structure of his face and compared it with other photos, authenticating that it is most likely the blues singer.
“The more all of these photos are studied, the more connections like that will be made,” Langmuir says. “And the more we all will be drawn into the mystery and have the impetus to keep digging and discovering.”
The file in the archive labeled “Risqué” consistently draws attention, Burkett says with a laugh. In a 1948 photo, a woman named Estelle, smiling mischievously and striking a pose in her underwear, has inscribed the back to her husband: “Darling, Here I am ‘body and soul.’ A reminder: If ever you are tempted with lust and ego, take one glance at this. I’m hoping it will serve the same purpose.”
Surely it did.