Chico, Calif. – There is a new exhibit set to open this week in Chico which captures a snapshot of life shortly after the turn of the century for African-Americans, immigrants and Anglos in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Action News Now Morning Anchor Julia Yarbough had a chance to talk with the man behind the exhibit. He says the issues of diversity, inclusion and immigration that our society is facing now are not that different than those of 100 years ago.
Photographer and storyteller Douglas Keister says the story behind the exhibit has three beginnings; the first between the years of 1910 and 1925 and the second in 1965. The third, happened in 1999 right here in California.
In 1965 Keister says he discovered hundreds of black & white, glass-negative images at a garage sale. That find took place 50 years after the photos were taken, in Lincoln Nebraska. Later research determined the original photographer was an African-American man by the name of John Johnson.
At the time, Keister says he had no true understanding of the historical value and relevance of the photos, but says he knew he had something. Years later and after several moves, Keister still had the glass negatives. The images were primarily of African-Americans in what are considered ‘lifestyle’ portraits, meaning individuals were captured in moments showcasing their lives, homes, careers and educational pursuits. The 280 total glass negatives preserved a moment in history known as ‘The New Negro Movement.’ It was a time in which the focus was on elevating people and encouraging individuals to improve their status. Many of the images capture subjects in elegant moments and stressing the importance of education and literacy.
Keister says the negatives and images are important for a number of historical reasons, most notably, he says, because people think of African-American history as the civil war and the civil rights movement. However, he points out there is a gap of 100 years and he says the images capture a part of that gap.
The portraits also highlight issues of diversity, inclusion and immigration which were playing out at the time. Several of the photos capture blacks, whites and Lebanese immigrants together. Keister believes the images capture the hope and promise of community members striving for better lives.
It was in 1999 that Keister sent a friend at Newsweek Magazine one of the photos. It captured four children; several Lebanese; standing in front of a bicycle. The magazine published the photo along with a short article about the collection and the historical relevance of the images.
Keister describes the photo as pivotal in helping to open the door of research. He says the next week he received a call from a man in Atlanta, Georgia, who said one of the children in the photo was his father.
Word of mouth of the project and further research helped Keister learn that an African-American man featured in one of the images eventually moved to California and opened a successful dry-cleaning business. He has also tracked other individuals to California and various successful career fields.
Keister says there is nothing like these photos anywhere and that they are important; enough so that some of the images are displayed at the African American Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
The full exhibit titled, ‘Black and White in Black and White’ opens Thursday, September 6th, 2018 at 6pm at the Museum of Northern California Art in Chico. The exhibit runs through Sunday, October 28, 2018.