Photo Essays

Uncommon Photographs from 100 Years of Daily African American Life

Cornell University Library has digitized over 600 seldom-seen images showing the lives of black Americans from the era of slavery to the 1960s.

Male singing group, lined up with musical notes (early 20th century) (all images via Cornell University Library)

A newly digitized collection of photographs offers a window into the daily lives of African Americans from the era of slavery to the 1960s. Earlier this month, Cornell University Library uploaded over 600 seldom-seen images from its Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, which is part of a greater gift from Beth and Stephan Loewentheil in 2012 that comprised over 16,000 photographs. The digitization coincides with Black History Month, and although the timing was not deliberate, one of the library’s goals in sharing the images is to push back against the large amount of material that portrays African Americans as slaves or working unskilled jobs. The photographs bring to light relatable scenes such as children at play, neighbors dancing, and friends bonding over activities from sports to music making.

Man and woman in front of the Statue of Liberty (early 20th century)

“The African American photographs within the larger Loewentheil photography collection are unquestionably important, and we’ve been working on their digitization and description for some time,” Katherine Reagan, the Cornell library’s curator of rare books and manuscripts, told Hyperallergic. “It’s essential that library and archival collections document as broad a range of American history as possible, so students, scholars, and the public can study and learn from these collections and see their own histories reflected there.”

Most of the people in the Loewentheil Collection pictures are unidentified, with only handwritten captions or labels providing bits of information. The collection includes some shots from the studio of Mathew Brady, but for the most part, the photographers, too, are little-known. Clicking through the images reveals traces of intimacy: portraits of mothers with babies, women cooking for unseen others, a man holding up a baby to pose for a studio portrait. But ominous pictures turn up in the mix as well; most jarring are the scenes of lynchings, and one of white students punching an effigy of a black man in 1957.

“We elected to present the collection as it arrived, in all of its rich, fascinating, complicated, and — in a few cases  — painful and disturbing elements, rather than suppress or censor specific images,” Reagan said. “The collection is still in pilot phase. In the future, we expect to add a more expanded introduction that will put the collection in greater context.”

The expressions, gestures, clothing, and other details of the pictures’ subjects are captivating alone, but it’s also interesting to note the variety of photographic processes represented in the collection. Digitized now are cartes de visite, stereoviews, hand-painted tintypes, cyanotypes, and daguerreotypes. Many examples of the last were carefully preserved in ornamental, portable cases. They remind us that someone once dearly cherished these photographs for reasons that have since been lost.

Man holding up a baby on a bench, taken at Henry’s Studios (early 20th century)
Hand-tinted photo of a well-dressed African American woman standing with her arm on a cushioned chair; back caption reads, “Marguerite, a former slave.” (c. 1880)
Man getting his head shaved (early 20th century)
African American man standing behind horse-drawn cart of large watermelons, one falling off the side (early 20th century)
Portrait of three players in uniform holding a ball (late 19th century)
Nanny with two young boys (late 19th century)
African Americans picking cotton, titled “On the Suwanee River” (late 19th century)
Two boys, one wearing a hat, standing on crescent moon with starry backdrop (early 20th century)
Man selling tires (early 20th century)
Priest, nuns, and children on steps (early 20th century)
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