Mamie Griffin sits tall in her chair, her posture almost perfect, her head leaned slightly to the side. Her right arm is crossed over her left hand, holding up a copy of the book The Wife of Monte Cristo, her confident gaze looks straight through the image from 1914. In color, she comes even more to life in her green dress with crochet lace detailing, her book more obvious in bright hues.
This photo of Mamie Griffin, an African American cook in Lincoln, Nebraska, is one of a series of images that have been colorized by members of the Facebook group ‘Teach me to color’, where members help each other with colorizing old black and white photos. The original images in this series are black and white glass negatives that focus on African Americans in Lincoln from 1910-1925, during what was known as the New Negro Movement.
That movement, which gave African Americans the chance to speak for themselves, was happening across the US despite segregation and Jim Crow laws. The New Negro Movement was often focused on large cities, with portraits being taken in professional studios, but in Lincoln, African American photographer John Johnson was taking his photographs on people’s porches and inside their homes.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, many African Americans moved out of the South and a small population came to Lincoln. By 1900, the Nebraska town had a population of 40,000, which included a small community of about 1,000 African Americans as well as a significant immigrant community, primarily made up of Russian-German immigrants.
Jim Crow laws and segregation were prevalent in the Midwestern state, despite being far from the South. Lincoln had a significant KKK presence, interracial marriage was illegal and African Americans were given limited housing and job opportunities. Despite those restrictions, Johnson took hundreds of photographs of everyday people from those communities, giving them dignity and respect at a time when they received little of either from the rest of society.
Doug Keister, 69, discovered a set of 280 of Johnson’s glass negatives when he was 17. Today, with the help of Nebraska historians who have also discovered sets of Johnson’s negatives and photographs, Keister is trying to identify the people in the pictures. Historians working on the project know of at least 500 photographs and negatives, though they expect there could be more.
SOURCE: ANN SCHMIDT