Personal Historical: Hundred-Year-Old Photos Help Tell Story of Nebraska's Black History

Brothers Millard and Delmar Woods with a bicycle in front of their childhood home in Lincoln. (Photo courtesy Douglas Keister)
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February 14, 2015 - 8:35am

There aren’t a lot of first-hand resources about Nebraska’s black history. But photos from a black photographer named John Johnson are helping historians piece together the story of Lincoln’s black community a hundred years ago.


From left to right, Millard Woods, Elizabeth Woods, Delmar Woods, and Maude Thomas in back sit for a portrait by John Johnson. (Photo courtesy Douglas Keister)

The Photo

Constance Woods-Brown is looking at a black and white photo. It's a portrait of two women and two boys. One of the boys is sitting with his hands placed at his knees, and the other is standing, striking a pose with his hand at his hip.

“That’s my grandfather and his brother,” Woods-Brown points at the boy sitting. He’s wearing a plaid cap while the boy standing is wearing a tweed cap. The boy in the plaid cap is her grandfather, Millard Woods. The other boy is her great uncle Delmar.  “They’re right in the front porch of 650 South 20th. They must have got dressed up for this picture. I would say ‘cause they got their boots on and their hats. My grandfather did like to dress. I remember every time I seen him he had a nice shirt on and pants. I think it’s pretty much just the way they were.”

Between them is a woman, with her hair parted down the middle, wearing a long black skirt and pressed white shirt. Constance's brother, Nate Woods, points at her.

“This is their mom — that would be my grandma. And the lady behind them is Aunt Maude,” he points at a woman sitting further back on the porch. “I had seen those photos at a young age. I hadn’t seen them in a long time.”

John Johnson was hired to take photos for families and community events, both formal and more casual like of this backyard picnic. (Photos courtesy Douglas Keister)

Want to see more photos?

Lincoln in Black and White 1910-1925 featues photos from Douglas Keister's collection of Johnson's glass negatives

The Nebraska State Historical Society 2003 Newsletter (PDF) features photos from Art McWilliams family collection of Johnson's photos

Want historical context?

Johnson was one of many black artists whose work was heavily influenced by the New Negro Movement, an artistic movement for black artists to reclaim and shape black identity on their own terms. The Harlem Renaissance is the most famous hub of the movement. Read more at the Nebraska State Historical Society (PDF).

Watch Through A Lens Darkly on NET1 or NETHD Monday, February 16 at 9:30pm CST to learn how photography shaped African-American identity over the past 200 years.

The Photographer

This photo of the Woods family is one of hundreds taken by a photographer named John Johnson in the early 1900s. Johnson was a community photographer for black families in Lincoln. His photos tell a story about individual families. But they also tell a story about Lincoln’s history.

Ed Zimmer is Historic Preservation Planner for the Lincoln/Lancaster County planning department and has studied Johnson’s photos for the past 15 years. He says most of Johnson’s black subjects are clearly dressed up for their photos and look like they could be middle-class. But Zimmer says there was no black middle class.

“Because occupations were very restricted. In the period Johnson's photographing, African-American folks, whatever their education, couldn't get jobs better than mostly menial labor service occupations. What we see of it in Johnson’s photo were people who were janitors or menial laborers presenting themselves as they saw themselves as they functioned within their own community.”

This was true for Johnson too. He never officially found work as a photographer or at any photography studio. City records show he was hired as a janitor at the Post Office and Courthouse.

“He was essentially a freelance professional photographer as one of his occupations. There are too many photos and just the subject matter tells you he's not an amateur. But if you’re taking the Prince Hall Masons on 11th Street all dressed up and standing at attention – someone asked him to do that.”

The Family

Johnson’s photos are the only record of his photography career and talent. Millard Woods, the boy wearing the plaid cap in the photo, and his family were regular clients for Johnson, and Millard’s parents faced the same job discrimination that Johnson did. William Woods was the caretaker or janitor at the Governor’s mansion for over 20 years. But he and his wife Elizabeth were also incredibly active community organizers.

“William and Elizabeth together were leaders. They helped found the Lincoln Urban League in the early 1930s, in response to the difficulties of the Depression, and convinced their son Millard to come back to Lincoln. And he came back to be the first Executive Director of Lincoln Urban League, which becomes Clyde Malone center in 1950s,” Zimmer said.

Above, Millard Woods obituary in the Omaha Star in 1966, and, below, an article about the Lincoln Urban League featuring Millard Woods. (Courtesy Constance Woods-Brown.)

 

Sixty years later, Nate Woods, Millard's grandson, is the assistant director at the Clyde Malone Center. There’s a portrait of Millard in the activity room alongside the other founders.  Woods sees his grandfather’s legacy every day in the work the Malone Center does, supporting students at local middle and high schools and after-school programs at the center.

“If you come to an after-school program, there’s a rainbow of all kinds of kids that come and patronize. All kinds of people that we help. It’s not just African American. So I think that’s the beauty of what he envisioned,” Woods said.

Over the years, Constance Woods-Brown has ended up inheriting a lot of her grandfather’s mementos, like his school yearbook, the diary he kept while he was the first black overseas field director at the Red Cross, and a Who’s Who in Colored America with an entry about him. A few years ago, Woods had a chance to add to her collection when she ran across her family’s photos in a book called Lincoln in Black and White, featuring some of Johnson’s photographs, including the family portraits with her grandfather as a boy.

“I got that book at Walgreen’s. It was just sitting by the checkout, and I was like, what is this? So I picked it up and thumbed through and said, 'Hey! It’s my grandfather in there! This is our family in here!'” Woods said. “I think it’s pretty cool. I’m really proud of him, and the things he did in his life time.”

For Woods-Brown and her brothers, his legacy isn’t just a piece of history. It’s their family.

Discussion

 

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