Black and White: Lincoln Native to Talk About Invaluable Collection of Old Photos

Children in Lincoln photographed by John Johnson. (Courtesy Douglas Keister Collection)
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April 17, 2019 - 6:45am

A collection of photos that depicts the lives of African-Americans and immigrants in Lincoln in the early 20th century is on display until the end of May at the Nebraska History Museum. The exhibition “Black and White in Black and White” includes prints made from a collection of 280 old glass negatives discovered in Lincoln in 1965. Lincoln native Doug Keister has had the negatives since then and will talk about the collection tonight at First Plymouth Church in Lincoln. He spoke with NET’s Jack Williams from his home in Chico, California.

NET News: Doug, this is a long and complicated story, but briefly explain how you came across these glass negatives that you’ve carted around now for more than 50 years.

Doug Keister: My friend, Doug Boilesen and his father Axel Boilesen were avid antique collectors and they went to a barn near South and 15th street in Lincoln looking for Edison antiques and they wound up buying this stack of glass negatives and they passed them on to me because I was experimenting with photography. I was 17-years-old in my parent’s basement in Lincoln. Over the years, I kept looking at those photographs, those glass negatives just thinking they were very interesting, a lot of pictures of old Lincoln scenes and things like that. But in 1999, somebody discovered some similar negatives and it turned out they were taken by an African-American photographer by the name of John Johnson in Lincoln, and it turned out that what I had was the same clutch of photographs taken from the same place. So over the next two decades, myself and historian Ed Zimmer and other people had been sleuthing out the locations and the people in the photographs.

Lincoln resident photographed by John Johnson in the early 1900's. (Courtesy Douglas Keister Collection)

NET News: And it turns out John Johnson really was the photographer of Lincoln when it comes to the African-American community back in the early 20th century. Is that right?

Keister: Yes, yes. John Johnson listed himself in a directory that he made up of African-Americans and he was listed as a photographer. There were about six other people that were listed as assistants, but he was the guy. He was the photographer, not only of the African-American community, but also of much of the downtown area as well as the immigrant community. But he wasn’t just documenting people, he was documenting people in their environment and that’s what makes the photographs so important. He was documenting something called the New Negro Movement, which was the elevation of African-Americans, mostly through education.

NET News: What strikes you about life back in the early 1900’s in Lincoln and how the African-American community operated and how they lived here in Lincoln?

Woman and her child in Lincoln in the early 1900's. (Courtesy Douglas Keister Collection)  

Keister: Despite the fact that there was Jim Crow laws and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and films like Birth of a Nation, there was this uplifting of people and that’s what John Johnson was documenting. That all kind of crashed down when the depression happened because when things go bad, people look for somebody to blame and they always wind up blaming people who are different from them. But at the beginning of the 20th century, there was this tremendous uplifting through education. When you look at the photographs, you see people with books and it’s saying education and reading and literacy are the way to elevate the African-American community.

NET News: How gratifying is it to you that this happened in Lincoln, Nebraska, not New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago, right here in the Midwest in Lincoln?

Keister: That really is one of the key parts of it for me, is that, although I live in California, I grew up in Nebraska and I have very fond memories of Nebraska and to be able to put Lincoln and Nebraska on stage you might say, to give it their due, to say there are things that go on that are pretty incredible and here is a physical evidence of that. It’s not just somebody saying something. Here it is, look at this. This is a real thing and this is about the Heartland. It’s not just about the coasts. It’s really, really gratifying to be able to bring Lincoln and Nebraska to attention. It’s just very, very gratifying to me to do that.      

Editor’s Note: By way of full-disclosure, First Plymouth Church is an underwriter on NET Radio.    



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