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Images of Civil-Rights-era Baltimore tantalizingly uncaptioned

The Maryland Historical Society needs help identifying subjects in photos by legendary Afro-American newspaper photographer Paul Henderson.

HEN.03.02-064 Morgan State College basketball team.

Morgan State College basketball team, 1951.

Photo by: Paul Henderson, with permission Maryland Historical Society

Baltimore news photographer Paul S. Henderson preserved an amazing visual history of  black Baltimore between 1935 and 1965, a trove of over 6,000 photos, but it turns out the images lack one key thing – captions.

That’s why (teaming with their co-sponsors, the Baltimore chapter of Pierians, Inc.) the Maryland Historical Society is hosting an event to enlist the help of the public – anyone from “back in the day” who can come to their building at 201 W. Monument Street building on April 7 at 2 p.m. to help identify faces, places and events.

Is there buried historical treasure there?

Joe Tropea, the society’s curator of film and photographs, answers that question by recalling what they found in a photo whose negative sleeve was blandly inscribed with the words “school faculty.”

“It was clearly Thurgood Marshall, in a picture with some other folks,” Tropea said, referring to the Baltimore-born lawyer who became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice. “Marshall is kind of iconic. I mean he’s very recognizable. That was incredible, he was just in there like that. ”

Notebooks with Images To Leaf Through

Photographs by Henderson (1899-1988) came to the Historical Society from the Baltimore City Life Museum (also known as the Peale Museum) after it shut down in 1997.

A photographer for the Baltimore Afro-American, as well as a commercial photographer shooting weddings and family portraits, Henderson apparently did not catalog and caption much of his work. (Either that or the catalog hasn’t survived.)

In 2010, working with a historic preservation class at Towson University, curators and volunteers began combing through the negatives, processing them and trying to identify people and places. It hasn’t been easy.

Man pushing snowball cart, Harlem Square Park, undated.

Man pushing snowball cart, Harlem Square Park, undated. (Photo by Paul S. Henderson, with permission, Maryland Historical Society)

Tropea says he understands why so many of the photos “are horribly mislabeled,” noting that digitization was at a more primitive stage in the 1990s, when the Peale Museum staff was trying to process and caption the photographs.

“Now we can blow these images up and really see stuff. Street signs and other little details that we couldn’t see before,” he said.

On April 7 – at “Revisiting Our Past: Identifying Paul Henderson’s Photographs of the African-American Community in Maryland” – student facilitators from the history departments of University of Maryland Baltimore County, Johns Hopkins University, Towson University, Morgan State University, and Sojourner-Douglass College will be on hand to facilitate this unique history-recording event.

Members of the public will be able to sit at tables and leaf through binders where all of the 6,000-plus images have been printed out on paper. “I think we’re going to hear some amazing stories,” Tropea said.

 Pearl Bailey and Preston Lane

Assembling the current show of Henderson’s work, which went up in February 2012, was a labor of love for then-curator Jennifer A. Ferretti. A blog assembled for the show describes some of the works included.

Some are wedding portraits and class pictures. Some depict artists and entertainers, such as the portrait of actress and singer Pearl Bailey in her dressing room. Others cover news events, including a 1948 meeting in which Gov. Preston Lane Jr. “appointed nine African Americans to the Board of Trustees for Cheltenham School for Boys after the entire board resigned.”

The Tennessee-born Henderson came to Baltimore in 1929 and continued making photos until the mid-1960s. During that long career his subjects included students and educators at Morgan State College (now University) and numerous political and civil rights leaders. According to the online notes for the show:

“Paul Henderson was not only there to capture these key people at critical moments, he was also present during civil rights efforts such as the seven year protest of Ford’s Theatre on West Fayette Street in Baltimore which began in 1946. For seven years the NAACP and supporters protested the Jim Crow admission policy at the theatre, which brought famous activists to Baltimore, such as Paul Robeson and Bayard Rustin.”

For those who can’t make it to the photo identifying event, Tropea says, not to worry. Similar  events and outreach is planned until  the collection has been fully identified and processed. And a selection of Henderson photos, he said, will be installed in Baltimore’s City Hall this May.

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