As a kid fresh out of high school, somehow I knew the images were important but I didn't have the resources for further exploration. I packed the negatives away in shoeboxes and stored them in my parents' basement. A couple years later I was off to California to pursue my dream of becoming a professional photographer. Over the next three decades the weighty shoeboxes traveled with me wherever I moved.
In the spring of 1999 my mother was reading an article in the Lincoln newspaper about a researcher who found 36 glass negatives in a closet in Lincoln. They were superbly crafted images of Lincoln's African-American community. The photographer was identified as Earl McWilliams, a light-skinned African American with red hair, who was employed at a photo studio in Lincoln. My mother clipped the article and sent it to me with a note saying, "Don't you have some old glass negatives?" Indeed I did. 280 of them. And by the same photographer.
The re-discovery of my negatives coupled with the other 36 negatives set off a firestorm of activity. Multi-page illustrated articles ran in the newspaper. Newsweek picked up on the story. The Governor of Nebraska declared March 22nd "Earl McWilliams Day." My shoe boxes of negatives were deemed a state treasure.
After all the press died down, Lincoln historian Edward Zimmer, who was involved with trying to identify some of the locations, dates, and people in the photographs, was interviewing a couple of older women who were living in Lincoln at the time the photographs were taken.
The women distinctly remembered another African-American man named Johnny Johnson traveling around Lincoln in a horse and buggy and a camera taking pictures of the community. Alas, the problem of pinning Johnson as the sole photographer is that he appears in a number of the photographs. Did Johnson have help or work as part of a team?
What is known for sure is that the last verifiable date of the photographs (mid-1920's) coincides with the date Earl McWilliams left Lincoln for Colorado and hence to San Francisco, where he died in 1960. What is also known is that Earl McWilliams was related to acclaimed Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee. Is it just a coincidence that both men were photographers?
Many of the photographs also contain white people. Did Earl McWilliams' demeanor, standing in the community, or light skin allow him to move back and forth between the black and white communities? Did Johnson man the camera while Earl posed the subjects? McWilliams' mother once told an interviewer, "Earl, he knew how to make people smile."
After close to five decades I'm still stumped by Earl McWilliams. No photographs of him have emerged. He was married at least three times. Are there any surviving children? I interviewed his niece in Riverside, Calif. She told put me onto the Van Der Zee connection. She kept telling me that Earl was "different" without telling me what "different" meant. I keep plugging away thinking that somewhere, sometime I'll stumble onto more information.
Every time I pull out the boxes of glass negatives they make me smile, not just for their historical importance, but from a very personal one: They were a springboard that helped launch my career as a professional photographer. So I say thank you Earl and Johnny, my life would be very different without you.
Below are a selection of the images and stories Earl and Johnny captured, way back when.
Life in Lincoln, Nebraska
Douglas Keister Photo
Douglas R. Keister has authored and co-authored 39 photo-driven books, including Lincoln in Black and White: 1910-1925, which profiles his glass negative collection.
Douglas will be giving a lecture on this collection at a photography event in March, and he has made a Youtube which details his adventure. To find out more about Doug's work and to read his blog, visit Red Room.