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Picturing San Diego's Black History
Friday, January 21, 2011
by Kelly Bennett
In 1991, a commercial photographer's son gave the San Diego History Center more than 28,000 photographs and negatives his dad had taken over 40 years in Logan Heights. For almost two decades, the photographs have been largely un-catalogued and unseen, their subjects mostly unidentified.
But now, at long last, the center has $90,000 in federal and foundation funding to pull out 500 of the most interesting photographs and create an exhibit of the social, political and religious life of the black community, as seen through the late photographer Norman Baynard's lens. Baynard ran a commercial photography business in Logan Heights from the 1940s through the 1970s, and the images range from posed portraits in his studio to baptismal shots and advertising pictures for local businesses.
Leading history and photography scholars looked over examples from the center's collection Thursday. A standing-room-only crowd piled in to the center Thursday night to hear observations from Deborah Willis, a New York University professor and one of the nation's leading historians of African-American photography, according to the center. Joining Willis was Camara Holloway, an associate professor of 19th and early 20th century photography at the University of Delaware.
While some big American cities have well-documented photographic collections of their black communities' histories, the collection is a rare find on the West Coast, the scholars said. Because Baynard was a commercial photographer, he wasn't necessarily trying to tell the same kind of story that a social documentarian or a hobbyist photographer would. Someone paid Baynard to take the photographs in the collection. But they capture important elements of the daily life in the black community in Logan Heights during that time.
Such highlights include the number of cars featured in the photographs, Holloway remarked as she flipped through a photo album Thursday afternoon. Much is commonly known about the first Great Migration from the southern United States as black Americans moved to try to escape racism and find better jobs.
But a second migration — around this exact time when Baynard was photographing — brought a large number of black people to California, Holloway said. The automobile was a strong part of that migration, and a point of pride: it represented stability, mobility and a suburban, settled life.
Our partners at NBC 7/39 and I chatted for a few minutes with David Kahn, the center's executive director. (Update: We showed some of Baynard's photos on Behind the Scene TV Friday afternoon at 4:30. You can find that clip below.)
Kahn said when he joined the History Center a couple of years ago, he asked the staff what was in the center's collection that needed more attention. "This was one of the collections that was mentioned on repeated occasions," he said. Local sociology professor Cristin McVey used some of the Baynard collection in her doctoral dissertation at University of California, San Diego, but the whole collection hadn't been thoroughly examined, much less put on public display.
Exhibiting the collection helps the center highlight lesser-known stories, like the fact that there's been a sizable black community in San Diego for a long time and that it's been a "proud community, a productive community," Kahn said.
"The scholars offer the opinion that people in the black community will probably be very surprised to see these images and happy to see them," he said.
The History Center now needs to take this show out to the community to try to fill in the gaps of who is featured in these photographs. Since Baynard was a commercial photographer, a lot of his notes consist only of the person who purchased the portrait, but not necessarily who's in it. In the next few months, center staff will be taking the photographs to churches and social groups. One community event in October with 50 images already helped the center identify some people.
"And so far it's been pretty successful. You know, people come running up to them and saying, 'Oh gee, that's my nephew there,'" Kahn said. "And they'll call the nephew on a cell phone and say, 'I'm looking at a picture of you.' So this is a fascinating process."
As I walked outside after looking at these images, it struck me that this is just one collection that isn't yet public. Standing in Balboa Park, looking at the rows of museums, I began wondering how many boxes and warehouses and basements are filled with photographs and miscellaneous artifacts that most San Diegans don't even know exist.
Update: Here's our clip from NBC 7/39 Friday afternoon: