Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rarely have I felt so uniquely-qualified for a job ... that of identifying a gaggle of images of vaguely-familiar-looking faces -- by the thousands!

A friend from the past -- and a woman of distinction -- some years ago managed to rescue a priceless photographic collection as a member of the Phyllis Wheatly Club. She'd learned that the works of prolific Caribbean/American photographer, the late E.F. Joseph, were still stored in his studio/home on 50th Street in Oakland. His widow was closing his estate -- and having been offered $2000 for the countless negatives from a buyer who planned to recycle the silver nitrate on the negatives -- thereby destroying their captured history. Needless to say, my friend very wisely managed to purchase them (for the price offered) and carted them off for safekeeping until decisions could be made about their eventual disposition. She stored them safely in the basement of her apartment building in San Francisco.

In the interim, she flew to Joseph's home of origin in the Caribbean and learned what she could about him (though we all knew him well during his lifetime in the Bay Area). Emmanuel and his wife, Alice, were of our parent's generation. Careth visited with his family and unearthed biographic materials to be added to enhance the collection.

Joseph photographed every important and unimportant event of black life in the San Francisco Bay Area over a period of 40 years; from the 30's through the 70's. Every party, funeral, grand-opening, sporting event, beauty contest, concert, an evening at the Buchanan Street USO (for blacks only) in S.F.., and even the Inauguration ceremonies of the United Nations held at the San Francisco Opera House in 1945. The events were photographed from a black perspective with stills of Ralph Bunche; NAACP national president, Walter White; Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, etc; truly historic photos.

There are upwards of 10,000 negatives waiting to be identified and cataloged. They cover some of the most chaotic periods of growth and change in one of the fastest-developing periods in our history -- that of the western migration of African Americans during World War II and beyond. Can you imagine the importance of this work to the telling of the African American story?

But of what value would they be if there were none left who could give them identity? Fortunately, given today's extended life spans, at least some of us are still around with the time, the energy, and (most importantly) the memories to do the work. It falls nicely into my work day and fits well into my outreach role. For three hours on Thursdays I will work with this crew as we sip herbal tea and recall as familiar faces crop up under our fingers.

Over the next several months, I'll join with various combinations of long-time friends for a few hours each week as we examine contact sheets (made from freshly-cleaned negatives that have retained all of their sharpness over all the years), cataloging and numbering and forming packets -- and re-living our lives through the work. (No one under 70 need apply.) Of the 10,000 -- we've examined perhaps a couple of hundred to date -- and with not that great a "hit" average -- but it's amazing to see all those familiar youthful faces as we try to remember... .

"Oh, she went off to dance with Katherine Dunham's company," and, "that's saxophonist Jerome Richardson who left with bassist Vernon Alley to join Lionel Hampton's band." And, "isn't that Joe Louis? The guy standing over the bed of that soldier at Letterman hospital?" And -- "yes, that's the Camp Ashby Chorus -- and that's tenor Jerome Swanigan in the back row, second from the end." Camp Ashby was at the end of Ashby Avenue in Berkeley where black Army military police were stationed during the war. And, "...oh how sad. Those sailors from Port Chicago were picketing the mutiny trials." What a moving experience it is... .

On our DVD entitled "Lost Conversations and untold stories" (, many of the photos were taken by Joseph, though I received them from the personal photo album of Mrs. Marguerite Roles.

The task is overwhelming and we're under no illusion that we can accomplish it alone. Hopefully, my friend will enlist the media department of one of the nearby colleges or the university for interns who can help to double our efforts and speed the process.

Stay tuned.

What an amazing new adventure this promises to be.

Photo: Me (far left), at the age of 17, with cousins Ruth Warnie and Elaine Allen. The 1938 Exposition, S.F. Treasure Island's world fair was the event. I believe the girl who won the contest (selling the most tickets) would have been below (notice rounded cutout). Photo by E.F.Joseph submitted to a local black newspaper, the California Voice, I believe.