In an amateur darkroom underneath his parents’ house, teenager Doug Keister eagerly develops his first ever prints. The old negatives reveal a striking snapshot of another time and place, depicting proud African Americans at a time of oppression. Now, more than 30 years later, Keister will finally realize just how important his finds really are.
Back in 1965, 17-year-old Keister was living in Lincoln, Nebraska. A keen student of photography, he was searching for a way to practice developing prints. Luckily, his friend had just acquired some interesting negatives via a newspaper advertisement.
Wanting to support Keister’s desire to learn photography, his friend then agreed to sell him the prints. Keister bought them for $15 – an amount equivalent to $115 in today’s money. In fact, it was such a hefty investment for Keister that the teenager could only afford to pay it back in instalments.
The 280 glass negatives measured just five by seven inches each and came stored in a shoebox. Keister took them to his parents’ house, where he had made a makeshift darkroom in the basement. And there, for the first time, the amateur photographer then succeeded in making his own prints.
The images turned out to be portraits of African-American families and communities in the early 1900s. Depicting men, women and children in their own homes, they provided a fascinating insight into the daily lives of a community in the grips of oppression. Keister, however, did not appear to realize the significance of the images at the time.
In fact, Keister didn’t do too much with the images that he first developed. Over time, the amateur photographer grew up and moved 1,000 miles away to California, packing up the negatives and shipping them with him across the country. For more than 30 years, they then languished in obscurity.
Then, in 1999, everything changed. Kathy Colwell, an intern with Lincoln’s Historic Preservation Planner Ed Zimmer, was studying the city’s historic African-American sites. And, eventually, her research led her to a box of 36 historic negatives that a woman had found in her closet.
Thanks to Colwell’s research, the Nebraska State Historical Society recovered the negatives later that same year. Soon, an article was published about the discovery in the Lincoln Journal Star – and Keister’s mother sent her son a clipping of the story. Then the whole fascinating tale began to unfold.
Keister quickly realized that the old negatives in his own collection looked very similar to the ones in the Journal Star article. Intrigued, he reached out to Zimmer, revealing his suspicions that the photographer was one and the same. Hence they discovered that all the negatives were indeed the work of John Johnson, an amateur Lincoln photographer.
From 1910 until 1925, Johnson traveled around Lincoln, snapping photographs of daily life. What made his images different from many others, however, was that they focused on minority communities. Although many contemporary photographers were documenting the struggles of African Americans in big cities, Johnson uniquely portrayed them in the rural Midwest.
At the time, the situation for African Americans in the United States was tense. Although slavery had officially ended more than 50 years earlier, the racist regulations known as the Jim Crow laws were still in effect across much of the country. Under these, African Americans were segregated from the rest of the population.
In fact, African Americans were often forced to use separate facilities such as drinking fountains and bathrooms. In many places, access to housing and education was also limited. Invariably, the services provided for African Americans in general were inferior to those provided for the white population.
Soon, however, the African-American community began to fight back. People started to speak out against the oppressive Jim Crow laws, and the New Negro Movement took hold. In cities such as New York, a revolution began to gather momentum.
These events, leading up to historical milestones such as the Harlem Renaissance, were certainly well documented. Even today, we can find visual records of this important time in history. What we have little of, however, is evidence of what life was like for African Americans living outside the big cities.
Although the northern state of Nebraska was far away from the publicized action, segregation still affected the African Americans living there. And that is what makes Johnson’s photographs so interesting: he captured the daily lives of people living under the Jim Crow laws in a place far away from the historical limelight.
Johnson was an amateur photographer who made his living as a janitor. He took photographs of his neighbors, family and friends, traveling to their homes to produce portraits of them in their natural environment. A century later, these images still speak volumes.
“These are images of great dignity and great hope,” Keister said in a February 2017 interview with the Daily Mail. “They’re so important because they are showing there was a time of great hope. To have these photographs in Lincoln, Nebraska, that are ennobling environmental portraits, is extraordinary.”
According to Zimmer, Johnson was not necessarily a member of the New Negro Movement himself. Instead, it is likely that he simply documented the world he saw around him. Luckily for historians, though, this world turned out to be of great interest to future generations.
Slowly, Keister is beginning to identify the people pictured in the photographs. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” Keister told the Daily Mail. “And [just like] any treasure hunt there’s moments of great frustration because you go, oh, just one more little piece… This has been a 50-year journey for me. It’s been pretty incredible.”
Today, 60 of the negatives are on display in Washington D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. For Keister, it’s a great honor – although he continues to search for the people behind the photographs. For him, the saga won’t be complete until the entire story is told. Meanwhile, his attempts so far have been documented in the short film Shadows on Glass, which is available on YouTube.