Putting names to the faces: Museum's historical photos get identified

Monday, January 30, 2006

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Tucked inside museum archive folders for years, their stories waited only for the right moment to be told.

Now, one memory at a time, longtime residents of the Ozarks have been resurrecting the people, the dates, the places and the stories contained in dozens of black-history photographs.

The effort is thanks to a novel approach by the History Museum for Springfield and Greene County.

Recently, several members of Springfield's black community met at the museum to pore over the mystery images and decipher the stories they contained.

Volunteer photo sleuth Norma Duncan was pleased and surprised to find some familiar faces looking back at her from one of the museum's mystery photos.

"This one showed two young ladies in band uniforms at Lincoln High School," Duncan said. "Alberta Marley Smith and Gwendolyn O'Neal. I knew them from when I went to school with them. It brought back a lot of memories for me."

At that time, Lincoln was a segregated high school. It was integrated in 1954.

"I was in school from 1945 to 1954," she said. "I experienced both segregation and integration. But you know, it wasn't as horrible as it was made out to be. We lived and played with the white kids when we were growing up, so it wasn't like we were strangers when desegregation came along."

Duncan said the black community today is much more loosely knit than it was in the 1940s and 1950s.

That's one reason the museum's effort to identify old photos of Springfield life is so important.

"Those photos show that we really have had a wonderful history here," Duncan said. "It's amazing what our ancestors have gone through, what they've endured and how far they've come."

While digitizing more than 40,000 historic images in its collection, the museum found about 500 untitled photographs of the city's black community.

The images ranged from tattered formal portraits of black Springfield residents from the late 1800s to pictures of grand social gatherings, with local folks dressed in their finest attire.

Several portraits of black family members, possibly from the late 1800s, were found inside a wall by a local contractor who was renovating an old home in a once-thriving black neighborhood.

The contractor, an amateur history buff, gave the portraits to the museum instead of tossing them in the trash.

But how do you discover the stories behind those 500 mystery photos?

Museum director John E. Sellars asked the black community for help.

He invited 10 Springfield residents to the museum to try to identify the people, places and events in the photos.

"We're trying to add as much flesh to the bones of history as we can," Sellars said. "We think this is a good way to tap into our communal memory."

The day was a remarkable success.

More than 100 photographs emerged from obscurity, their stories brought to life by the sharp eyes and keen memories of the volunteers.

With the passage of time history often gets muddled and memories less vivid.

All of the black history photos -- as well as the museum's entire photo archive collection -- can be accessed on the Web.

Museum director Sellars said the newly discovered information will be added to the mystery photos to help complete the historic record.

"Even a single name in a photo adds some personality to it," he said.

Sellars encouraged Springfield residents to consider donating to the museum old photos that might have some historical significance.

"If they do have something of significance, it will add to our ability to tell the city's story," he said. "You just never know what you're going to find in a box of photos people bring in."

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