Sunday, August 02, 2015

Americans (V)


The image above is unlabelled, but knowing that its likely provenance was Oklahoma made it possible to take a guess at its location. It was printed in the real photo postcard format that was used by both commercial and amateur photographers to create mailable photographic prints, and the particular variety of Azo postcard stock on which it was printed is believed to have been manufactured between 1904 and 1918. There was only one historically black institute of higher education in the state of Oklahoma at that time, and that was the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. As it turns out, the guess was right; a little digging produced this photographic montage from The Oklahoma Red Book published in 1912:

Below is a closer view of the school's Mechanical Building:

Here's the same building, from the university's 1911-12 catalog:

The building in these pictures is a close fit for the one shown in the postcard, although the latter is more of a close-up and the entire smokestack is not shown. (There are no trees in the Red Book photo, which perhaps was actually taken several years earlier, before they were planted.) The identity of the young woman remains unknown, but at least we know where she was, and why she was there: she was taking advantage of one of the few opportunities for educational advancement open to African-Americans in the state of Oklahoma.

The two photos below may also possibly show Langston students, but from a later period; if so, then the family whose album this belonged to saw not just one but several members pass through Langston's doors.

The portrait photo of the male graduate is undated and unidentified, but judging by the mount it is probably later than the postcard of the young woman holding a book. The group photo is dated "Class of '33,'" and bears the inscription "From Baby to Mother Rebecca" (there is an arrow in ink over the head of the third woman from the right), which might make an identification possible (although it's not clear whether "Rebecca" was the student or the given name of "Mother Rebecca").

With these photos, or with the photo of "Laurence" from the preceding post, which might be a bit more recent, the trail grows cold. At some point, the family's careful custody of their photographic heritage came to an end. Perhaps they died out, or surviving members moved on or lost interest in their past. We don't know. Some of the photos were damaged by time and the elements or even deliberately defaced; but they survive, and even in their fragmentary fashion they carry reminders of the powerful currents of American history that formed them.

The town and university of Langston are named for John Mercer Langston, who among many other accomplishments was the first black member of the US House of Representatives from the state of Virginia. His great-nephew, the poet Langston Hughes, wrote these lines:
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

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