In 1965, 16-year-old Doug Keister acquired 280 glass plate negatives, originally found at a local garage sale. He immediately made prints from some of the plates, revealing powerful, early 20th-century portraits of African Americans in Lincoln, Nebraska.
These astonishing images are now on display in a new traveling exhibition curated by Keister, “Black and White in Black and White: Images of Dignity, Hope, and Diversity in America.” The exhibition appears at the Greeley History Museum from Feb. 17 through May 28.
“Black and White in Black and White” features striking photographs attributed to African American photographer John Johnson. Using his Lincoln neighborhood as his canvas, Johnson crafted these ennobling images of his friends and family between 1910 and 1925. Equally as important as Johnson’s depictions of African Americans are his images of Black, white, and other racial groups together, an occurrence almost unheard of at the time.
The Smithsonian Institution recently acquired 60 of these photographs for their collection. Michèle Gates Moresi, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, underscores the importance of Johnson's work: “They speak to a time and a place where African Americans were treated as second-class citizens but lived their lives with dignity...You can read about it and hear people talk about it, but to actually see the images is something entirely different.”
While Johnson was busy capturing photographs in Nebraska, the town of Dearfield, Colorado was thriving. Founders O.T. and Minerva Jackson established the town in 1910. Jackson wrote in a circa 1925 brochure that he hoped the town would be a place where Black people “should be given an opportunity to achieve a degree of independence through agriculture which they could not experience as long as they continued to sell their services to others for a daily wage.”
Local artifacts, images, and interactive elements will be added to the exhibit focusing on the story and town of Dearfield, an African American settlement founded about 30 miles east of Greeley.
“Black and White in Black and White: Images of Dignity, Hope, and Diversity in America” is curated by Douglas Keister, traveled by Exhibit Envoy, and presented with support from California State University, Chico. For more information about this exhibit and others, visit GreeleyMuseums.com.