With a legacy of covering all things news related in the local African American community, the Baltimore-based Afro-American Newspapers has become a mainstay of the black press over its storied history. Now, the newspaper company is celebrating its 120th year by spotlighting the pictures of children who have graced its pages. The company has pulled about 120 photos from its archives for the exhibit “Growing Up AFRO: Snapshots of Black Childhood from the Afro American Newspapers,” that opens Saturday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore.
The photos on display span a 50 year period between the 1920s and the 1970s and show the daily lives of the paper’s youngest audience as they work, play, and, of course, deliver newspapers. “It’s one of the magic things about kids. They’re not only cute and not only innocent, but they do, in many respects, give you the best sense of what’s going on just simply by what they’re doing or how they dress, or where they happen to be captured,” Chairman and Publisher John J. Oliver Jr. says. “They reflect, probably better than anything else, the environment within which they’re being raised.”
The exhibit was the brainchild of Afro archivist John Gartrell. “Whenever I
would go to different events, people always love coming up and saying ‘Oh, well, I used to sell the newspaper when I was a kid,’ or ‘I used to go to the headquarters when I was a kid.’ It indicated to me that people remember the Afro so fondly,” Gartrell says. “It’s obvious that we’ve made an impact on numerous generations of African Americans in the Baltimore/D.C. area, and really across the globe.”
Director of collections and exhibitions Michelle Joan Wilkinson said the exhibit is key to ensuring the everyday stories of African American children are not lost to the ages. “Without Afro photographers going out to the schools, to the churches, to the Easter parades, if they didn’t do that, they wouldn’t have the archive. And without the archive, without documentation that something happened, often it’s like it didn’t happen,” she says.
“We’re putting on view these visual treasures, that there may not be many other archives that have this type of material around: African American children in the 1930s and 40s in Maryland,” she adds.
Even though the exhibit focuses on youth, Gartrell said the message is “for everybody.”
“There will be people invariably that come into the museum that will see themselves as children in these images,” Wilkinson says. “ Those are the folks who are really the conduits to tell their own children and grandchildren the stories beyond the picture.”
More importantly, Oliver says, the exhibit makes clear that the exhibit tells the story of how African Americans have moved forward into the 21st century. “What we’ve done through the archives, we’ve been able to capture the sequences of our community's plight. It’s just to survive, but also to seek equality.”
“This is just a section on kids. Can you image all the other stuff we have?”
“Growing Up Afro: Snapshots of Black Childhood” will remain on view through Dec. 30. For more information, visit africanamericanculture.org.