Civil rights-era Baltimore photos cry out for words
By Jacques Kelly,
Images of nearly 6,000 Baltimoreans are the life’s work of a photographer who documented racial segregation and early civil rights protests, and who also captured candid moments of brides, classmates, football players and black residents of the city.
Paul S. Henderson left what Maryland Historical Society curator Jennifer Ferretti calls an “unparalleled visual record of civil rights in Baltimore.”
But he didn’t leave captions.
The names of his subjects aren’t known, because Henderson didn’t keep written files — or the files didn’t survive. Ferretti says it is time, a half-century later, to put names to the unidentified faces in the photographic negatives taken by Henderson, a black Baltimore commercial and news photographer active from about 1929 to 1960. And she’s seeking the public’s help.
The Henderson collection, donated for preservation by Henderson’s widow decades ago, is the focus of an exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society that is designed to rescue his life’s work from obscurity.
Ferretti suspects that many of the people depicted in the photographs developed from Henderson’s negatives are the parents and grandparents of today’s Baltimore residents. He shot numerous weddings. He also photographed funerals, church socials and college events.
“I am definitively obsessed with Henderson’s work,” said Ferretti, the historical society’s photography curator. “I would love to get the public involved to identify the people in these pictures.”
Henderson’s acetate negatives had been kept organized in little gray archival boxes at the historical society in Baltimore. They have been a fertile historical trove — for those who knew how to find them. Maryland law professor Larry Gibson, who is completing a biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, has referenced them for his research.
“It’s a rich collection,” Gibson said. “There’s a lot there, and I’ve spent time identifying several hundred.”
Although the civil rights movement is usually associated with the 1960s, Ferretti said, it arrived earlier in Baltimore, and Henderson was there with a camera.
Some photographs are of such well-known local figures as Lillie May Carroll Jackson, who helped launch the movement in Baltimore and reorganized the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Other photos show prominent figures of the national civil rights movement — Marshall, Maryland Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin (R), activist and NAACP lobbyist Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., and Afro-American newspaper publisher Carl Murphy.
But there was another side to his work. He recorded everyday life in black Baltimore. He shot the art deco facade of the Charm Center, a women’s dress shop at 1811 Pennsylvania Ave. owned by Little Willie Adams and his wife, Victorine. In segregated Baltimore, black women could buy their wedding gowns at Adams’s shop; they were not allowed to shop or try on garments at the Howard Street department stores in the 1940s.
Henderson also photographed entertainers, including Pearl Bailey in a theater dressing room. Ferretti is uncertain where the photo was taken, another detail that went undocumented.
Paul Samuel Henderson was born in 1899 in Springfield, Tenn., according to Ferretti, and “came from a relatively affluent black family.” He also lived in Nashville; Gary, Ind.; and Richmond. He took photos for the Afro-American newspaper in Richmond.
In 1929, Henderson moved to Baltimore and married Elizabeth Johnson, a grade-school teacher who preserved the collection after his death in 1966. The couple lived on Bloom Street, on McCulloh Street and finally on Druid Hill Avenue.
Henderson worked as a staff photographer and occasional writer for the Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore, operated a photography business and belonged to Baltimore social organizations, Ferretti said.
According to articles in the Afro-American, Henderson helped cover Maryland’s last lynching, in 1933 in Princess Anne, on the Eastern Shore.
Many of his photos depict Pennsylvania Avenue, once the hub of black culture and life in Baltimore. And many of his subjects are stylishly dressed. In scenes along the avenue, men wear Chesterfield-collar coats, and women wear wool dress coats.
“He lived within walking distance of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Ferretti said. “And that proximity is reflected in his work. Along with education, church, sports, the NAACP and politics, that street is one of the major subjects of his photographs.”
Henderson wrote a letter to his editors at the Afro in 1946, stating that he was retiring for health reasons. In April 1966, Bettye Moss, an Afro columnist, noted in her paper that he was recuperating from an illness at the Bolton Hill Nursing Home. He died later that year.
Nine thick binders contain prints of the photos he took. Ferretti said she hopes people will visit the exhibit and leaf through them.
For Ferretti, many of the photos ask questions. In one photo, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson is picketing outside the old Ford’s Theater on Fayette Street to protest racial segregation in Baltimore’s playhouses. Accompanying him is a man unknown to Ferretti. The man also appears in other pictures of civil rights events of that era. His elusive identity piqued the curiosity of the curator.
“One day, I just decided that this project was going to be my new project,” she said.
The Maryland Historical Society acquired the several hundred prints and thousands of negatives after the Baltimore City Life Museums closed in 1997. Ferretti said the photographs depict many of the events recounted in oral histories made at the historical society in the 1970s.
Although Henderson kept a personal archive of letters and other documents, he did not keep written files on his photo subjects. “The collection came to the society unprocessed and with little useful description,” Ferretti said.
In 2010, a Towson University historic-preservation class began reprocessing the negatives. In the past two years, historical society interns, volunteers and staff completed the project.
The Henderson exhibit opened recently at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., Baltimore.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul M. McCardell contributed research for this article.