Arts Beat

From a Basement Cache, History in Fine Photos

The photographs by Charles H. Bruce that Linda Crichlow White discovered in a  cousin's basement portray life in the 1900s in the black middle class. Above, members of the Freemasons in formal attire.
The photographs by Charles H. Bruce that Linda Crichlow White discovered in a cousin's basement portray life in the 1900s in the black middle class. Above, members of the Freemasons in formal attire. (Courtesy Of Linda Crichlow White / Zawadi)

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By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

Linda Crichlow White is sitting on a bench in the back of Zawadi, an African art shop on U Street NW, with 250 old, professional-quality photographs spread out on her lap and at her feet. She is in full-on librarian mode.

She flips through a crumbling photo album and stops at a picture of her great-great-uncle. She mutters something about how she needs to figure out what his second wife's name was so that she can add it to the family tree.

"This could keep me busy for the next 10 years," she says.

White, a librarian at Parkland Middle School in Rockville, found the collection of photos in the Columbia Heights basement of a 91-year-old cousin, Constance Glover Bruce. Since that day last October, she has been trying to figure out who took them and who is pictured. Only a handful came with labels.

Judging from the cars, clothing and buildings, she determined that the photos were taken in Boston in the early 1900s. When she showed them to Aaron Schmidt, who oversees the photo collection of the Boston Public Library, he said he couldn't remember another time that a private citizen had brought such a broad collection to the library's attention.

"What Linda found is really gold," Schmidt says. "It's very rare that stuff of that quality survived."

About 50 photos from White's collection go on display Saturday at Zawadi. They will be on sale for about $60 apiece. She hasn't gotten them professionally appraised and says she doesn't know what they're actually worth. She isn't upset about parting with the collection, she says.

"Not as long as I have copies," she says. "Most of these people are not my family members. They're in-laws."

Schmidt says he would love to see the photos in his library's collection and he would lobby his higher-ups to buy them from White.

Most of the photos, which are 6-by-8-inch gelatin silver prints, show groups of well-dressed African Americans -- on boating trips, in parades, at home. In one, a little girl "feeds" her teddy bear at a white-tablecloth tea party; in another, nine members of the Freemasons pose in suits and top hats and gloves.

She believes her great-great-uncle Charles H. Bruce is the photographer, based on a few stamps that seem to be his photography business's label. She compares his work to that of James Van Der Zee, the African American photographer who captured much of the Harlem Renaissance.

"If Charles Bruce is an undocumented photographer, he should be documented," White says. "His contribution to society should be recognized."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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