Even back then -- before disposables largely replaced the soft squares of bleached white cotton diapers -- William Swann knew he was capturing an important image on film. There they were, recorded in black and white: dozens of diapers, hanging on his laundry line for the first time ever; a visual symbol of his growing family.
"They were just flapping in the breeze," recalled Swann, paging through one of dozens of scrapbooks dedicated to his two children.
Still a tireless documentarian, Swann, 84, was honored last week by the Annapolis City Council as its latest "Glittering Gem" for his contributions to Annapolis history.
"He is a committed man," said Annapolis historian Philip Brown, whose book "The Other Annapolis" relied heavily upon Swann's photographs to tell the story of the town's African American population. "He's done quite a bit for his community in a number of ways."
Through his soft, bespectacled eyes, Swann has watched his beloved Camp Parole turn from a neighborly community of whitewashed picket fences and towering oak trees to a blur of fast-food chains and car dealerships. And his photos have captured each step along the way, both the momentous and minute; from the pensive aunt leaning on her doorframe to the groundbreaking of the community's hard-won Parole Health Center.
In the Glittering Gem proclamation, Mayor Ellen Moyer thanked Swann for embodying the "American ideal of lifelong service."
Captured in hundreds of heavy, carefully captioned scrapbooks are the stories of transformation: a young man who returned from World War II to a town that had changed; oak trees felled in the name of eminent domain; a church holding fast to its traditions. There is Swann's letter from the draft board, dated Dec. 24, 1942. There he is in uniform, a staff sergeant with the 755th chemical depot aviation company in the Army Air Corps in Europe. There is his father's "victory" garden, with its "V" of carrots and greens and beets.
Swann's main focus is on the stories that document everyday life. Many were taken at Parole Elementary School and the former Bates Junior High School off Clay Street, where he presided over the schools' PTAs. Others document the 23 years he spent volunteering as a Boy Scout leader, and the athletic teams that he and a group of men from Mount Olive A.M.E. Church started for children in their community. He strings those stories together like a line of clean laundry freshly billowing in the wind.
"His pictures show a vision of unity of family, church and community that is just extremely important to him," said Swann's daughter, Rosemarie Thompson, now the principal at Jessup Elementary School.
"They are really showing relationships changing."
Swann's crisp pictures of schoolchildren and church functions, groundbreakings and Boy Scout troops document the changing culture and landscape of his times.
Named for his grandfather, the Rev. Jeremiah William Swann, a freed slave who went on to become a minister and start a private school in Lothian, Swann was born in Baltimore and moved to Camp Parole with his parents and brother in 1929.
He met his wife, Pearl, at the Mount Olive A.M.E. Church. Married 61 years now, they live in a home they built behind his parents' old home, tucked between the church and West Street.
The church, with its proximity to his family, has been -- as Mayor Moyer put it -- "the anchor" of Swann's life.
"We had the church next door one way and grandparents the other," said son Dana Swann, now a minister at Wayman Good Hope A.M.E. Church in Severna Park. "The community was raising the children. Believe me, there were eyes everywhere."
And while many were watching Parole's children, Swann was recording them. His pictures are featured on almost every one of the Parole Heritage Trail markers, including the ones on the Parole Health Center and Parole Elementary School.
"He has brought back memories for a generation," said Alderwoman Classie Hoyle, who initiated the Heritage Trail project. "He's been very protective of and very generous with that history."
At a recent City Council meeting, Swann seemed moved by a council ceremony in which the mayor surprised him with his long-lost Army-issued Bible inscribed with his name and the name of Camp Parole. A woman in England had found it and sent it to Annapolis to be reunited with its owner.
Memories flooded back of when he was young, when his body and soul were called to service.
The world has changed since then. Oak trees and cloth diapers are less in evidence, but William Swann's legacy keeps growing stronger, with an age-worn Bible as its cornerstone.
Swann said he saw changes coming, and "I just wanted to save something for those who come behind us."