1905: Pictured, from left: Della F. Stevens (1876-1950), Charles T. Stevens (circa 1878-unknown), Eliza Bradshaw Stevens (circa 1857-1938), Eva E. Stevens (circa 1885-unknown), William A. Stevens (circa 1880-unknown), Florence E. Stevens (1894-1985) and Elsie J. Stevens (circa 1887-unknown). Henry Stevens Sr. (circa 1797-1908), born into slavery, hid his four children in Missouri caves during the Civil War. After Emancipation, Stevens became an independent farmer in Linn Creek, Mo., where the children and grandchildren in this photo thrived. (Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture)
The history of African Americans is one of dualities. It encompasses contempt and emulation, animosity and empathy, exclusion and embodiment, degradation and triumph.
During an interview in 1961, the prolific writer James Baldwin probably addressed the toll of this dilemma best when he said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Yet, and largely despite an abundance of adversity, those who live the black experience continue to lace a fundamental thread throughout our social order.
Photography has played an essential role in documenting the African American experience, and it was done through the accomplished eyes of many men and women. Photographers such as Gordon Parks, who chronicled the effects of segregation in Harlem and the American South, and Charles Moore, who showed us the violent response to civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala., all did their part to awaken the nation to the evils of racism. A photograph is a record of permanence — and also truth. And the curators of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture continually add to their expansive compilation of prints, digital files and archival images — all cataloging the richness of this proud culture. It’s a vast collection and a jewel in the making, with a range that reaches back nearly to the creation of photography itself. Through this growing body of work, we see the strife and struggle, but we also see the ascendance of a people who continue to leave an undeniable mark on the eminence of this nation.
UNKNOWN LOCATION, circa 1914-18: Bosey E. Vick, a first sergeant and cavalryman in the Army, was stationed in Hawaii during World War I and later moved with his wife, Estella, to Oakland, Calif., in 1922. (Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture) UNKNOWN LOCATION, circa 1865: Unidentified boy and woman, gelatin silver print. (Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture) POSTCARD, circa 1910: This image of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and James J. Jeffries promoted a fight that was scheduled for 45 rounds. Jeffries came out of retirement to take on Johnson, who retained his title in the bout in Reno, Nev., leading to riots and celebrations across the country. (Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture) UNKNOWN LOCATION, circa 1900: Unidentified woman. (Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture) PHOTOGRAPHIC PRINT, 1915: Clockwise from left: Harper Franklin, Beatrice Dedman, Beatrice Coleman. (Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture) UNKNOWN LOCATION, circa 1895: The caricature of African Americans with a propensity for devouring watermelon was created by the defenders of slavery in an effort to paint blacks as lazy. Effects of this offensive stereotype remain evident today. (Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture) Circa 1940s: “Miss America.” (Joe Schwartz) MEMPHIS, MARCH 28, 1968: Sanitation workers assemble beside Claiborne Temple for a solidarity march led by a group of ministers known as the Community on the Move for Equality (C.O.M.E.). The workers were on strike to protest low wages and poor safety standards. (Ernest C. Withers, courtesy of the Withers Family Trust) CAMBRIDGE, MD., 1963: Civil rights leader Gloria H. Richardson pushes away the bayoneted rifle of a National Guardsman enforcing martial law. (Fred Ward/Award Agency) JACKSON, MISS., 1963: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is stopped by police at the funeral of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. (Ernest C. Withers, courtesy of the Withers Family Trust) MISSISSIPPI, circa 1960: Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. (Louis H. Draper) HARLEM, N.Y.: Street scene. (Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos) CHICAGO, circa 1946-48: This photo of a gospel service is part of a series on Southside Chicago residents. (Wayne F. Miller/Magnum Photos) CHICAGO, 1946-1948: The piano lesson. (Wayne F. Miller/Magnum Photos) WASHINGTON, D.C., 1963: Trombones play at the United House of Prayer for All People of the Church of the Apostolic Faith. The denomination was founded by Bishop Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace. (Jan Yoors/The Yoors Family Partnership, Courtesy L. Parker Stephenson Photographs, NYC) PINEVILLE, S.C., 1951: Nurse-midwife Maude Callen chats with sisters Mary Jane, in hat, and Carrie Covington, ages 8 and 9, after giving them new dresses. (W. Eugene Smith/LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images) CHICAGO, 1947: Singer and actress Lena Horne backstage at the nightclub Chez Paree. (Wayne F. Miller/Magnum Photos) ISTANBUL, 1964: Portrait of American writer James Baldwin. (Sedat Pakay) MONTGOMERY, ALA., MARCH 25, 1965: Civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin, left, and A. Philip Randolph stand under an umbrella on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, as they listen to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “How Long, Not Long” speech at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery. (Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images) MARCH ON WASHINGTON, AUG. 28, 1963: Demonstrators sing “We Shall Overcome” after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. (Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos) ALGIERS, 1970: Kathleen Cleaver, the first communications secretary for the Black Panther Party, and her husband, Eldridge Cleaver, the American writer and a leader of the Black Panther Party, shown while in exile. (Gordon Parks) CHICAGO, MAY 26, 1996: In an interview with photographer Mariana Cook, Michelle Obama said of her husband, “There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear.” (Mariana Cook)
More from The Washington Post Magazine’s commemorative Museum issue
The artifacts and stories that brought the African American museum to life
An interview with Oprah Winfrey: ‘I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.’
John Lewis spent 15 years fighting for the museum — now the dream is realized
Poet Elizabeth Alexander celebrates the power of a people’s voice
Ken Burns: Why the African American history museum belongs to all of us
A humble skirt worn by an enslaved child finds a place in history
The story behind the design of the African American history museum
For a while she was a name and a status — enslaved. Now we know more
Black Lives Matter and the SNCC Legacy Project discuss the paths forward