Giving the Past a Home Pictures: A black history buff doesn't need names to feel connected with the people in the photographs she collects.

February 16, 1997|By Jean Thompson

From a place of honor high above my desk, a sepia-toned portrait of a World War I soldier stares down at me. n n n n nI stare back, sometimes, when I am at a loss for ideas and words to fill my notebooks. I ask for help.

I don't even know his name.

With deep-set eyes, ebony skin and proud bearing, he is my personal unknown soldier.

My friends call him one of my "instant ancestors," elders whose gilt-framed images come from flea markets, antique stores and estate sales.

I must have dozens of these unidentified photographs, enough to call them a collection, though they are more often impulse purchases than careful acquisitions.

I always set out to the shows and fairs looking for pictures and papers documenting the lives and traditions of black families and communities - my "official" collecting category. In a world of gatherers and hoarders who amass hundreds of sad-eyed figurines or perky McDonald's toys, expensive oil paintings or odd wire tools, I am considered eccentric.

I am a black history nut.

The stories and photos that can't be found in history books hold the greatest appeal: a barber in a crisp white coat, standing in front of his shop, date unknown. A dentist's graduation from Meharry, the historically black medical college, Class of 1912. A gathering of churchwomen, 1940s.

These are the "official" pictures, relatively easy to document and set in a place and time in the rambling of history. But the others also follow me home: The unnamed soldier, the woman wearing a graduation gown, a bride wearing button-up shoes.

Often, the mystery pictures depict the premier events in a family or individual's lifeline - those fleeting moments and memories that we try to capture now with throwaway cameras. Each one tells a story. Here's a wedding party. Mother holding infant. First day at school.

Who are you? Where did you live? Who loved you? Why is your countenance grim or cheerful? And how did you get out of family hands?

Acquiring these items has always seemed more like an adoption than a purchase; I feel called to gather them up and give them a home. I try to date them by the style of dress or the scenery. Sometimes, a photo studio label provides a clue to the origin.

Connecting a name to an image is a triumph. It's as heady as the joy of finding a rare picture of a recognizable black historical figure - a Frederick Douglass or a Booker T. Washington.

Even when I cannot document the women and men in the pictures - and my track record in this endeavor is full of failure - the research provides its own reward.

It takes me back - all the way back to high school.

I am a child of the 1970s. I was blessed to have one black teacher during my four high school years in a predominantly white private academy in Los Angeles. He insisted one year that he should teach a course in black history, and that I should enroll. I had no idea how rare an event this was at the time.

Teacher Mark Ridley-Thomas introduced me to a world of elders, whose contributions to American life began in Africa and the Caribbean. My parents encouraged this, and dragged out family pictures to supplement my education and help make the past real in all of its ugliness and beauty.

I didn't appreciate it very much as a cocky high school brat. I was looking ahead, not back. I remember sighing a lot and wondering whether I was taking the class for my mother, who pilfered the assigned texts from my book bag and finished reading them before I did.

There were no more than two or three black students in the class that semester. As finals approached, Ridley-Thomas announced

that he would conduct oral exams, one on one. I crammed, dreading this.

And at the appointed hour, sitting in the school library, we locked eyes and began the battle. He grilled me for what seemed like an eternity, pressing me to remember details and names and dates. The Dred Scott decision. Emancipation. [See Photos, 6f] Ida B. Wells. Thurgood Marshall.

He wanted comparisons of federal decisions affecting the economic fates of black citizens. He wanted me to remember early events in black voting power - and what suffrage movements did for black women as well as black men, coming as they did at different times in history.

Sometimes, my memory of a photograph helped me answer the rapid-fire questions. Sometimes, he asked what the lessons meant to my life at that time.

The test seemed interminable; I'm guessing now that it lasted an hour, maybe a little more.

Afterward, I felt dazed. I remember that he shook my hand.

Afterward, I found out from classmates that their exams were finished in half the time or less - and focused more traditionally on their recall of key issues and events.

My history test was different.

Because I am black.

Unfair? Sure.

Ridley-Thomas wanted to make sure the lesson would stick with me forever. Today, he is a city councilman in Los Angeles and I am a reporter in Baltimore. The business of the present, measured in headlines, is the stuff of our lives.

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