Seattle is a young city, young enough that most of its history can be traced through photographs.
Until recently though, most of those photos have been official portraits or documentation of public works projects like the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
But a collection recently donated to Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry illuminates another facet of the city’s past.
It includes tens of thousands of images from Seattle’s 20th-century African-American community, from portraits of the humming nightclub scene to family snapshots and photos of informal gatherings.
All of these photographs were taken by the late Al Smith Sr. and are archived by the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.
When Al Smith came of age in Seattle’s Central Area, the neighborhood was the heart of the Depression. Smith’s family didn’t have a lot of money -- nobody did.
“His first career move was to jump on ships,” says Howard Giske, photography curator at MOHAI. “As he told it to me, this is what got him inspired about photography.”
Giske says Smith traveled the world and wanted to have a record of what he saw. By the time the young man returned to Seattle, he had a professional camera and carried it everywhere.
“He said I could get into any situation with that, I could cross police lines, I could get past the club security.”
But Al Smith wasn’t a professional photographer the way we think of that term these days.
“It was a side job for sure,” Giske says. “During the war years he worked at the shipyard in Bremerton, later at the Post Office. The photography was something he had to at least make it pay for itself, I think.”
Smith shot photos of patrons at Seattle’s music clubs. He printed them up at home, then returned to the clubs the following week to sell the photos to the people he had photographed. He also made pictures of some of the African-American celebrities who came through Seattle: musicians, actors, even the champion boxer Joe Louis.
But Smith was equally likely to photograph friends at a backyard barbecue or the members of an African-American business association.
Giske met Smith in the 1980s when MOHAI needed volunteers for an archival project. He says Smith became a fixture at the museum. It was only after Smith had been volunteering for a while that Giske found out Smith was also a photographer. And that he’d taken thousands of photos that he had stored in his basement.
“He was organized, kind of. He knew where things were,” Giske says, laughing. “But things weren’t thoroughly recorded or identified.”
So MOHAI, in conjunction with Seattle’s Black Heritage Society, put together a group of older African-Americans to help sort through some of the pictures and identify the people or organizations that Smith had documented. Giske estimates they managed to sift through about 800 images.
After Smith’s death in 2008, his children donated more than 40 boxes of his photos to MOHAI, most of them still not cataloged. The museum currently has tens of thousands of Smith's photos. (The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center found 85 photos by Smith.)
MOHAI put together a small exhibition several years ago, made up of some of Smith’s nightclub photos. But the bulk of Smith’s collection is stored in cardboard boxes in a climate-controlled room in MOHAI’s Georgetown office building, south of downtown Seattle.
Howard Giske hopes to find money to finish identifying the subjects Smith photographed and to create a detailed archives.
Until then, he’s simply thrilled to have the photographs. For one thing, they document Seattle’s black community. But more than that, Giske says the pictures look at the city through one man’s personal perspective.
“We don’t have much like that in our collection. This is intensely personal. It’s friendly, just like Al was.”