Rare Photos Of Black Seattle Unearthed: Help ID Them | KUOW News and Information

Rare Photos Of Black Seattle Unearthed: Help ID Them

Mar 20, 2015

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.”

Recognize any people, places or other details in these photos? Help us add to the captions. 

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm at the Black & Tan Speakeasy, Sept. 24, 1944. Photo by Al Smith Sr.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
 
A birthday party circa 1944-1946.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
Women, children and two men seated around a living room playing cards. The women wear identical party hats (might this be a birthday?). Identifications: Possibly Glenn Buxton, Cecilia "Babe" Homes, Margie Henderson, Bruce Rowels, Madelaine Brown.
Credit MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 2014.49

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.”

Recognize any people, places or other details in these photos? Help us add to the captions. 

Red Cross volunteer training course, circa 1945-1949.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center/Al Smith

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.

Funeral for Buddy (unidentified), circa 1950.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

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.”

Club dancer at the Black & Tan Speakeasy in Seattle, June 3, 1944.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
Bar scene from the Black & Tan Speakeasy, circa 1944-45.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

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.)

Pilots Club, 99th Squadron, World War II, circa 1944-45.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

Recognize any people, places or other details in these photos? Help us add to the captions. 

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.

Local singer with Lionel Hampton band, circa 1944-45. Photo by Al Smith.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

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.”

Club dancers at the Black & Tan Speakeasy in Seattle, May 6, 1944. Photo by Al Smith.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
Al Smith, the photographer, with Seattle's O'Dea High School Class of 1935. Smith was the first black student at O'Dea. Photo by Al Smith Sr.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
Eighteen women pose for photo in costume, on the lawn of the "Tennis Club," 23rd and East Olive in Seattle (current location of YMCA). Among them: Cora Spencer (Roberta Spencer's mother), Edith Ruth Bown, Mrs. Cecile McIver, Florence Artis. Numbers written on individuals: 2-Cora Spencer (Roberta Spencer's mother), 5-Edith Ruth Bown, 16-Mrs. Cecile McIver, 17-Florence Artis, 1,3,4,6-15,18-No ID.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
Gas station manager, African-American man center, and staff, around the 1940s. Photo by Al Smith.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
Seattle baseball team, circa 1944-1945. Photo by Al Smith. Who are those men in the shadows, and why do the players look slightly skeptical?
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
Leisure Life, first black bowling team to play in the American Bowling Congress, 1954. Photo by Al Smith.
Credit Courtesy of The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
April 1950, a woman and four men in parade car with banner reading "Royal Esquires."
Credit MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 2014.49
The Leon Vaughan Band. Leon Vaughan and the photographer Al Smith were neighbors in Seattle. Date unknown.
Credit MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 2014.49
Seattle Seafair festivities, date unknown.
Credit MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 2014.49

Al Smith, left, on deck of the S.S. President Grant. Smith worked on several ships between Seattle and the Orient after high school. Right, Smith at the MOHAI opening of his exhibition Jazz on the Spot, 1994.
Credit Howard Giske/Museum of History and Industry