Arts & Life
An unidentified hostess from a house party in Seattle's Central District, around 1950. Photographer Al Smith took tens of thousands of photos, many in Seattle's Central District, the heart of the city's African-American community. (To help us ID individuals, note the photo number. This is #1.)
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An unidentified hostess from a house party in Seattle's Central District, around 1950. Photographer Al Smith took tens of thousands of photos, many in Seattle's Central District, the heart of the city's African-American community. (To help us ID individuals, note the photo number. This is #1.)

Old photos of black Seattle delivered in boxes: Help us ID them

After Al Smith, a street photographer in Seattle, died in 2008, his children donated 40 boxes of his photographs to MOHAI — the Museum of History and Industry.

Many of these photos are of unidentified people. If you know them, please let us know so we may update these captions.

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.

An unidentified group circa 1944. (To help us ID individuals, note the photo number. This is #2.)
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An unidentified group circa 1944. (To help us ID individuals, note the photo number. This is #2.)


Sonny Norris was Seattle's first black lifeguard, pictured here at Madrona Beach in 1955. Madrona Beach was considered Seattle's black beach for swimming and picnics, per MOHAI's book on Al Smith, 'Seattle on the Spot.'
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Sonny Norris was Seattle's first black lifeguard, pictured here at Madrona Beach in 1955. Madrona Beach was considered Seattle's black beach for swimming and picnics, per MOHAI's book on Al Smith, 'Seattle on the Spot.'


“His first career move was to jump on ships,” says Howard Giske, former photography curator at MOHAI, in a 2015 interview. “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.

Left, an unidentified couple around 1944. Right, unidentified couple at Basin Street, around 1944. (To help us ID individuals, note the photo number. These are photos #3 and #4.)
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Left, an unidentified couple around 1944. Right, unidentified couple at Basin Street, around 1944. (To help us ID individuals, note the photo number. These are photos #3 and #4.)


“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.”

Mildred Mar and her family at Saltwater State Park on Puget Sound near Des Moines, around 1960. According to the MOHAI photo book, 'Seattle on the Spot,' Mildred and her family were close with the photographer's family and enjoyed vacations together.
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Mildred Mar and her family at Saltwater State Park on Puget Sound near Des Moines, around 1960. According to the MOHAI photo book, 'Seattle on the Spot,' Mildred and her family were close with the photographer's family and enjoyed vacations together.


Faye Alice and John Henry 'Dick' Turpin at their home around 1944. Dick Turpin was a World War I veteran, the Navy's first black chief petty officer. He worked at the Bremerton shipyard where Al Smith, who photographed them here, also worked.
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Faye Alice and John Henry 'Dick' Turpin at their home around 1944. Dick Turpin was a World War I veteran, the Navy's first black chief petty officer. He worked at the Bremerton shipyard where Al Smith, who photographed them here, also worked.


Bertha M Johnson, owner of Bertha's Barber Shop on 23rd Avenue, center, with two male barbers. Many of the cosmetologists in Seattle's Central District were trained at Marie Edwards School of Beauty on Jackson Street, which was the only African American-owned beauty school in the Pacific Northwest. (To help us ID the two male barbers, note the photo number. This is #5.)
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Bertha M Johnson, owner of Bertha's Barber Shop on 23rd Avenue, center, with two male barbers. Many of the cosmetologists in Seattle's Central District were trained at Marie Edwards School of Beauty on Jackson Street, which was the only African American-owned beauty school in the Pacific Northwest. (To help us ID the two male barbers, note the photo number. This is #5.)


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.

Robert L. Hills and his brother Zeb owned the Hill Brothers BBQ in the Central District, featuring, according to 'Seattle on the Spot,' sweet potato pie, spicy sauce on smoked ribs and white bread and butter through the 1990s.
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Robert L. Hills and his brother Zeb owned the Hill Brothers BBQ in the Central District, featuring, according to 'Seattle on the Spot,' sweet potato pie, spicy sauce on smoked ribs and white bread and butter through the 1990s.


Isabelle Smith, nicknamed Izzy, was born to black coal miners in Roslyn, Washington. She and the photographer Al Smith married after he returned from a stint abroad, in 1941. Al Smith took this photo of Izzy in 1958.
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Isabelle Smith, nicknamed Izzy, was born to black coal miners in Roslyn, Washington. She and the photographer Al Smith married after he returned from a stint abroad, in 1941. Al Smith took this photo of Izzy in 1958.

Do you know any of the people in these photographs by Al Smith? Tell us in this form.

Unidentified woman at the Black and Tan, around 1944. (To help us ID this woman, note the photo number. This is #6.)
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Unidentified woman at the Black and Tan, around 1944. (To help us ID this woman, note the photo number. This is #6.)


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.”

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm at Seattle's Black and Tan in 1944.
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The International Sweethearts of Rhythm at Seattle's Black and Tan in 1944.


From 'Seattle on the Spot,' a book of photographs by Al Smith: This is the 'International Fighting Irish youth football team leaving Seattle to play a championship game in Las Vegas in 1954. (To help us ID these children, note the photo number. This is #7.)
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From 'Seattle on the Spot,' a book of photographs by Al Smith: This is the 'International Fighting Irish youth football team leaving Seattle to play a championship game in Las Vegas in 1954. (To help us ID these children, note the photo number. This is #7.)


An unidentified couple around 1950. (To help us ID this couple, note the photo number. This is #8.)
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An unidentified couple around 1950. (To help us ID this couple, note the photo number. This is #8.)

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.

A 1 year old girl celebrates her first birthday, circa 1950. (To help us ID these babies, note the photo number. This is #9.)
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A 1 year old girl celebrates her first birthday, circa 1950. (To help us ID these babies, note the photo number. This is #9.)

Do you know the people in these photographs by Al Smith? Tell us in this form

The Rizal Social Club. MOHAI dates this photo around 1944. We wonder what the woman on the left and the woman on the right are thinking. (To help us ID these patrons, note the photo number. This is #10.)
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The Rizal Social Club. MOHAI dates this photo around 1944. We wonder what the woman on the left and the woman on the right are thinking. (To help us ID these patrons, note the photo number. This is #10.)


Women bound for the National Association of Colored Women convention in 1948.
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Women bound for the National Association of Colored Women convention in 1948.


Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra at the Senator Ballroom in 1949.
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Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra at the Senator Ballroom in 1949.

Do you know any of the people in these photographs by Al Smith? Tell us in this form

Music teachers Shirley and Louis Wilcox with students at their music school. (To help us ID the children, note the photo number. This is #11.)
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Music teachers Shirley and Louis Wilcox with students at their music school. (To help us ID the children, note the photo number. This is #11.)


Katherine Dunham at the Civic Auditorium in 1948. Dunham was a published author with a PhD in anthropology ... not to mention being a leader of a successful African American dance troupe.
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Katherine Dunham at the Civic Auditorium in 1948. Dunham was a published author with a PhD in anthropology ... not to mention being a leader of a successful African American dance troupe.


Left, Ernestine Anderson, like still a student at Garfield High School in Seattle's Central District, performing at the Black and Tan. Right, Duke Ellington at the Civic Auditorium in 1949. (To help us ID individuals on the right, note the photo number. This is #12.)
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Left, Ernestine Anderson, like still a student at Garfield High School in Seattle's Central District, performing at the Black and Tan. Right, Duke Ellington at the Civic Auditorium in 1949. (To help us ID individuals on the right, note the photo number. This is #12.)


A gambling table at the Black and Tan, around 1944. (To help us ID these women, note the photo number. This is #13.)
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A gambling table at the Black and Tan, around 1944. (To help us ID these women, note the photo number. This is #13.)


The Rocking Chair, 1946, an after-hours club, known for being where Ray Charles launched his reputation. (To help us ID these bartenders and patrons, note the photo number. This is #13.)
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The Rocking Chair, 1946, an after-hours club, known for being where Ray Charles launched his reputation. (To help us ID these bartenders and patrons, note the photo number. This is #13.)



Pallbearers at a funeral for Al Herre, a member of the Royal Esquires, around 1939. (To help us ID the the pallbearers, note the photo number. This is #14.)
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Pallbearers at a funeral for Al Herre, a member of the Royal Esquires, around 1939. (To help us ID the the pallbearers, note the photo number. This is #14.)