As an archivist, I have learned that collections will often surprise you. In the case of the Doshia Mae and William M. Blackmon photograph collection, I find it interesting how it is both unusual and entirely typical of collections of historical family photographs I have seen. Many people will likely recognize the types of scenes depicted, such as picnics, weddings, or images of childhood and family gatherings. A significant portion of the collection spans the decade of the 1940s, so anyone with a passing familiarity of history should not be surprised by the photographs of people wearing military uniforms.
The other characteristic of these photographs that I wish was less common, is that most have no writing to identify the subject, time, or place depicted. Where there is writing, it is often done in such a casual style that it does very little to help contextualize the image. “My Grand Mother” may be all that someone from the immediate family needs to understand who they are looking at, but as an archivist far removed from that family, “My Grand Mother” only prompts questions that I frequently can’t answer. So please, if you are the caretaker of your families’ photographs, write notes on the back of your photos that will tell someone who your grandmother was, including when and where she was at the time. Even if you never expect that an archivist will one day be trying to figure out your family history, your grandchildren or great-grandchildren will thank you.
What makes this collection unusual then? The fact that it’s a collection of mid-twentieth century photographs depicting the lives of an ordinary Black family and that it entered my workflow to process and make ready for researchers is actually quite unusual. Historians generally, but archivists in particular, have been aware for many years that the lives of Black people are poorly represented in the historical record. To properly understand why requires an understanding of the history of race in the United States that is beyond the scope of this blog, but simply put, the paucity of records reflects the diminished value that has routinely been placed on the lives and stories of Black people. For a collection such as this to make its way to Penn and to receive the care and attention that it deserves is one small, but important step towards repairing the historical record. While it may have been a surprise at first to have had the opportunity to work on this collection, it is a welcome one.
The finding aid for The Doshia Mae and William M. Blackmon photograph collection can be accessed here:
Please visit https://www.library.upenn.edu/kislak/access for information on accessing the collection.