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Library's photo collection of African-Americans illustrate everyday life, celebrities

Rare and Manuscript Collections
"Angela Davis" by Bob Heliton, 1969. The Loewentheil Collection provides a pictorial record of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Cornell University Library's extensive new collection of photographs of African-Americans contains images of iconic leaders of the civil rights movement and world-changing events -- but the less momentous moments in black history make up an equally important part of the collection.

Among the nearly 2,000 items recently donated by Beth and Stephan Loewentheil are images of African-Americans going about their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries. In honor of Black History Month, the library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections is displaying a sample of the collection in the gallery space between Olin and Kroch libraries. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

"Certainly, African-Americans were fighting for justice in this country, but at the same time, they were celebrating births and graduations and marriages, mourning deaths, holding family reunions, buying new homes and cars and clothes -- the stuff of everyday life," said Katherine Reagan, curator of rare books and manuscripts. "Those things can be easily overshadowed, but this collection provides a window into the lives of men and women who are so frequently underrepresented in the historical record."

Images in the collection depict the African-American experience from slavery in the agricultural antebellum South to celebrities of modern media-frenzied America.

"I'm thrilled about the collection for the possibilities it offers for research in African and African-American studies, especially as portraits like those in the new collection are hard to find today in both private and public collections," said Cheryl Finley, associate professor of art at Cornell. "Images such as these reveal volumes about the social, material, cultural and political lives of the people pictured as well as those who may have lived similar lives or had similar experiences."

Rare and Manuscript Collections
Shoeshine boy working on Bourbon Street, New Orleans. This undated photograph shows a shoeshine boy working in front of a library.

Among the collection's most memorable images are striking photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. in a jail cell, rare tintypes of freed slaves and personal family photo albums. The photographs encompass diverse formats: daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, carte-de-visite photographs, albumen prints, Polaroids and more.

The collection will soon be open to researchers all over the world and, Reagan added, "It's a trove of material that will help scholars who are looking for a more comprehensive view of a period that saw enormous changes for people of color in the United States."

The photographs of African-Americans are the newest component of the Beth and Stephan, J.D. '75, Loewentheil Family Photographic Collection, a set of 16,000 historic images that make up a candid cross-section of the early American experience.

Many of those photographs are also on display on level 2B of the Carl A. Kroch Library as part of the major exhibition, "Dawn's Early Light: The First 50 Years of American Photography."

Gwen Glazer is the staff writer/editor for Cornell University Library.


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