Emory acquires vast African American photo collection

By Maureen McGavin and Elaine Justice | June 1, 2012

Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, 1895.

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, 1895.

Harlequin actor by W. Wright Photography, London, 1895.

Harlequin actor by W. Wright Photography, London, 1895. 

Evangelist, unidentified, date unknown.
Evangelist, unidentified, date unknown.
Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds, New York, 1920
Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds, New York, 1920.
Sheet music cover with Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds, New York, 1920
Sheet music cover with Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds, New York, 1920.
Musician Leadbelly with prison officials, Texas, 1915.
Musician Leadbelly with prison officials, Texas, 1915.
PausePlayPlay
These images are part of a collection of more than 10,000 photographs of African American life acquired by Emory University from photo collector Robert Langmuir of Philadelphia.

A rare collection of more than 10,000 photographs depicting African American life from the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been acquired by Emory University's Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL) from photo collector Robert Langmuir of Philadelphia.

The images range from the 1840s – the beginning of photography – to the 1970s, with most of the photos falling in the post-Civil War to pre-World War II era. They include nearly every format, from daguerreotypes to snapshots, and cover a wide range of subject matter. A number of the photos were taken by African American photographers, a topic in itself.

"This collection sparkles with intelligent insights into the lives and cultures of the African American experience over many decades," says Emory University Provost Earl Lewis, also a professor of history and African American studies. "Its breadth is incredible, its depth is considerable, and its sheer beauty is breathtaking."

"Scholars from many disciplines will find this collection to be a treasure trove for peering behind the veil and seeing the inner worlds of life in America," says Lewis. "I am proud that we can add this collection to our library."

Randall K. Burkett, curator of MARBL's African American Collections says the collection "complements virtually every other collection we have, whether it's in music, art, literature, dance, business, civil rights – any aspect of late 19th and 20th century American culture. This is going to be a signature collection for us, and I know it will attract other collections."


Civil Rights, Religious Leaders Included

The photos are of both ordinary people and well-known names of the times, such as newspaper editor and early civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter, black nationalist Marcus Garvey, sculptor Selma Burke, blues musicians Howlin' Wolf and Lightnin' Hopkins, Pearl Harbor hero Dorie Miller, and religious leaders Noble Drew Ali, Father Divine and Bishop Elmira Jeffries, among many others.

Kevin Young, MARBL curator of literary collections and of its Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, traveled with Burkett to Philadelphia to help pack the collection and calls it one of the most remarkable he's ever seen.

"The archive reveals the richness of African American daily life," says Young, "from pictures taken by house photographers at nightclubs, to cabinet cards and calling cards of black disc jockeys, to photographs of preachers, blues singers, saints and sinners. No doubt this collection will change the field of African American and American studies."

Young included several photos from Langmuir's collection in his recently published book "The Grey Album."


Collector Robert Langmuir

Growing up in Philadelphia in an African American neighborhood, Langmuir has been interested in black history for most of his life. A rare-book seller for 35 years, he's collected photos and family albums through antique book shows or ephemera fairs, auctions and networking.

Of the more than 10,000 photos in the collection, Langmuir says: "Not every photo is a stellar, poignant image. A lot of them are family archives, or from family albums, people doing things, just living their everyday lives. That's what I was interested in–looking at black culture through black people's eyes."