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Rescued photos reveal the lost history of black Twin Cities life

A photo from the new book Double Exposure shows patrons at Cassius' including Harold Robinson (second from left), Melvin Stone, and Louis Robinson.

A photo from the new book Double Exposure shows patrons at Cassius' including Harold Robinson (second from left), Melvin Stone, and Louis Robinson. Minnesota Historical Society

Anthony Scott stared down at the photograph in his hands, hardly believing what he was seeing.

For years, a bag of negatives -- something like a thousand of them -- had been migrating through Scott’s south Minneapolis home, from the garage, to the porch, to the basement. They’d been found in the garage of his wife’s uncle, John Glanton, who had passed away about a decade ago. So far, Scott hadn’t done much with them, but he hadn’t been able to throw them away, either.

Finally, he’d consulted a photographer friend of his, hoping they could be cleaned up a little. The first clear image he saw was of Bethesda Baptist Church -- where his family had worshipped since his parents settled in the area in 1949. His mother had played piano there pretty much “her whole life,” he says. He recognized the woman in the photo as his grandmother’s best friend.

“She was very young,” he says. “But I could tell it was her.”

Scott had known Glanton for a long time -- the Glantons and the Scotts lived in the same neighborhood -- but never really thought of him as a photographer. After Glanton and Scott’s father returned from serving in World War II, Glanton worked as an engineer for the Minnesota Highway Department. But Scott still remembers Glanton’s big, grandiose camera with its bellows, and his darkroom. He’d helped pay for his education by taking photos for a local paper.

Looking at his photos now, Scott sees the true photographer Glanton had been: capturing candid moments at their most innocuous, making the viewer feel like she’s standing next to the woman stooping to pick something up, or making her way home the bustle of 1940s Minneapolis.

Scott realized he was sitting on a rich, untapped vein of history. This was the world of his parents and grandparents, and of a generation of black Twin Cities residents who so seldom appear in history books. There were photos of houses that have long since disappeared, neighborhoods later carved up by businesses and highways.

People had to know about this.

The photographer, John F. Glanton, appears here cerca 1948.

The photographer, John F. Glanton, appears here cerca 1948. Minnesota Historical Society

Scott joined forces with the Hennepin County Library and his own nonprofit -- Minnesota’s Black Community Project -- and started holding public events for people to come and view the pictures. One by one, he saw attendees have the same enlightened moments he’d experience. One man looked at a picture of basketball players in a huddle, pointed one of them out. "That's my dad," he said.

He watched siblings who'd been split up at birth look at the face of their mother. They'd never seen her that young.

Visitors saw a photo of the original Prince Rogers trio. As in, the father Prince was named after.

That's the Prince Rogers Trio with John Lewis Nelson (aka Prince's dad) on piano and Lawrence Griffin on saxophone. This never-before-seen photo was nestled in Glanton's collection.

That's the Prince Rogers Trio with John Lewis Nelson (aka Prince's dad) on piano and Lawrence Griffin on saxophone. This never-before-seen photo was nestled in Glanton's collection. Minnesota Historical Society

They saw bowling leagues and sharp suits and little girls with dolls. They saw smiles and worried faces and impassive glances. Back then, black people made up only about 2 or 3 percent of the Twin Cities population. The pictures are an unprecedented window into most of it, like finding a puzzle piece that went missing for decades.

With the help of the Hennepin County Library system and the Minnesota Historical Society, the pile of photographs has been turned into a book: Double Exposure: Images of Black Minnesota in the 1940s; a release party is scheduled for Saturday at the Minneapolis Central Library.

Perhaps, for some, seeing these faces will compare to those visual encounters Scott and others have had, looking into the past and seeing, for the first time, themselves.