Last Updated on 03/05/2020 by Mark Beckenbach
The Library of Congress sometimes does interesting sleuthing to answer questions about photos in their archives.
Sometimes, when we see an old photo, we can’t help but wonder about the story or circumstance behind it. Who’s in the photo? Where and when was it taken? Can we still find this exact spot today? Questions like this spark curiosity even for the Library of Congress, as Kristi Finefield recently shared in the Library’s Picture This blog.
“Every research journey starts with a question,” Finefield wrote on the latest post for Double Take, the Library’s occasional blog series where they “dig a little deeper into an image in their collections.” In this case, they wanted to find out the street address where the photo above of a young African American boy was taken. To answer this question, she needed to go back to 1941 Chicago and do a bit of sleuthing, looking for clues in the photo and any information that went along with it.
After examining every detail in the photo, the first clue that came to Finefield was the physical street address painted on the front door’s glass: 5420-18. There was also the metal 54 on the stonework next to the door. Next, she noted the caption provided by Edwin Rosskam, the photographer who took the photo for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) Collection. “Child in front of apartment building in the better section of the Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois.”
So, the city was already identified as Chicago, Illinois. Next came a detail that required a little bit more research: “the better section of the Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois.” Fortunately, Finefield had already heard about the Black Belt, an area in the city where many African Americans from the South flocked to during the Great Migration to look for better job opportunities and escape restrictions. She also found out that the area came to be known by other names such as Bronzeville.
There was one more thing left for her to check. Knowing that the photo was from a 35mm negative as noted in the catalog record, she followed the trail it provided and ended up with a link to the other frames in the same negative strip. This allowed her to follow the trail of the photographer, which led her to a photo that captured her interest. It was just two frames away, suggesting that it might have been shot on the same day or near the apartment building.
It was a photo of a nightclub, beauty shop, and public baths. Embedded in it were two important clues that would allow Finefield to solve the mystery: the street number 5450 and the “It Club” in the window. After searching the database for Chicago newspapers for the name of the club, she found a 1937 ad for an African American singer, indicating that “It Club” was situated at Michigan and Garfield Boulevard. The exact address of the corner of S. Michigan Avenue is indicated on the street number on the awning in the photo. All the pieces of the puzzle were coming together!
Based on all these clues, Finefield was able to deduce that the boy in the first photo was reading in front of 5450 S. Michigan Avenue. While a quick look at the modern street view of the area revealed to her that the buildings in the two photos are both gone, other buildings on the block are architecturally similar to the ones in the photos and others in the same negative.
If you found this story fascinating, don’t forget to check out the rest of the posts under the Double Take series on the Library of Congress Picture This blog!