Judged by its covers or lack of them its easy to see why someone tossed the book out of a car 30 years ago.
Yet local historians say the so-called mystery photo album at the Levine Museum of the New South is an unusually important artifact.
Inside are photos and tintypes of 34 men and women (and a couple of teens) who appear to be part of the upper-class black society that emerged here after the Civil War and before the rise of Jim Crow segregation laws.
Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum dates the book to around 1900, a period when Charlotte saw its first blossoming of an African-American mainstream culture that included black churches, schools, stores, a newspaper and theaters.
Historians have many questions about that era in Charlotte, which is why the photos are considered both valuable and frustrating.
There are no names, Hanchett says. We dont know who these people are. We dont know anything about them.
Hes hoping Charlotteans can help solve the mystery.
Wed like to know if anybody recognizes any of these people, says Hanchett, who believes their descendants might still be in the city.
If you find the names, you can track them through the city directory and the census, and you can learn what brought these people to be sitting in all their finery in front of a photographer.
A familiar face?
One of Charlottes modern-day, African-American media pioneers gave the photo album to the Levine Museum back in 2000.
Radio and TV personality Bea Thompson says she knows nothing of the photo albums origins. It came to her through a co-worker, who told her he spotted it one day in 1983 while traveling to Lincolnton on N.C. 27 (Freedom Drive).
He brought it to me and said he wasnt sure where it should go, but it looked important, recalls Thompson.
It documents what the black middle class looked like at that time. When I was growing up, we could look in any book and see how other (races) lived, but not what people of color were doing, says Thompson, who in 1980 became the first female African-American TV anchor in Charlotte.
We (blacks) always had a paragraph or two in the history books and it was about slavery.
Thompson, news director at WBAV-FM and WPEG-FM, wonders how the book came to be left on the side of a highway in the dirt.
Did it fall off a moving truck by accident, rather than being thrown out on purpose? she asks.
Thats a question that might never be answered.
So far, only one photo in the book has been confidently identified A.T. Simpson, esquire and thats only because its written on the photo.
His life story has yet to be uncovered, however.
Evidence suggests most of the 34 people are locals, starting with the fact that some photos are credited to Henry Baumgarten, a 19th century Charlotte photographer and leader in the local Jewish community.
The Main Librarys Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room has a large number of Baumgarten images, including many featuring unidentified African-Americans, said librarian Shelia Bumgarner, who has studied his career. He died in 1918.
Another clue: Pressed in the pages of the book was the Temperance Pledge Card of J.T. Williams, an African-American teacher in Charlotte who was elected to city council and appointed by then-President William McKinley to be United States consul to the African nation of Sierra Leone.
The card, now on display at the museum, was Williams pledge to avoid liquor during Prohibition.
Charlotte had a middle school named in his honor until 2011.
Corsets and bustles
The photo album is not currently on display, but Hanchett would like to see that change. Its also possible the photos could be published in some form, once the backstory is uncovered.
Hanchett says some history can be gleaned from the images themselves, including the fact that these were people of means who appeared confident in front of a camera.
Most of the images are of a single person, discounting the idea that they were taken for weddings or family affairs.
The men wear suits and ties, and some have books, suggesting they were ministers or teachers, Hanchett says. A few have luxurious beards and facial hair that was stylish during the 19th century. The women are even more finely dressed, including lace, ruffles, corsets and bustles. Some have jewelry and one wears eyeglasses, which were expensive at the time.
In a few photos, the women appear to have blush on their cheeks. And one has an unusually short skirt for the time that exposes her ankles.
Most seem to be around the same age, but they dont look like each other, says Hanchett.
Who would have a book of so many one-of-a-kind photos? I wonder if it was a portfolio someone carried. Or maybe it was a social group of professors and educators.
One possibility, he says, is that its community leaders from several Carolinas cities, including Raleigh and Columbia, S.C. (At least one photo has a Raleigh photographers name on it.)
He says theres also a chance theyre connected in some way to Johnson C. Smith University, founded in 1867.
Monika Rhue, the universitys library director, has not seen the photos, but suspects some have ties to the school or surrounding Biddleville neighborhood.
Its not surprising to her that theyre all nameless, too.
Most people dont think of their old family photos as something a library or archive would want, Rhue says.
They dont know the value of what they have and the value it adds to American history.
Recognize a face?
The Levine Museum of the New South has set up an email address for the public to offer ideas or tips on the photos. Send your message to: email@example.com.
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