Researchers are finally putting names to the faces in a 19th-century mystery photo album at the Levine Museum of the New South. And proof is mounting that it belonged to Charlottean J.T. Williams, a prominent African-American who was U.S. Consul to Sierra Leone.
The album, found on the side of N.C. 27 in 1983, features 34 photos of African-Americans who appear to be well-to-do Charlotteans from the 1880s, when a thriving black community emerged.
Scholars suspected Williams had a connection to the photo album because its pages included his signed Temperance Pledge Card from the Prohibition era.
However, that connection became stronger last week, when researchers discovered one of the images is J.C. Hazeley, a lecturer from Sierra Leone who traveled to the United States during the 1880s. J.T. Williams became U.S. Consul to Sierra Leone in 1897.
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Librarys Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room has been working to match the images with images in its own collection and has so far made one important discovery.
Included in the album is what is believed to be the only known photo of William C. Smith (1854-1937), who was founder, publisher and editor of Charlottes first black secular newspaper, The Charlotte Messenger.
Librarian Shelia Bumgarner says the discovery was made by comparing a photo in the album to an engraving used in The Charlotte Messenger, copies of which can be found in the librarys microfilm collection.
I never forget a face, and the more I looked at the photograph, the more I was convinced that Id seen him before, Bumgarner said. The photograph is the only one I have ever seen of Smith.
The names of several photographers also have been discovered on the backs of photos, including Henry Baumgarten of Charlotte, A.B. Caudle of Monroe and J.W. Watson of Raleigh.
Historian Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum said four scholars have contacted the museum to help with research on photo album, which was donated to the museum in 2000 by Charlotte TV and radio personality Bea Thompson.
Hanchett said work done in the past week has revealed the album is from the 1880s, about a decade earlier than originally believed.
The museum would like to put the photos on display or have them published, once identities are established.
As we begin to piece this together, it will open a window onto the African-American leadership in Charlotte in the generation right after the Civil War, Hanchett said.
That such a thing ever existed surprises many folks. To see those people the clothes they wore, the way they carried themselves gives us a human connection to people who were part of what was going on when the world changed.