Michael Stetz


Saturday, February 26, 2011


SAN DIEGO — A little boy on a tricycle beams in one of the photographs.


In another, a sailor stands stiffly.


A family is pictured with their car, looking proud and happy, in another.


Simple, everyday images, all. But they’re doing their job. They’re stirring memories.


This is Black History Month, and at the San Diego History Center, in a bit of a coincidence, local African-Americans are taking part in an actual history project.


People who grew up in Logan Heights are stopping by the Balboa Park museum to look at the work of Norman Baynard, a commercial photographer who had a studio in the neighborhood for decades.


His is no ordinary photo collection. It captures a vibrant, lively community — from the 1940s through the 1970s. Weddings, baptisms, church events, sporting contests, portraits — even Muhammad Ali visiting a mosque — are all part of the collection.


At long last, it’s heading to exhibit. The History Center has had the negatives of the black-and-white photographs for almost two decades, but never had the money to reproduce them into prints and put them before the public.


Only recently has the History Center received grants to move forward. Five hundred of Baynard’s best and varied shots have been reproduced digitally and are now in binders.


There’s just one problem, though. Baynard did not include much information with the negatives; he simply wrote the client’s name for the shooting session primarily. Even exact dates are hard to come by.


So the History Center has been asking folks from Logan Heights to take a trip down memory lane in hopes that the people and places photographed can be identified, to bolster the exhibit when it opens this summer.


It’s working.


The staff figures it has at least some information on half of the 500 photos it has reproduced. One elderly couple was stunned to find that their wedding photograph was among the collection.




Gary Morgan, who grew up in the neighborhood, stopped by the History Center on a recent day. As a boy, he remembers passing by Baynard’s studio and seeing his work portrayed in the windows.


On this day, Morgan leafed through the shots, using a magnifying glass to study some of the images. A picture of the local Boy’s Club stopped him. He used to work there, he said.


“It cranks you back in time,” said Morgan, 60.


Not many, if any, collections of this scope can be found west of the Mississippi, said David Kahn, the History Center’s executive director. That’s because black communities weren’t as established in the West.


When Kahn came onboard the History Center a few years ago, he asked the staff which projects they wish they could finally realize. This was one. They knew they had gold. Unlocking it was a problem.


Money — the exhibit will cost about $100,000 to produce — wasn’t the only obstacle. The scope of the project also was a factor. In all, the History Center had been given more than 28,000 images Baynard had taken during his career by his son, Arnold. He did so a few years after his father’s death in 1986.


“It’s a great archive,” Kahn said. “It’s such a comprehensive portrait of a community.”


Arnold Baynard figured his father’s images had historical heft. He was the first African-American photographer in San Diego, he said.


He had no formal education in the craft. Indeed, his father, who was born in Pontiac, Mich., didn’t even finish second grade. The photographer was colorblind, which actually helped him take such vibrant black-and-white photographs, his son said.


After his father’s death, his photographs sat in a filing cabinet in a garage. They were starting to deteriorate. So his son gathered them and gave them to the History Center.


Little did he realize it would take two decades before they’d finally go on exhibit. But the wait will be worth it, he said.


Cristin McVey, a lecturer at the University of California San Diego and a local historian, studied the collection as part of the research for her doctoral thesis. The photographs make up a fascinating portrait of African-American life that’s rarely been seen, she said.




Normally, images of blacks from that time come from urban areas or the Deep South. Here, African-Americans are captured settling into suburban living in sun-splashed Southern California.


For that reason, it’s not a collection that will appeal solely to blacks. Others will be captivated because the images are of people striving to achieve the California dream, she said.


“It’s both a reflection of the black experience and the West Coast experience,” she said.


Like poor whites fleeing the Dust Bowl, blacks were fleeing Southern states where Jim Crow laws were in effect. “It was a parallel experience,” McVey said.


Over the next few months, the History Center is going to be even more aggressive in getting additional public input about the photos. The photographs will be taken to churches and senior centers in hopes of finding out more about the images.


Each one tells a story, after all.


“And the stories will keep on coming,” said Kahn, the History Center’s director.