Black Love and Lives in a Forgotten Photo Album
January 30, 2017 8:38 AM   Subscribe

"Etta lived a full life.” It was all in the album: the Great Migration, Harlem at its most chaotic and crowded, the transformation of Brooklyn. Annie Correal found an old photo album on top of a trash can one day while she was walking in her neighborhood. She decided to track down the owners, and along the way rediscovered the rich history of an African American couple who came to New York during the Great Migration and made the city home.
posted by TwoStride (8 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I read this piece on my phone before I got out of bed Saturday, before spending the day at JFK watching the protests grow. In the long, exhausting chaos of the day it receded into the back of my mind.

Thank you for posting this -its a very well done piece.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 9:31 AM on January 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Great article. Thanks for linking.

Old photos have always fascinated me.

A few years ago I bought an old cigar box from a junk shop. Inside were hundreds of old photographs from various collections -- no one person appeared in more than one photo. I was moved by one of the pictures and for some unexplainable reason I started imagining a past for the man it featured.

A friend's birthday was approaching and I decided to give it to her -- but it seemed ridiculous and without motivation. Without giving it much thought, I fabricated a story about how I'd met the man and that my friend had come up in conversation and that the man felt a connection to her because they shared a birthday. "He excused himself from our conversation and when he returned, he handed me an envelope to give to you," I told her.

Inside the envelope was the photo and a hand-written letter from the man. Since my friend knew my handwriting, I enlisted a complete stranger--a woman who owned a Toronto stationery and pen shop called Wonder Pens--to transcribe the letter I'd written. (I never even met the woman -- I emailed her the text and she left the handwritten letter for me in her mailbox. She also insisted on no payment.)

So we're all out at a fancy restaurant for my friend's birthday and I tell her the story and give her the envelope and, baffled, she opens it and starts to read it to herself. As if possessed, I snatched it from her and started to read it aloud. Half-way through, I started to weep and had difficulty continuing.

When I managed to finish and look up at my dinner companions, everyone was clearly baffled and wanted to know more about the man. I was stunned that any of them thought it was at all even remotely true as the ruse seemed obvious to me. I felt I couldn't confess without angering everyone so I just said I knew nothing more.

Days later I met the friend again and she said she could find absolutely nothing about the man online and it was driving her crazy. She had to send him a letter of thanks.

Feeling ridiculously guilty, I confessed. She was of course furious but over the years has told me a few times that it was one of the best gifts she's ever gotten.

I don't know why I was so taken with that photo and what came over me to do what I did. The box is sitting a few feet from me but I'm a little scared to reopen it.

Here's the letter:

Dear Elma,

My name is Henry. You do not know me, but we share a birthday.

Ysstog showed me a picture of you on his telephone. Looking at it, I experienced such lovely saudade, that I knew I had to respond in kind with a photograph of myself. It was taken by my wife on my 66th birthday, November 24, 1971. We had just returned from a picnic in Griffith Park. That was our house in the background. She passed the following spring, and though I've been married twice again, neither love compared to my Hildy.

Today, I am 109 years old. As a soldier, I killed men in two wars. As an architect, I designed buildings and bridges and skyscrapers. As an illywhacker, I travelled the world over, always two steps ahead of the law. I've made my bed in a cenotaph in Montreal and on a dhow in Muscat Harbor -- and I slept like a baby in both of those places, and everywhere in between. I've been starved, and I've been sated. If it's walked or crawled, slithered or swam, I've eaten it. My life's been lived in, and I am not ashamed.

But if I believed in a god, which I emphatically do not, I would tell him, "Lord, take away everything I deserve. Take it all. And though the apple couldn't be more crisp, the cheddar more sharp, or the mickey more intoxicating, give me five more minutes on that picnic blanket in November, 1971."

And now, with another year passed, I look forward, instead of back, and dedicate myself anew to bold friendships and loud, clear memories. And I share these thoughts with you, Elma, on our birthday, with the hopes that they find you well. May good fortune smile upon you and yours as it has on me for so many years. And though you and I will never meet, I feel that we are connected, both of us born on this day. How lucky we are!

Your friend,

HL Manhasset

posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:38 AM on January 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is wonderful. Thank you.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 10:48 AM on January 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

so glad that this reporter stumbled upon the album, and that they stuck with it through however many unanswered calls and messages they sent out. it's such empathic work.
posted by cluebucket at 12:56 PM on January 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm in the middle of reading The Warmth of Other Suns (which is great) and this reminds me of it a lot. Very nice to see stories and American history that I (a white southerner) was not exposed to much growing up.
posted by ghharr at 1:25 PM on January 30, 2017

that they stuck with it through however many unanswered calls and messages they sent out

Yes, this was the kind of story that really drove home for me that I have no journalistic instinct, because I probably would have found this and gone "huh, neat," and the tried to donate it somewhere without ever following up with anyone in tracking down the family.
posted by TwoStride at 1:29 PM on January 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

What a wonderful story; thanks for prompting me to read it.
posted by languagehat at 2:05 PM on January 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

This was beautiful.

The article reminds me why seeing old photos in flea markets and antique shops makes me so sad --- they were photos of someone's relative, and it's sometimes almost like a second death, a death of the memory rather than the body, to see old forgotten photographs no longer connected to a name or a family.
posted by easily confused at 5:04 AM on January 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

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