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New York Times unveils lost snapshots of black history

February 2, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
The New York Times has begun to unpack never-before-seen photographs that help fill in a portrait of African-American history. Why did these images of historic moments and well-known figures go unpublished for so long? Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Rachel Swarns of The New York Times.


The New York Times is digging deep into its own archives, revisiting historical moments the paper may have missed. As part of a series for Black History Month, the Times is sharing never-before-seen images while exploring the untold stories behind them.

The Times staff combed through more than five million photos and 300,000 negatives for this project. Some capture historic events while others highlight well-known figures like actress and singer Lena Horne, and civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It’s quite a dive into history,” says Rachel Swarns, New York Times’ metro columnist. “Readers are really responding.”

Readers are even chiming in with their own memories. After The Times posted a photo from 1949 of Jackie Robinson giving a speech to the Sociology Society of City College in New York, reader feedback uncovered that he was talking about his work with the YMCA in Harlem. Robinson had five months of the baseball off-season coaching underprivileged children.

Swarns says there are a variety of reasons why these photos were never published. Those include having a small staff and the limited use of photos at the time. But just as important as why these photos went unpublished, are the photos that were never taken and the stories that never told. Swarn acknowledges there are many holes.

“We have also really got to be frank and honest and acknowledge that this was a time period when African-Americans were marginalized in media,” Swarns says. “Some of those holes likely have to do with the biases of our editors at the time.”

The New York Times will publish images daily throughout Black History Month.

Read the full transcript of this segment below:

GWEN IFILL: Now: digging through an archive of previously unpublished photos that help fill in a portrait of African-American history.

Again to Hari in New York.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The archives come from The New York Times and include hundreds of images taken from old negatives.

Some of the pictures capture a historic moment, like this one taken inside Malcolm X’s house in Queens after it was firebombed. Some include well-known figures like Run-D.M.C., or this one of Lena Horne that was taken inside her apartment for a profile of her, but it turned out there was a backstory. As famous as she was at the time, she still could not get anyone to sell her a co-op without the help of Harry Belafonte.

Others feature important events like school integration.

Rachel Swarns is part of the team unpacking the project and asking why they went unpublished. She joins me now from The New York Times newsroom.

How did you embark on this? The New York Times archive must have hundreds of thousands of photos that never made the cut.

RACHEL SWARNS, The New York Times: It is, as you can imagine, quite a dive into history.

Our archives, which is known as the morgue, has about five million pictures, about 300 stacks of negatives. We truly didn’t know what we were going to find when we were going in, but we thought it would be pretty fascinating.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s this — most of these photos that you’re publishing now never have seen the light of day, so to speak.

There is one that almost anybody will recognize. It’s the portrait of Dr. King. But, really, it wasn’t just taken as a portrait. Tell us the story behind that.

RACHEL SWARNS: Well, what we really wanted to do was look at photos that just had never appeared before.

And the photo of Dr. King is fascinating because the one that our readers have seen over and over and over again looks like it was shot in a studio, but, really, it was a roundtable. He was doing a television interview. And that photo actually never even appeared in The New York Times, because the story that day ended up being about protesters throwing eggs at Dr. King. And we didn’t have that photo.

So, some time later, a photo editor cropped that photo and made the photo that so many of our readers have seen over the decades, but it was never a formal studio sitting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, that photo is probably something that I saw from high school textbooks onward.

So, you have another photo that you recently published of Jackie Robinson giving a talk. What’s the story behind that?

RACHEL SWARNS: Part of the great thing about this project is that we are unveiling unpublished photos, but we really want to engage in a conversation with our readers.

So, this is a mystery. We had this photo of Jackie Robinson speaking at City College, but there was never a story, and we have no idea what exactly he was doing or what exactly he was talking about. So, we posted the photo, which is a lovely photo, and then we asked our readers: Were you there? Do you know someone who was there? Is there anyone who can tell us about this story behind this photo?

And within a couple of hours, we actually got a response. We were still digging for more anecdotes and for people who are actually in that photo. But, you know, readers are really responding.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what happened? The readers turn in there, are saying, hey, this is a photo from this year? And then you pick up the story from there.

RACHEL SWARNS: That’s exactly right. It was from 1949.

We shared what we knew. And, almost immediately, people started writing in. And what we have found so far is an article from 1949 from the undergraduate newspaper at City College, and it describes a little bit about what Jackie Robinson was doing. And he was talking about his work with underprivileged kids at the Harlem YMCA.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the reasons that these published — or these photos went unpublished? They were great photographs in some cases. The photographers were sent out there on assignments. Clearly, someone commissioned these to be taken. Then why didn’t they make the papers?

RACHEL SWARNS: You know, there are a number of reasons why photos doesn’t go — published.

And the truth is, we won’t know the whole story behind them. But, you know, one of the things we discovered as we were digging through the archives is that, as powerful as the photos we’re showing to readers, as powerful as they are, what is almost as powerful is the photos that we cannot find.

The whole question of who was shot and who was not is a real one. And the photos that are missing, that’s a big question. And there are reasons why some of these people are not in our archives. And we didn’t have a whole huge staff of photographers at the time.

You know, the newspaper didn’t put a premium on images, like it does today. We were called the gray lady because we put a premium on words, lots of them. But we have also really got to be frank and honest and acknowledge that this was a time period when African-Americans were marginalized in society and in media.

And some of the holes that we discovered, we could not find a single staff photograph of WEB Du Bois, the scholar and intellectual, of Richard Wright, the writer, Romare Bearden, the painter, and we think that some of those holes likely have to do with the biases of some of our editors at the time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Rachel Swarns of The New York Times, thanks so much.