Daily Picture Show

'Vintage Black Glamour' Exposes Little-Known Cultural History

  • Langston Hughes, Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Rudolph Fisher and Hubert Delany (brother of the Delany Sisters) overlooking St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem in the 1920s.
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    Langston Hughes, Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Rudolph Fisher and Hubert Delany (brother of the Delany Sisters) overlooking St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem in the 1920s.
    The Schomburg Center
  • Camille Nickerson was noted for her research on the music and culture of Louisiana Creoles. She earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Oberlin College and also studied at Juilliard and Columbia University. Nickerson collected, arranged and published Creole folk songs and, during the 1930s to 1950s, lectured and performed as "The Louisiana Lady."
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    Camille Nickerson was noted for her research on the music and culture of Louisiana Creoles. She earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Oberlin College and also studied at Juilliard and Columbia University. Nickerson collected, arranged and published Creole folk songs and, during the 1930s to 1950s, lectured and performed as "The Louisiana Lady."
    Scurlock Studios/The Smithsonian Institution
  • Lena Horne, the sultry American singer who appeared in several musicals in the '40s and was a regular of the Cotton Club, trying on a dress May 4, 1956.
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    Lena Horne, the sultry American singer who appeared in several musicals in the '40s and was a regular of the Cotton Club, trying on a dress May 4, 1956.
    William Lovelace/Getty Images
  • Duke Ellington, amid "his 20 suits, 15 shirts, suede shoes and his ever present piano" in his dressing room at the Paramount Theater in New York in September 1946.
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    Duke Ellington, amid "his 20 suits, 15 shirts, suede shoes and his ever present piano" in his dressing room at the Paramount Theater in New York in September 1946.
    William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
  • Actress Fredi Washington circa 1940s. Washington played Peola in the 1934 Academy Award-nominated Imitation of Life.
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    Actress Fredi Washington circa 1940s. Washington played Peola in the 1934 Academy Award-nominated Imitation of Life.
    Robert Scurlock/The Smithsonian Institution
  • Argentine dancer instructing a group of young women behind her in a dance at Howard University in February 1963.
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    Argentine dancer instructing a group of young women behind her in a dance at Howard University in February 1963.
    Robert Scurlock/The Smithsonian Institution

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I was scrolling through my Tumblr feed a year or so ago, when I saw a photo of Joyce Bryant. The caption said she was once dubbed the "black Marilyn Monroe" and was mentioned many times in Walter Winchell's gossip column.

But, I had never heard of or seen Bryant before. It's reactions like mine that led 42-year-old writer Nichelle Gainer to start a book project showcasing a collection of rarely seen historical photos of actors, educators, writers, students, musicians and more — all African-American.

"I write fiction for the most part, and when I am in libraries doing research ... I've come across a lot of different interesting articles and photos that you never see anywhere else," says Gainer, who has written for Woman's Day, GQ, InStyle, Essence and Honey magazines. "They're just locked in these ivory towers, whether it's an academic institution or a library."

Gainer, who is still working on her book, decided to share her photo finds and now curates the Vintage Black Glamour Tumblr blog, Facebook page and Pinterest account. Much of what she posts are photos you likely haven't seen before of stars you may know.

"There's tons of fabulous pictures of Josephine Baker, and you only see her in a banana skirt. I had someone write me and say, 'Oh, why don't you post the picture of Josephine and her famous skirt?' I said, 'Because you've seen that before, right? The reason I don't post it is because you have seen it before and I've seen it a million times, too.' I like to post things that people have not seen, that they don't know about and then they see it and go, 'Oh, my God, where did that come from?' "

That's Bananas: "Whether [Josephine Baker's] getting a pedicure or she's walking down the street or she's relaxing in a yard somewhere, I just love the variety of pictures of her," Gainer says. "The banana skirt is a part of who she was, it's the most famous thing, but it just annoys me when that's just the only thing. ... There was a lot more to her than that." i i

That's Bananas: "Whether [Josephine Baker's] getting a pedicure or she's walking down the street or she's relaxing in a yard somewhere, I just love the variety of pictures of her," Gainer says. "The banana skirt is a part of who she was, it's the most famous thing, but it just annoys me when that's just the only thing. ... There was a lot more to her than that." Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
That's Bananas: "Whether [Josephine Baker's] getting a pedicure or she's walking down the street or she's relaxing in a yard somewhere, I just love the variety of pictures of her," Gainer says. "The banana skirt is a part of who she was, it's the most famous thing, but it just annoys me when that's just the only thing. ... There was a lot more to her than that."

That's Bananas: "Whether [Josephine Baker's] getting a pedicure or she's walking down the street or she's relaxing in a yard somewhere, I just love the variety of pictures of her," Gainer says. "The banana skirt is a part of who she was, it's the most famous thing, but it just annoys me when that's just the only thing. ... There was a lot more to her than that."

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But often mixed among the luminaries are regular — but still glamorous — people. Those are the photos that fascinate me.

"On the anniversary of the March on Washington, I put up a picture of a woman named Karen House, who was holding up buttons for the March in 1963. She was a campaigner and an organizer, not a model or a beauty queen," Gainer says. "That's glamour to me, too, but I kind of stretch it to where it expands to women from all walks of life, though, yes, there does have to be a certain style to it, a certain beauty."

And, you get more than just a photo because when she can, Gainer includes information about the people in the photo, where it was taken and who took the photo — sort of a mini history lesson.

"I try not to just post a picture. Sometimes I will if you don't need as much context — I don't have to explain who Lena Horne is — but for the most part I try to give information as well," she says. "I'll say, 'This is Dorothy Dandridge rehearsing with Phil Moore, he was a great vocal coach and composer, and he trained Frank Sinatra and all these other people as well.' I want people to know you're not looking at some anonymous random person."

Tanya Ballard Brown is an editor for NPR.org.

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