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Perspectives Portraiture

Discovering My Roots

Unearthing my family history through James Van Der Zee and Harvey Cook Jackson's photography.

June 14

View of a man and woman sitting on front porch steps holding newborn infant; automobile in background.


“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” — Marcus Garvey

When my grandfather passed in 2021, soon after my grandmother, there was something bitter and sweet about rifling through all that they had left behind. I am a lover of old things, and here was a lifetime of old belongings: typewriters, watches, telephones, records, a Rolodex, weather clocks, calendars, vintage cookbooks, houseplants older than me, and most abundant of all, photographs.

I had never seen so many photo albums—enough to fill an entire closet. I couldn’t bring myself to look at them yet, and not only because it would mean facing all over again who in them had gone. Above the photo albums, on the highest, dustiest shelf in the closet, was a beautiful collection of film cameras. I had held it together until then, but this was my breaking point.

Vintage cameras lined up in a row glint in the sunlight in front of a wooden fireplace mantel

Of the cameras found, some would have been manufactured as early as the 1940s, and many were made by Argus, a camera manufacturer in nearby Ann Arbor, Michigan. The plastic ones don’t work; the metal ones still do. © Lela Jenkins

I have loved photography, film specifically, since growing up in the dark room of my mother’s art department. At the age of twelve, my mom—artist and art professor, Stefanie Jackson—had taken me with her to teach in Italy. While there, I borrowed a Nikon FM2 and sat in on darkroom classes. I loved the cameras and the process of making a photograph, the tangible medium of film, almost more than the images themselves.

Multiple exposure film photograph of Marcus Garvey Park Firewatch Tower, an iron structure with spiral staircase and large bell surrounded by tree foliage

Fire Watchtower, Marcus Garvey (2022) depicts Harlem's fire watchtower, one of the last of its kind, which has stood at the top of Marcus Garvey Park since the 1850s. Multiple in-camera exposure photograph taken with the Argus C3 “brick” (pictured previously), manufactured in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1940s. © Lela Jenkins

Standing there in my grandparents’ house, staring at my grandfather’s collection of film cameras, I simply could not believe that we had shared this love of film photography yet had never spoken about it with one another. Despite owning such an impressive collection of film cameras and a beautiful film projector, my grandfather, Harvey B. Jackson, was not the professional photographer in my family. As it turns out, much of the film ephemera originated with his grandfather—my great-great-grandfather, Harvey C. Jackson.

Diptych portraits of Harvey Cook Jackson, Sr., b. 1876 and wife Helen Hoyt Wingate Jackson, b. 1878

Harvey Cook Jackson, Sr. (b. 1876) and wife Helen Hoyt Wingate Jackson (b. 1878).

Harvey Cook Jackson, Sr. was the first African American to own a photo studio in Detroit. The studio opened in 1915, just down the street from his home on Beaubien Street. Jackson was an active member of Detroit’s African American community, capturing friends, family, neighbors, schoolchildren, church congregations, and the overall daily life of his community from the 1910s to the 1940s and beyond. Subsequent generations of Jackson men would each demonstrate an interest in photography, explaining the vast collection of vintage cameras, expired film, flashbulbs, and projectors inherited and used by my grandpa.

Diptych of vintage photos featuring an older woman with a younger girl

Left: Unknown family friend “Ms. White” and Cora Isabelle Jackson (b. 1923). Right: Virginia Cook (b. 1854) and her granddaughter Helen Virginia Jackson (b. 1910). © Detroit Public Library

Family picnic on Belle Isle

Family picnic on Belle Isle, Detroit. Helen Hoyt Wingate Jackson on left. Handwritten on back: “Picnic on Belle Isle.” © Detroit Public Library

In 2021, The Met jointly established the James Van Der Zee Archive with The Studio Museum in Harlem and Mrs. Donna Van Der Zee. Van Der Zee’s former photo studio in Harlem is around the corner from where I live now; in fact, its current tenants are my landlords. I walk by it almost every day, knowing that had I been here one hundred years earlier, I would have been looking at his photos through the window as I passed. I also learned I had family who immigrated from Trinidad to Harlem in the time Van Der Zee’s studio would have been operating at its peak during the Harlem Renaissance.

Composite image of a black and white photo of an old and photo studio and on the other an updated photo of the studio in color.

Left: James Van Der Zee (American, 1886–1983). [G.G.G. Studio and Van Der Zee Residence at 272 Lenox Avenue], 1940s. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 3 1/16 × 4 15/16 in. (7.7 × 12.6 cm). © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Purchase, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, Joyce F. Menschel Fund, and Ford Foundation Gift, 2021, (2021.443.328) Right: James Van Der Zee’s “G.G.G. Photo Studio” (Gaynella Greenlee Guarantee) still stands at 272 Lenox Avenue today, though it is now occupied by real estate firm Harlem Lofts. © Lela Jenkins

After learning of the James Van Der Zee Archive, I immediately thought of my great-great-grandfather. I began to find so many connections to his photographs. While Jackson seemed to be working about a decade earlier than Van Der Zee, both were turn-of-the-century Black photographers in burgeoning Black metropolises—and by the rules of northern de facto segregation, had primarily Black populations to photograph.

Vintage 1920s photo of a crowd of onlookers and a parade of suited men making their way down a street in Harlem 

James Van Der Zee (American, 1886–1983). [Parade, Harlem], 1920s. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 5 × 7 1/16 in. (12.7 × 18 cm). © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Purchase, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, Joyce F. Menschel Fund, and Ford Foundation Gift, 2021, (2021.443.54)

Group portrait of members of the Second Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan. Congregation poses in front of church building located at 441 Monroe Street; commercial buildings in background. Inset portrait of the Reverend Robert L. Bradby. Handwritten on front: "Second Baptist Church, Aug. 5, 1923. Jackson photo." Stamped on back: "Harvey C. Jackson, photographer. Clifford 6054 M. 2614 Beaubien St., Detroit, Mich. Suitable frames for this photograph in stock or made to order."

Here, the congregation poses in front of a church building located at 441 Monroe Street. Stamped on back: “Harvey C. Jackson, photographer. Clifford 6054 M. 2614 Beaubien St., Detroit, Mich. Suitable frames for this photograph in stock or made to order.” © Detroit Public Library

Black public life was an important subject for these photographers. James Van Der Zee captured the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks in one of many street parades, a central aspect of life in 1920s Harlem. Jackson also took pride in photographing his community, and I couldn't help but see a parallel in his group portrait of congregants of the Second Baptist Church of Detroit, over which Jackson creatively inset a portrait of Reverend Robert L. Bradby. The Second Baptist Church is the oldest religious institution owned by Black people in the midwest and served as the last stop on the Underground Railroad before Canada from 1836 to 1865. Jackson was distantly related to its “conductor,” George DeBaptiste.

Listening to Thelma Golden and Jeff Rosenheim discuss Van Der Zee’s practice, the artistry and care he put into photographing his community, I recalled Jackson’s penchant for photographing his own family, friends, and community. Stepping inside from the large-scale public photography on the streets, interiority and the family were central to depicting Black metropolitan life. Just as Van Der Zee captured the diversity of Black life in 1920s and 1930s Harlem, Jackson was the first to capture Black life in Detroit as one not defined by poverty or lack. If Black life during the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance could be filled with struggle, it could also be filled with joy and love and gratitude for one’s family.

Composite of white and black images of women in the early 1900's sitting around together for tea.

Both Jackson and Van Der Zee sought to portray the diversity of Black interior life, including the lavish lifestyle of middle and upper classes. Left: Tea time with Jackson’s wife Helen Hoyt Wingate Jackson, daughter Helen Virginia, son Harvey Cook, Jr., and family in Detroit, c. 1915; Right: James Van Der Zee (American, 1886–1983). [Luncheon Party, Harlem], 1927. Gelatin silver print, image: 7 1/2 × 9 1/2 in. (19.1 × 24.1 cm); sheet: 8 1/16 in. × 10 in. (20.5 × 25.4 cm). © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of James Van Der Zee Institute, 1970, (1970.539.11)

I am still somewhat heartbroken that most of the people in my family who personally knew Harvey C. Jackson, Sr. and could speak about him have already passed. There remain many photos he took that are still to be digitized, and many sitters we may never know the names and identities of. Throughout the process of this research, however, I have already uncovered so many forgotten memories. I have learned that Harvey C. Jackson’s sister, Cora Belle Jackson, was the first Black person to graduate from the University of Chicago in 1896. A relative unearthed a collection of photographs after I happened upon an article on her in The University of Chicago Magazine. I discovered not only did I share this connection with my great-great-grandfather through film photography; I am also connected to my third great-aunt in that I, too, attended and graduated from the University of Chicago—124 years after Cora did it first.

Vintage 1896 portrait of Cora Belle Jackson, the first Black graduate of the University of Chicago, in graduation gown

The photo was taken at Siegel-Cooper Company, a department store (ca. 1887) which presumably contained a photo studio. The famed building, located on State Street and Van Buren, would later become the flagship store of Sears, Roebuck & Company from 1931 to 1986.

When I think of Jackson and Van Der Zee’s original purposes for these photos, often as personal mementos of family and loved ones, I wonder what it means now to display them as a part of public collections. Several of Harvey C. Jackson’s photographs are now available at the Detroit Public Library and the Detroit Institute of Arts, though many of the dates and names of the subjects have been lost. With Van Der Zee, too, in many cases we do not know who these people are, only that they had a moment or occasion that they wanted to remember. What does it mean then to share these personal histories? To make one’s family photo album art? How odd and surprising it might be, to chance upon a part of your own history on museum walls.

When objects are removed from their original contexts, presented in a museum or preserved in an archive, there is always a chance that they might lose something of their personal histories. There are countless details, memories, and lives pictured only in fragments here, the whole of which may never be recovered. However, the process of researching my great-great-grandfather’s past, in parallel with James Van Der Zee, led to the excavation of a personal history I never expected to uncover. These photos have allowed me to connect with my family, past and present, and I know now that there are still many more connections to be made. The photos we leave behind only tell a fraction of the story.


Marquee: Harvey Cook Jackson (American, 1876–1957). Man and woman holding newborn sitting on front porch, c. 1930s. 1 photographic print; 8 x 10 in. © Detroit Public Library

About the contributors

Media Production Coordinator, Digital Department