From 1947 is a picture taken in Baltimore's Druid Hill Park of whites and blacks mingling tightly together in a line on the same ladder, waiting their turn for the slide. It's a cute sight. It tells a story, too.
"The park was still officially segregated," Gartrell said. "The policy at the time was that they weren't supposed to play together. But how do you enforce that?"
A photo from World War II shows children taking part in marches against discrimination. A sign held aloft in the crowd asks: "Negroes drive tanks in Italy, why not street cars in Baltimore?"
The shot of teens in suits and fedoras walking away from Baltimore's Mergenthaler School of Printing, having been denied entrance because of their race, finds them looking anything but defeated. Something in their expressions suggests they know it is only a matter of time.
A volatile issue from the past that has recently generated a new round of controversy — voting rights and rolls — is also tellingly covered in the exhibit.
At a rally in 1948, a child carries a sign aimed at the adults in his community: "A man died last week for voting. Can't you spare a few minutes to register?"
A photo taken in Richmond, Va., in 1959 finds three boys walking side by side carrying pamphlets and wearing signs around their necks that read: "I can't vote. I'm too young. What's your excuse?"
Two of the boys hold their heads high and smile at the camera. The third has bowed his head. There's a blank expression on his face, but he peers up at the lens with pensive and penetrating eyes that do not easily let go of you.
Other haunting shots give the exhibit depth, none more so than a photo from November 1955. An 8-year-old African-American boy, Robert J. Taylor, lies in a coffin. Standing close by to pay their respects are three white boys, each identified in the caption. Given the time, this interracial friendship seems all the more touching.
The back story also tells a tale. Taylor had been walking to his home on East 22nd Street from a grocery store and apparently stopped to play in a construction pit next to the B&O Railway track. The sand shifted, and the boy was buried alive.
Considering how much of African-American life the establishment press ignored or missed in those years, the value of the photos from the Afro's collection becomes all the more obvious.
The show is not weighted toward the sobering, though.
There are many upbeat shots, among them a hula hoop contest on a Baltimore street in 1958; tots lined up for their group portraits at "Tom Thumb weddings"; students — the boys in knickers — filing neatly into John Hurst Elementary on the first day of school in 1938; and wintry playtime scenes, one of them from 1948 with thickly falling flakes producing an impressionistic haze around kids throwing snowballs.
"We would love for the exhibit to travel to other museums," Gartrell. "There is something artistic as well as historic in these pictures."
If you go
"Growing Up Afro" runs through Dec. 30 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, 830 E. Pratt St. Admission $6 to $8. Call 443-263-1800, or go to africanamericanculture.org.