National Museum of African American History's program digitizes old family memories

Pia Jordan has long been considered her family’s “unofficial historian.”

When relatives visit her in East Baltimore, the 61-year-old woman said, she breaks out her plastic accordion folders filled with old family photographs. They show, among other relatives, her mother, a Tuskegee Army nurse, and her father, a Methodist pastor who ministered at churches in Northern Virginia and Prince George’s County.

“They always say, ‘We need to digitize these!’” said Jordan, an assistant professor in the department of multimedia journalism in the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University.

On Sunday, she had a chance to do just that. The National Museum of African American History in Washington brought scanners, film readers and other equipment to the Impact Hub Baltimore in Station North this month to allow black families to convert their old pictures and home movies into digital records so they can be viewed, shared and preserved.

The Community Curation Program, as it’s called, is free to the public and is also available at the museum, said Doretha Williams, program manager of the Robert Frederick Smith Fund, which supports the program.

“If you have a stack of photos and you want to be able to digitize them and preserve those memories, that’s what we’re providing,” Williams said. “Many people don’t have the equipment to digitize them.”

For Jordan, each photograph is more than a snapshot in time. Her family members’ eyes, their clothes, their surroundings — each document provides clues as to what was happening in their lives and society.

She pulled them out and flipped through them, wearing a pair of black latex gloves the conservators had given her. A picture of her father outside one of his churches. A letter from her mother’s brother-in-law, carrying news of the birth of her sister’s baby. A 1940s photo of her mother, 1st Lt. Louise Virginia Lomax, ​​​​and the 28 other Tuskegee Army nurses, a little-known group about whom Jordan is compiling a historical record.

The program allows people to document all kinds of family history, from the momentous to the mundane.

Jordan said the museum is giving people a chance to better understand their families and themselves.

Walter Forsberg, a media archivist with the museum, said even the everyday items offer a glance into black culture of the time that often was left out of movies, TV and other media.

“In a very radical way, we recognize the importance of these vernacular, homemade images, this folk cinema, as an alternate history to the kinds of history that the mass media tells,” Forsberg said. “We wanted to render a public service free of charge because we knew there was a lot of material out there trapped on obsolete formats.”

Krewasky A. Salter, guest associate curator for military history at the museum, said he hopes the museum will be able to feature some of the participants’ material in its exhibits in the future.

“It opens up another avenue to get the known and unknown stories into our collection, which will allow us at some point to use them to tell the American story through the African-American lens,” Salter said.

He gave a talk Sunday about the museum’s “Double Victory” military exhibit, named for the twofold struggle black soldiers faced — for the United States overseas and for equality at home.

Meeting people like Jordan and seeing her mother’s old photos and documents give a face and name to history, he said.

“You’re beginning to learn about the individuals, who in the past were just numbers, through personal stories,” he said. “There were places you could go to read the names, but the names in the appendices are coming alive.”

Jordan said she was thrilled by the program.

“Just the fact that there’s a National Museum of African American History and Culture, a place where you feel like you matter — you may not have been a Rockefeller, but what you did matters,” she said. “These are stories in my family, and now I can share them with others.”

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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