To ID hundreds of mystery photos, it takes a crowd

A wedding, Wayne Glanton is third from the left.
This photograph of a wedding, with Wayne Glanton the third from the left, is one from the trove of some 800 photographs.
John F. Glanton | Courtesy Joan Glanton Howard, Henn. Co. Library

In a basement room in south Minneapolis' Hosmer Library, a couple of dozen people sat staring at a torrent of images from the late 1940s projected on a big screen. They were trying to figure out exactly who was in the pictures, as there are only rare clues as to who anyone is.

Every once in a while, though, there's an exclamation.

"That's Wayne!" someone calls out. "Third from the left."

Attendees look for people they recognize.
Wayne Glanton, seated right in Twins cap, didn't recognize himself at first when someone spotted him in a picture of a wedding party from the late 1940s.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The group turns to Wayne Glanton, a man in his 90s sitting at the back of the room wearing a Twins cap. He looks a little taken aback.

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"So who are the rest of the people?" he's asked.

"I can't help you on that one," Glanton replies.

The image is just one in a trove of some 800 photographs that has launched a race against time. They were captured by photographer John Glanton, who took his camera to a variety of happenings in the Twin Cities African-American community in the 1940s.

Then Minneapolis mayor Hubert H. Humphrey
Then Minneapolis mayor Hubert H. Humphrey is recognizable in a photograph, but the other people are currently unidentified.
John F. Glanton | Courtesy Joan Glanton Howard, Henn. Co. Library

One problem: He didn't leave notes about the pictures. Now, his family has enlisted the Hennepin County Library to help with a huge identification project.

Some people are readily recognizable, and there are written clues for others. But most people in the pictures just stare out from past.

John Glanton was an engineer by trade who helped pay for his education with his camera, working for the local paper.

"He was a photographer for the Minneapolis Spokesman. He took a lot of pictures for Cecil Newman. So that's where they come from," said his brother Wayne Glanton.

Gwen Faction and Harriet Solomon
Gwen Faction and Harriet Solomon try to jog each other's memories as they try to identify people in the Glanton Collection.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

John Glanton used a Graflex, a large-format camera. It's bulky to use with its bellows and flashgun, but it creates crisp, clear images.

Glanton left his negatives in a garage, where they were only discovered after his death in 2004. While some were damaged, his family realized it had something very special.

Family members turned to the Hennepin County Library for help in digitizing the images. Ted Hathaway, special collections manager for the library, says it's a unique record of a community. "The African-American community in Minneapolis in the late 1940's was still very small," he said. "It was maybe 2 or 3 percent of the whole city population. And here you've got over 800 photographs of dozens, hundreds of people, and you realize that even if we are talking about both the Minneapolis and St. Paul community, it's a fairly good snapshot."

But even the babies in these images must be in their 70s now. Hathaway knows they have their work cut out for them.

Toddler portrait
A toddler's portrait
John F. Glanton | Courtesy Joan Glanton Howard, Henn. Co. Library

"The more people we can identify, the more meaningful it gets," he said. "It's like you are building a community here, that's passed away."

The group at the Hosmer Library provided a lot of names recently, but there are many more people to be identified in the Glanton collection. A second session at the library is scheduled for Aug. 23, and Hathaway hopes to do events in St. Paul too.

The entire collection is also available online, and Hathaway says people can identify photo subjects there as well.