February is Black History Month in the United States, and, increasingly, across the globe. Getty Images is responding to growing interest in Black visual culture through a partnership with the technology start-up Project Gado. 

This partnership is making an unusual and fascinating collection of historic images of African American life from the Afro-American Newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland available to a new generation of viewers throughout the world.

Walk into the Project Gado workroom in the back of the Afro headquarters in Baltimore and it doesn’t look like the site of a revolution in the preservation of Black American history.  The room is small, with patches of peeling paint, piles of computer parts, and boxes of archival photographs.  Despite the modest surroundings, the photos in those boxes are some of the 125,000 little-seen images scanned by the staff of Project Gado using an innovative open source archival scanning robot. 

Founded in 1892, the Afro is the oldest continuously operating family owned Black newspaper in the United States and it houses an immense collection of 1.5 million images.  Those photos document a broad range of international, national, and local people, places, and events.  With a particularly strong representation of the decades between the 1930s and the 1970s, the collection includes hundreds of images of famous African Americans like Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Armstrong, and Lorraine Hansberry, and tens of thousands of photographs of African Americans during World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the built environment of Baltimore. 

However, it is the less expected images that really make this collection distinctive.  These are photos of everyday Black life in 20th century Baltimore.  Images of brides, parties, paperboys, and streetscapes are unlike any representation of African American life you are likely to see on the news or in a television show like The Wire. 

The collection does reveal the discrimination, poverty, and violence faced by African American communities, but it also highlights the rich and joyful community life that allowed Black people to survive and thrive.

Stored in cardboard boxes stacked five high on metal shelves, these photographs form an important piece of American cultural heritage that has been largely inaccessible to the public.  Most of the images in the Afro Archive had not been seen since they were published in the newspaper, and some had never even been published.  As a result, this collection was only available to the small number of researchers who travelled to Baltimore to don white cotton gloves and look at the images in person. 

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  • The Gado 2 setup at one of the Santa Ana Public Library. Photo courtesy of Project Gado.
  • The Gado 2. Photo courtesy of Project Gado.
  • Tom and the Gado at the Afro American Newspapers. Photo by Will Kirk.
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In 2010, when Project Gado founder Tom Smith toured the archives of the Afro, he immediately saw a problem and an opportunity.  "Here was perhaps the best African American history collection in the world—1.5 million historical photos—but only about 5,000 had been digitized in the whole history of the paper. This meant there was no way for scholars, community members, or the general public to access most of the collection. I realized that if I could create a low-cost technology to digitize archival photos, we could make the paper's remarkable collections available to anyone with an internet connection."

Typically, digitizing and providing digital curation to such a large collection is cost prohibitive for a small newspaper, however, Project Gado offered an inexpensive experimental solution.  They would build an autonomous machine with a robotic arm that would lift photos and place them on a scanner. While the scanner automatically stores a copy of the front of the image, a mounted camera snaps a picture of the back of the photo.  The arm then lifts the photo off the scanner and places it in a try for re-filing.  This process takes 42 seconds and can be managed by an off-site technician.

As the Gado robot successfully scanned photos, the Afro Archive and the Project Gado team faced their next challenge.  In a crowded online scene, how could they get the attention of the potential audience for the Afro photos?  The answer to this question developed into a partnership between Project Gado and Getty Images that makes the Afro photographs scanned by Gado available for viewing and licensing through the Getty Images website.

For Gado and the Afro, this partnership offers a new audience for Afro images, while for Getty Images it was an opportunity to add a new kind of collection to their already extensive online offerings.  While Getty Images already includes many images related to Black history and culture, the Afro collection offered an opportunity to explore a visual history beyond well-known historical events and figures.

According to Vice President of the Hulton Archive Matthew Butson, Getty Images was seeking additional social and documentary coverage of Black history and culture that would include “ordinary people doing ordinary things, as well as extraordinary people doing extraordinary things,” and the Gado-scanned images fit this very important niche.

More than 11,000 images from the Afro are now available on the Getty Images website.  Throughout Black History Month and beyond the Gado robot will be hard at work in a little room in Baltimore preserving even more Black history.

To see 10 Rediscovered Black History Images here.

About Dr. Moira Hinderer
Moira Hinderer is a visiting scholar at the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University.  She specializes in the histories of African-American childhood and the Black Press, and she is a founding member of the Black Press Research Collective.

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