Ed Zimmer, Historic Preservation Planner for Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department since 1985, is already known locally for his historical knowledge of Lincoln and several walking tour guides he had created of the Haymarket, near south Lincoln and Havelock areas.
But his latest book, which he collaborated on with former Lincolnite Doug Keister, presents a more diverse slice of Lincoln history.
“This would be a different focus than I’ve written before,” Zimmer said of his book, “Lincoln in Black and White 1910-1925”.
Zimmer researched the history behind 175 photographs printed from a collection of black and white glass-plate negatives owned by Keister, a professional photographer now living in Chico, Calif. All of the photographs are attributed to John Johnson, a local janitor and photographer for the African American community in Lincoln in the early 1900s. Johnson’s wedding portrait is among the photos published in the book.
Others pictured in the collection include Leona Dean, older sister of Clyde Malone, and the Rev. Albert Talbert, who ministered to the African American congregation at Newman Methodist Episcopal Church from 1914-1920. Many of the photographs are portraits of African Americans, although there are some group shots of Caucasian post office workers, policemen, newsboys, construction crews and citizens on the streets of downtown.
Zimmer said the book evolved out of his research of African American history in Lincoln, which he began in the early 1990s. He built on a foundation established by Kathryn Colwell Hill, a graduate student who interned with the Planning Department, and Abigail Anderson, another intern who worked closely with Zimmer and conducted oral histories with African American elders.
Part of his research was based on some glass-plate negatives shared with the Nebraska State Historical Society by the Victor and Juanita McWilliams family, an established black Lincoln family dating back to the 1880s. Then, in 1999, he learned of a similar collection of more than 250 glass-plate negatives owned by Keister, son of Katherine Keister of Lincoln. Zimmer already knew of Keister because he would visit his native Lincoln occasionally to take photos and tap Zimmer for some historical background.
Zimmer not only had to identify the photographer but also the people captured on the negatives, which was purchased by family friends in the mid-1960s at a garage sale near 15th and South streets and later sold to Keister to practice his printing.
Zimmer said certain techniques, similar scenes and a uniform backdrop helped him and Keister to attribute the photographs to Johnson. Because Johnson didn’t have his own studio, many of his photographs were taken on people’s porches, Zimmer said.
Some of the most crucial findings came from Lincoln High yearbooks, where Zimmer found a photo of John Johnson in the 1899 edition. The photo confirmed that Johnson was a subject in some of the glass-plate negatives, which he probably set up and then had an assistant shoot. Addresses that appeared on the house fronts in the photographs themselves were also very helpful in identifying people.
Other sources tapped include the Nebraska State Historical Society, obituaries, Bennett Martin Public Library, Wyuka Cemetery records and local churches, such as Quinn Chapel and Newman Methodist Episcopal Church.
“In writing them up, if I know who’s in them, I emphasize that because I want them connected to time and place,” Zimmer said.
He also used his knowledge of key buildings in Lincoln, such as the Post Office on Government Square (where Johnson worked as a laborer/janitor between 1904 and 1917) and the Miller and Paine department store, to add substance to the book.
With the help of Keister, Zimmer was able to zoom in on details in some of the photographs, such as a book titled “Frisky Squirrel” found under a Christmas tree (taken circa 1915) and an August 1918 edition of the Ladies Home Journal Johnson’s wife, Odessa, is perusing while sitting on her porch swing.
“Lincoln in Black and White 1910-1925” is organized not chronologically but by identifying characteristics, such as city streets, portraits, outdoor scenes, indoor scenes and family and friends. Zimmer said he was unable to indentify several of the subjects in the photos.
“Hopefully, from the public we’ll learn more,” he said.
Zimmer and Keister’s book is available in local bookstores for $19.99. Several signed copies are available at Lee Booksellers, 5500 S. 56th Street.
“It’s been a very good, strong seller for us, and we knew it would be,” said Lee Booksellers co-owner Linda Hillegass. “It’s just a chunk of Lincoln history there’s not much on.”