WORCESTER – On a winter day around 1904, Raymond Schuyler perched on a sled with his wee daughter between his knees and posed with his children for a portrait. The only boy, standing behind his father, wears a big knit cap.
It’s a good photo: Schuyler appears at ease; the children look dressed for church. What’s remarkable about it is that we know who this family is. People of color are rarely identified in photos this old. Even the civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, in the extraordinary portraits of African Americans that he took to the 1900 Paris Exposition for the “American Negro” exhibition, did not name the subjects of the photographs.
The Schuyler photo is in a trove of recently discovered portraits taken by William Bullard, a white, itinerant Worcester photographer, between 1897 and 1917. “Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard,” opens at the Worcester Art Museum on Oct. 14.
Bullard kept a logbook naming his subjects. That information turns a light on in a dark room: They can now be researched. Their descendants can be found.
Schuyler, a railroad gatekeeper, was the oldest member of the Worcester chapter of the NAACP when he died, in 1956.
His grandson, Larry Schuyler, sits in the museum’s prints, drawings, and photographs study room, examining the photo of his family.
“I went through the archives at All Saints Church,” he says. “I’m not sure about the two youngsters. One of them may not have survived.”
Bullard lived in the Beaver Brook neighborhood, where African Americans, Native Americans, European immigrants, and Yankees dwelled, sometimes sharing a triple-decker.
“It was a vital kind of place, mostly working class,” says Janette Thomas Greenwood, professor of history at Clark University. She organized the exhibition with Nancy Kathryn Burns, associate curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the museum.
Bullard lived with his mother and scraped together a living taking pictures. Then he and his work vanished in the mists of history. His brother stored more than 5,400 of Bullard’s glass negatives for 40 years, eventually selling them to his postman. In 2003, collector Frank Morrill purchased them from the postman’s grandson, and set to examining images of city streets.
His 10-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, happened upon a portrait and found a small number in one corner. Morrill realized the significance of a logbook that went with the negatives. That’s when he showed Greenwood the cache.
“My jaw was already on the floor,” Greenwood says. “And then, ‘Oh my God, you have a logbook?’ ”
The historian had written a book, “First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and Their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900” in 2009. She was now looking into the faces of people she had written about.
Greenwood and a crew of students began to contact descendants. One of them, Benetta Kuffour, shares a common ancestor with the two wide-eyed girls Bullard identified as “the Jackson Children.” She thinks it likely that her great-grandfather Aaron Jackson, or her great-great-grandmother Bethany Veney — a former slave who ultimately owned three houses in Worcester — went to Virginia to fetch the Jackson children to a better life in the North.
Kuffour showed Bullard’s portraits to her 94-year-old mother.
“She could identify, ‘This one babysat for me, she was so-and-so’s sister,’ ” Kuffour says. “There are stories I never knew until these photographs triggered conversation. It’s all a blessing to me.”
When Greenwood and Morrill approached the museum, Burns recognized the negatives’ quality. Bullard had an eye for composition, warm rapport with his subjects, and keen sense of how best to photograph dark-skinned people. Instructional manuals of the day either ignored blacks or advised on how to make their skin lighter.
Still, the curator took pause. Museums don’t often print a photographer’s negatives.
“It’s a big deal for a fine art museum to do,” Burns says. “But it’s a lost visual history, and if we don’t show it, is it better that it doesn’t get shown at all?”
“Rediscovering an American Community of Color” captures a particular place and moment of racial harmony. Worcester’s Abolitionist sentiments made the city a safe haven for African Americans long after the Civil War ended. But that was changing in the years Bullard worked.
“Local industrialists preferred to hire people of European extraction,” says Greenwood. “It was a real issue. In 1917 and 1918, there was an out-migration. Young people, well-educated, couldn’t get the jobs.”
William Bullard committed suicide in 1918. His obituary said that he had given up photography because of ill health. If his negatives are any indication, Bullard was passionate about photography, although he never made much money or a name for himself.
A century on, he’s got himself a museum exhibition. More important, his photographs have brought a community back to life.
REDISCOVERING AN AMERICAN COMMUNITY OF COLOR: The Photographs of William Bullard
At Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, Oct. 14-Feb. 25. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org