Old family photos
  • Doll leads to 1940s female photographers
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    Auction Finds

    A woman’s 1940s nursing photos

    It was a simple cardboard box, sitting low in front of some computer towers and near some laptops on a side table in a room at the auction house. The box seemed out of place in that spot, overshadowed by all around it, discarded.

    As I approached it, I saw writing on the side in black felt pen: Mother’s Picture Collection. I glanced inside and saw that it was chock full of photos of an African American family. Now, I was doubly interested and knew that other auction-goers would be, too. Photos of African Americans sell relatively well at auction, because many people see them as highly valued Black Americana.

    A photo that nurse Lessie inscribed to her mother.

    I cursorily flipped through the photos, and saw single and attached Kodak prints – indicating that these had some years on them – studio portraits, and some later shots of the family of a woman named Lessie who had lived in Los Angeles. There were baby photos, soldier photos, boyfriend photos, a night at the club photo and photos shot at a home wedding.

    Then I came upon some that other auction-buyers would surely want: a studio portrait of a young Lessie (short for Leslie) in her nurse’s uniform and addressed to “the sweetest mother ever born – whom I love with all my (she had drawn a heart here). Lessie.” There were also about 20 photos of a group of nurses in uniform.

    The photos appeared to have been taken while these women were in nursing school. The photos stood out from the rest because they showed African American women in a career role. And that role was not as a domestic, the employment of necessity for too many black women around that time.

    The photos of the nurses look as if they were taken on a campus.

    Most of the photos were black and white,  and two were in color. One of those was dated Apr. 19, 1949, on the back. The box contained Lessie’s report card from Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles from 1945 to June 1949, so she was not likely in any of the photos. These could have belonged to a relative.

    Lessie’s report cards showed that she was a B-C student who was outstanding in work habits, responsibility and cooperation.

    I found an ID card of Lessie’s for an elementary school in Los Angeles where she was a school nurse.

    I’m always a little saddened to see these old photos on the auction table, and always wonder why family members throw them away. Were there too many of them and they kept the best ones and tossed the rest? What can you do with a family member’s old report cards and photos? (Old report cards weren’t selling well on eBay; some photos were doing better.)

    The same group of nurses from Lessie's box of photos.

    In choosing nursing, Lessie was following a tradition of African American nurses that began in the 1800s although they were not formally trained as such. The most famous of them was Sojourner Truth who is better known as a former slave who became a well-known abolitionist and lecturer, speaking out vehemently against slavery. In 1865, she tended black soldiers at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington.

    Also during the Civil War, Susan King Taylor nursed black soldiers from the 33d United States Colored Troops, and taught them to read and write. She wrote a memoir of her life, including her time with those soldiers, one of whom was her husband. She was also a laundress in their camp at Beaufort, SC, where she met Clara Barton – who would later found the American Red Cross – nursing soldiers in a hospital.

    Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American registered nurse. She eschewed domestic work and decided that she wanted to be a nurse. She attended nursing school in the late 1870s, and after completing the training served as a private nurse for 30 years.

    The first program to train African American nurses was started at Spelman Seminary (now Spelman College) in 1886, and the first hospital school of nursing came five years later at Provident Hospital in Chicago by African American surgeon Daniel Hale Williams. 

    Two nurses stand in front of what looked like a 1940s automobile.

    At auction, I almost didn’t get Lessie’s photos. I had stepped away from the box-lot room because the box was far back in the room and I assumed that I could come back before the auctioneer got to it. To my dismay, the box was gone when I returned. Later, though, I saw that it had been moved and forgotten.

    I asked an auction assistant to offer the photos for bids, and as expected, another bidder wanted them to. I got them for $7 – although I only wanted to pay a buck.



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