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The Obsidian Collection: A Chicagoan’s mission to preserve historic black images

"Boy on shoulders at the air show" is part of the Obsidian Collection, a nonprofit established February 2017 to archive images from the Black Press nationwide, private nonprofit collectors, black photographers and other individuals. | Photo Courtesy of Chicago Defender

Angela Ford of Washington Park, founder of The Obsidian Collection, grew up listening to the stories.

The ones from her great-grandmother, Ruberda Moore, who passed away in 1995 — 40 days short of age 100.

Or the stories from her grandmother, Edna McClain Murray, who came to Chicago from Oklahoma in the Great Migration in 1936, settling in what was then the Black Belt. In the ’50s, she operated a charm school at 63rd Street & Dorchester Avenue, now called Woodlawn, and was frequently covered by the Chicago Defender.

Maudlyne Ihejirika

And Ford, 54, the self-proclaimed Black History buff behind a new national archive of digitized images of African-American history, arts and culture, had her own stories.

She grew up in the vibrant middle- to upper-income neighborhood once known as “Pill Hill,” doctors and lawyers at the top of the hill, nurses and teachers on the periphery, and she’d always been struck by its contrast to today’s ongoing inner-city narratives.

So when she visited the Defender in 2015 looking for an article on her grandmother — discovering 110 years of newspapers and photographs inaccessible to the public and yet to be archived — she was moved.

“I had these fading old mimeographs of my grandmother’s articles, and figured I’d go and get more recent copies to leave for my son, my nieces, our descendants,” Ford said.

“That’s when I discovered these treasures disintegrating.”

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It began her journey that culminated with the Obsidian Collection, a nonprofit established February 2017. And what started with the Defender has expanded to include the Black Press nationwide, private nonprofit collectors, black photographers and other individuals.

“Once I saw 250,000 images of myself, I was never the same,” said Ford, who initially set out to help organize and secure industry-standard archive equipment to preserve the decaying history.

Ford, through sheer gumption, sweat and shoe leather, was able to secure a grant from the McCormick Foundation to meet the initial mission.

A businesswoman who has run her own real estate consulting and property management firm for 18 years, and a related nonprofit, she couldn’t stop there.

“Once you see all this stuff, you’re like, ‘I gotta tell everybody.’ There’s so much in there. It’s crazy,” said Ford.

She got additional grants from the Driehaus Foundation and Field Foundation “to start telling stories,” then took the project out from her small nonprofit to stand on its own. In 2018, the Democracy Fund came on board with huge foundation support; then came a Google Arts & Culture partnership, providing huge exposure for the burgeoning archive.

“I’m consumed, because these exclusive, one-of-a-kind moments of our history are important for our youth to see and realize the truth of our accomplishments and successes, what we really contributed,” said Ford.

The Google project, for example, contains eight virtual exhibits featuring nearly 140 images of iconic people, places and events from the 1940s-80s; many rescued for the Defender, others from Shorefront Legacy, a 23-year-old nonprofit archive of images and artifacts depicting black life on Chicago’s Gold Coast and North Shore — now part of the collection.

Iconic gems include:

  • “Fred Hutcherson: The Self-Taught Aviator” — the first black man to fly across the Atlantic, Hutcherson was a pilot instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen. Unable to enter flight schools in America, he learned to fly large aircraft in Canada and settled in Evanston.
  • “Joe Louis, Outside the Ring” — depicts the boxer in the Army, golfing and with his Joe Louis Milk and Joe Louis Bourbon.
  • “Harold Washington: The First Black Mayor of Chicago” — shows Washington performing mayoral duties. In one image, a young Carol Moseley Braun, who later became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, was originally cropped out of the photo.
  • “Chicago Housewares Show of 1959” — Unable to shop in major retail stores, the black middle class typically attended this show to learn the latest trends in appliances and automobiles.

The images can’t be downloaded, just viewed. The end goal is to partner with image owners to digitize them and make them available on a Getty Images-type web portal, using Google technology developed in Paris.

“The most important aspect of the Obsidian Collection is the revenue model. Our platform allows the newspapers, photographers, etc., to retain ownership of their images, contrary to most of the existing models, which require you to relinquish ownership, and then revenue is drawn by outside entities,” said Ford.

“Too often, our history, once obtained, is put into some dark archives, only to be narrated by outside voices. That’s why this treasure trove of historical and culturally significant images have been hidden away in the archives of our nation’s black newspapers, magazines and other outlets.

“Because of black pride of ownership, they told outside entities, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, but I’m not giving them to you.’ One old lady I talked to was like, ‘I will take these in the coffin with me before I give them up.’ I get that,” said Ford.

“Our rich history is in these rescued archives. Our present is out there with iPhones in their hands, and these two don’t know each other at all. It’s time to change that.”