Behind the Lens

A Puzzling Photograph 

 

History sometimes only offers shards of imperfect information. 

 

The original Getty Images caption for this photograph was vague but tantalizing: “At the Communist Headquarters. A group of men gather at the headquarters of the Communist Party USA following a protest demanding pay rise [sic], wages and fight police brutality, US, circa 1920.” 

 

With only the approximate year and political association, finding more about this image seemed unlikely, but the signs and placards held aloft were too compelling to ignore. 

 

Yet, something just didn’t add up. Until the late 1920s, the Communist Party in the U.S. had less than a dozen Black members. 

 

So, who were these predominantly Black activists? Were they hitherto unknown members of the Party? Were they members of another organization sympathetic to the Communist cause? Perhaps they were from the African Blood Brotherhood, a little-known fraternal organization dedicated to Black Nationalism, self-defense, and socialism? 

 

The “whoopee” or “Jughead” cap one attendee wears also didn’t seem to fit “circa 1920,” as that style was more common in the 1930s and 1940s. 

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The partially obscured sign for a mass meeting about lynching on March 7th at Odd Fellows Hall on a street that seemed like it could only be a D.C. address provided the necessary clue to pull everything together. 

 

No newspapers in the 1920s mentioned such a meeting or protest on that date. In March of 1930, however, coverage of a protest over the lynching of Laura Wood seemed to correspond with the March 7th meeting. That coverage mentioned the March 6th protest in front of the White House. 

 

And the reporting on the March 6th protest included photos of protesters carrying the very same signs from this photograph and mentioned the gathering the day before to organize. 

 

The shards came together.

 

As historians don their detective caps and piece together the past from disparate text and photograph clues, we are reminded of the fruitfulness of collaborations, like this one between Getty Images and Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, in bringing to life a full picture of the past.