The Rev. Willie B. Seals may not have thought of himself as an historian. But as the nation celebrates Black History Month, his Buffalo family is working to preserve and showcase a period of local African-American history documented through his photographs.
During the 1940s, Seals and his family were among the many African-Americans who poured into Buffalo from the South in search of a better life. Between his job at an automotive plant and his duties as associate pastor at St. John Baptist Church, Seals was one of the few African-American photographers during that period.
For almost 50 years, he photographed weddings, birthday parties, parades and other auspicious occasions in the city's African-American community.
Six years after his death, two of his 11 children are developing and cataloging hundreds of his negatives. They will compile a book that will be accompanied by audio and videotaped interviews providing the historical backdrop for the photographs.
The overall goal is twofold: to honor Seals and showcase the decades of local African-American history that his photographs reflect.
"This will memorialize the work of my father," said Barbara Seals Nevergold, coordinator of student support services at the University at Buffalo's Educational Opportunity Center. "And the book will have historical value. I do see it as work that will have great historical and educational significance."
Seals arrived in Buffalo from Louisiana in 1946 and took up photography, learned from friends, soon thereafter. What started as a hobby evolved into a business. With camera in hand, Seals captured events in the African-American community.
He converted the attic in his Carlton Street home in the Fruit Belt area into a studio and opened Seals Ebony Studio in the early 1950s. The house's closets
were used as darkrooms. Seals washed the photographs in the bath tub, and they were later hung to dry on clotheslines in the bathroom and kitchen.
Before the advent of color film, Seals meticulously oil-painted color onto some of his black-and-white portraits.
Seals retired from his photography business in 1992 when he became ill. Nevergold and her brother, Gerald, stumbled across their father's negatives in 1996, a year after he died. Nevergold said the negatives were well-kept and organized with dates and names of the subjects in the black-and-white photographs.
The brother-and-sister team has been interviewing photographers who worked with their father, people familiar with his work and the subjects in the photographs to give voice to the images. With a $1,500 grant from the New York State African-American Research Institute, they hope to complete the project by the end of the year.
Their efforts already have resulted in an exhibit of their father's work that was held at Empire State College in 1998.
Nevergold said Seals' photographs reveal a close-knit African-American community because the population was confined to the East Side. His work also gives glimpses into the everyday lives of African-Americans that were not seen in the media during that period.
"It breaks down stereotypes that whites had about blacks," Nevergold said. "The photos show blacks interacting, celebrating and gathering together. The photos dispel stereotypes."