At TeamMates, we strive to cultivate in youth the resilience to overcome obstacles and a focus on strengths. With more than 150 Lincoln TeamMates among our participants who identify as Black or African American, and many more alums over 30 years, looking through the lens of African American history helps inform our work.
Thanks to one man’s determination to celebrate the dignity and resilience of Black Lincolnites in the early 20th century, we can gain perspective on Lincoln, both past and present. As you’ll see in a minute, there’s a TeamMates connection to the history as well!
John Johnson was born and raised here in Lincoln. His father escaped enslavement, served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and settled in Lincoln to work and raise a family. John Johnson graduated from Lincoln High School and worked as a laborer by day. He also served his Black community in Lincoln as a talented photographer, recording the community with warmth and dignity in hundreds of photographs. During the 1910s and 1920s, the “New Negro Movement” emphasized self-expression and self-definition of Black identity, and Johnson with his portrait subjects fully embodied those nationwide currents.
Several hundred of Johnson’s photographs have survived over 100 years, some safeguarded as images of revered ancestors by Black families in Lincoln, and some held by collectors as works of historic and artistic value. One of those collectors was a Lincoln teenaged boy (and photography buff) in the 1960s who found hundreds of glass plate negatives in a garage sale and has treasured them for over 50 years. Johnson photographs are part of the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Nebraska History Museum, and the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney.
The story of John Johnson (as well as images of his photographs) is well-documented on the History Nebraska website. It also appeared in a more popular form in Smithsonian Magazine with commentary by our own Ed Zimmer, a ten-year Lincoln TeamMates mentor, who helped Smithsonian scholars verify the origins of the photos right here in Lincoln! Ed has given historical tours of the locations shown in Johnson’s photographs and he co-authored the text of a book of Johnson’s photos titled Lincoln in Black and White. Ed is happy to say you can find it catalogued in the Lincoln City Library under the name of the prolific photographer whose images make the book–John Johnson.