Museum collections are full of mysteries, and Megan Friedel, the curator of photography at History Colorado, 1200 Broadway, uncovered a head-scratcher when she decided to host a lecture (coming up on Thursday, February 26) about a collection of photos taken by twin brothers Herman and Herbert Hall in the early part of the twentieth century, when the Hall family moved to Denver.
"What makes Herbert and Herman especially interesting is that they were mixed-race," explains Freidel. "And the story I'm uncovering is about what it meant to be mixed-race in Denver in Curtis Park at a time when the KKK was very active and there were these unspoken covenants about who could own real estate."
After the last of the Hall brothers, Herman, passed away, a neighbor bought the old family home on Glenarm Place where the never-married brothers had put down roots. She found the collection of photographs and donated it to History Colorado in 1984. "The curator at the time wrote up a brief description of what he thought was in the collection — 'photos taken by an African-American photographer in Denver at the early part of the 20th century in Curtis Park,'" notes Freidel. "But I don't know that anyone has ever looked at the photos since we got the collection in 1984."
A couple of months ago, she found the collection — about eighty glass-plate negatives — and started scanning and examining the images. "I realized as I was looking at them and started to do more research on the family that the story is much more complex than I anticipated," she notes. "The photos do depict Herman and Herbert — it's not always easy to tell who's taking the picture — and their family, and some photos of Denver, but they also depict the family's travels around the state — an auto tour to the top of Pikes Peak and that kind of thing."
She used census and draft records to track down more information on the family, and discovered that the Hall family came from Sparta, Illinois, the first stop beyond the border of Missouri, a slave-owning state, back in the days of the Underground Railroad. "They were considered black in Illinois," Friedel says. "They briefly moved to St. Louis and were also listed as black. After they moved to Denver, from the 1910 census onward, they are listed as white.
"I tried to track down why that would be," she adds. "Were they passing? Did they really consider themselves to be white? What do their photos tell us about their life in Denver as a mixed-race family at this time?" To find out more, she talked to former neighbors and researched documents available at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library.
"Herman and Herbert's father, Benjamin, bought their house outright in 1909, and there’s some question there whether they were passing because they wanted to be property owners," she continues. "It’s still a story that I’m teasing out. This is a family that came from a town in Illinois filled with former slaves. There was a lot of intermarriage with the French descendants, and there’s also the question of why they came to Denver, and why in 1901 when the family came to Denver, did they suddenly decide to publicly renounce that part of their heritage?
"The photos themselves are stunning," Friedel adds. "The brothers traveled all over the state, and their father was part of the crew that built the Moffat Tunnel, and there are photos of the tunnel, parades in the neighborhood and some just lovely photos of people sitting on their front porches on Glenarm Place.
Concludes Friedel: "This is the kind of mystery we find a lot in archives, and we just try to piece together their lives from the artifacts they left behind."
She's still digging up answers, which she'll share in a talk titled "Herman Hall, African American Photographer of Denver" at 1 p.m. Thursday, February 26, at History Colorado. Admission is $4 for members and $5 for nonmembers. Learn more here.
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