Meet Laura Fitzpatrick, the woman whose photo scrapbook captured lives of blacks in the 1940s

Ama Nunoo December 03, 2019
16-year-old Laura Fitzpatrick in Brooklyn New York in the early 1940s, Photo:

At age 11 Laura Fitzpatrick took an interest in taking photographs with an Agfa Billy camera her mother purchased for her.

What makes Fitzpatrick’s story particularly interesting was her ability to document the lives of African Americans who lived in Brooklyn during that era.

16-year-old Laura Fitzpatrick in Brooklyn New York in the early 1940s , Photo:

Born in Montgomery, Alabama, her family moved to New York when she was 10 and her hobby of taking photos at the time led her to creating a detailed scrapbook of 500 photographs.

After her death about 30 years ago on March 23, her son Dan Evans discovered his mother’s photo diary which documented the lives of the people in Brooklyn from 1938 to 1948.

Prior to her death, these photos were tucked away but now they were a part of an exhibition, “Everyday Beauty,” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture that run till January year.

Fitzpatrick’s friend, Lula, swims at Coney Island in 1945, Photo:

The Smithsonian curators upon sighting her works were perplexed, according to Evans.

“You can find photos like my mother’s that are 70-80 years old, but typically people don’t know who’s in the photos, they don’t know where the photos were from,” Evans said.

“But my mother really documented how African Americans, for a 10-year period, adjusted to life in the North coming from the rural South. And it showed how communities were formed.

“Fitzpatrick loved taking portraits,” Evans told CNN reporters. “She took a lot of portraits of individuals and portraits of families,” he added.

A friend of Fitzpatrick’s in front of a building in Riverside Park in Harlem. Photo:

“But then sometimes she would just catch people on the street. She lived in a tenement building in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, on a street called Broadway, and they had a low roof. And she turned the rooftop into a photo studio.”

With no role models in photography at the time in Brooklyn who were women and African American, Fitzpatrick decided to be the one history could rely on to retell the story of her people through photos.

“My mother took it as a personal mission to become the historian for this time period because no one else had a camera,” he said.

Although she didn’t get to take on photography as a profession, she continued taking pictures as a hobby. She became a professional nurse and married Ernest Evans in 1950, CNN reported.

“As I’m told by my grandma, (my mother) looked into opportunities to become a professional photographer but really the opportunities weren’t there,” Evans said. 

African Americans at the time were struggling to find their feet in the ‘Big Apple’ but despite their struggles they were resilient and hopeful.

People stand outside an employment agency in 1944 , Photo: CNN/ Daniel S. Evans

 “They were in a position where their parents weren’t,” he said. “Where they were able to get a good education and go to that Star Employment Agency and say: ‘Hey, we’re ready to work.

“We’re ready to become part of society and contribute. We want to be taxpayers.’ They were in positions where they can go to high school, they can go to college.”

Evans’s mother’s photographs give a positive insight to the lives of African Americans as opposed to how people perceived them to be.

“A lot of times, people think, ‘Well, African-Americans coming north, they were very poor, and they were downtrodden.’ But my mother’s photos really show the positive side of life.”

Jewell Howell poses at Fitzpatrick’s rooftop studio. Photo: CNN/ Daniel S. Evans

Whenever anyone saw the camera at the time, they always wanted to look their best, young and old alike.

“… My mother was smart because she took a lot of photos on Sunday when they came from church,” Evans said. “She knew they would have their Sunday best clothing on.” 

It is Evan’s wish to meet most of the people in the photos who would probably be between 79 to 90 years.

He said he’s still trying to track them down.  His aim is to meet them and their descendants.


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