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Introducing Parker Thompson, 2023 Robert F. Smith Intern

by Parker Thompson

Parker Thompson, 2023 Robert F. Smith Intern
Parker Thompson, 2023 Robert F. Smith Intern

My name is Parker Thompson, and it is with great joy that I introduce myself as the 2023 National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) Robert F. Smith intern at the Amistad Research Center. I come to Amistad from Charleston, South Carolina, where I spent my childhood developing a passion for history and Southern culture; and Waltham, Massachusetts, where I study history at Brandeis University. At Brandeis, my scholarly interests have spanned the history of enslavement, 20th-century American media, Western architectural history, and, most important, the intersection of visual culture and Black life.

Before my internship at Amistad, I spent two summers developing the Always Been Project, a curatorial and archival project focused on Black vernacular photography. Through that work, I became deeply immersed in the history of photography, especially as it relates to anti-Black racism. Moreover, I sought to understand better how snapshots and the everyday photographs of our ancestors worked to create a unique, vast, and independent historical archive. In my research, I repeatedly found that white, anti-Black bad actors had mobilized photography to further control and dominate the visual legacy of Black life in America. But concurrently, the then-burgeoning vernacular photographic record of the late 19th and 20th centuries offered an intimate and inherently personal medium that enabled Black communities to create counternarratives rich with humanity, dignity, and joy—qualities rarely afforded by white photographers of that time.

Since starting Always Been, I have sought new avenues to preserve and showcase the all too often overlooked vernacular photographic medium. In January of 2023, I curated an exhibition, "Intimacies, Long Lost: Selections from the Always Been Collection," at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA. Additionally, I have nurtured a deep passion for Black photography broadly and sought to utilize my parallel interest in history to bring forth overlooked Black stories and legacies.

When it came time to begin work at the Amistad Research Center, I was overjoyed to learn that I would be handling the personal photography and ephemera collection of Rex Madsen and Jimmie Daniels. Daniels, a Black queer cabaret performer and New York City nightclub owner, was a remarkable figure of the Harlem Renaissance and mid- to late-20th century that history has glossed over. His late partner, Madsen, donated the material to ARC following Daniels’ death in 1984. The collection, which includes snapshots, studio and fine art photographs, ephemera, and correspondence, offers the most comprehensive window into the life and world of Daniels, whose orbit included artists, performers, and actors both remembered and long forgotten. Notable names include A’Lelia Walker, Carl Van Vechten, Edna Thomas, Joe Louis, Josephine Baker, Kenneth Macpherson, Mabel Mercer, and Richmond Barthé, just to name a few.

As of my arrival, the collection is sparingly documented and researched. By the end of 12 weeks at Amistad, I intend to fully digitize, document, and research the Madsen/Daniels collection. To enhance public access, I will publish the collection in the Louisana Digital Library, where the material will be available for open exploration and research online. I will also develop a digital exhibition of the collection on Google’s Arts & Culture platform for the ARC, adding an essential entry to the narrow list of sources covering Daniels’ life.

I look forward to sharing more updates and discoveries about the Madsen/Daniels collection in the coming weeks!


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