By John Owens, Chicago Tribune reporter, October 26, 2012
On a warm late September evening in one of the nicer high-rises on Chicago’s Marine Drive, Brenda Fredericks peered over her glasses and surveyed a large group of relatives from her husband’s family, many of whom she had never met before.
Some were blond, some were olive-skinned, but all probably would be identified at first glance as Caucasian.
Fredericks, 54, a black woman from Indianapolis, was there to tell them the truth about their background — a truth many had suspected for years, but only a few had already discovered after years of research.
“You haven’t been able to own who you are, because you haven’t been told about a key relative,” she said. “Your maternal grandfather, and your great-grandfather, was a mystery. So you did the work and discovered who he was — King Daniel Ganaway.”
King Daniel Ganaway. The name has biblical connotations, and Ganaway was indeed a religious man. But he also was one of the great photographers of the 1920s and ’30s, celebrated for his pictures of industrial Chicago, who won a prestigious contest against great photographers of his day including Edward Weston, Man Ray and Paul Strand.
And he was an African-American who courted danger by marrying and having a child with a Swedish immigrant named Pauline Barrew, in a time when interracial relationships were not just taboo but illegal in some areas of the United States.
Ganaway and Barrew divorced in the 1920s, and the photographer’s race and his history were shielded from his descendants, many of whom stayed in the Chicago area and elsewhere in the Midwest.
“We were always told that there was a Costa Rican in our family,” said Carol Santos, 53, a great-granddaughter of Ganaway who lives in West Lafayette, Ind.
It took the combined research of Fredericks, her husband, Tim, Santos and others in the family to determine the truth about Ganaway.
Now, on this autumn night, King Ganaway’s descendants were coming to terms with the legacy of their African-American ancestor at a family reunion.
And they also were coming to terms with the fact that Ganaway’s legacy is for the most part legend, because almost all of Ganaway’s prints and negatives have disappeared.
“If he had lived in our time, there wouldn’t have been that denial — he would have been heralded,” said Tim Fredericks, 54, Ganaway’s great-grandson. “That shame is harmful — I think it affected my mom very much — because you can’t deny who you are.”
Santos, Tim Fredericks’ sister, said her family missed out on the chance to be inspired by Ganaway’s artistry.
“The energy that they used for hiding this stuff, they could have been using that energy to be more creative,” she said.
* * *
“I hear so much of King Ganaway, the Chicago photographer who has done marvelous pictures of engines. I hope he’ll do the (20th Century Limited) as it pulls out of LaSalle Street on the morning of June 15.”
— Christopher Morley, Saturday Review of Literature, 1927
King Ganaway’s story is a classic American rags-to-riches tale, albeit with a sad final act.
Born on Oct. 27, 1884, in Chattanooga, Tenn., Ganaway had an affinity for drawing and for religion. After graduating from Howard High School in Chattanooga, he moved to Zion in 1902, not long after that far northern suburb was founded by Scottish evangelist John Dowie.
Ganaway participated in Dowie’s evangelical movement while working as a waiter. He also met Pauline Barrew, probably at Shiloh Tabernacle Church, a rare religious institution where blacks and whites worshiped as equals.
The couple married in 1904 and had their only child, Lucille, born in 1906. Soon after, Ganaway found a job as a butler for a wealthy Chicago matron named Mary Lawrence, who lived on the 1200 block of North Lake Shore Drive. While working for Lawrence, Ganaway began teaching himself the art of photography, taking pictures on his one day off every two weeks.
This period of self-education culminated with Ganaway’s best-known photo, “The Spirit of Transportation,” a stylized look at the 20th Century Limited pulling into LaSalle Street Station in February 1918. In a profile in The American Magazine, Ganaway said it took two years to conceive the picture and that he was suspected by a policeman of being a German saboteur while taking the photo.
“Finally, I pointed to the beams of light and said, ‘Did you ever see anything more beautiful than the way the light falls on the smoke?’” recalled Ganaway, who said the cop soon shared his enthusiasm for the photo.
The result was a masterpiece of light and shadow that first appeared in the Chicago Defender in 1921. That same year, the photo became a national phenomenon when it took first prize in the Wanamaker’s Department Store National Photographic Contest, beating out offerings from Weston, Ray and Strand — three of the finest photographers of the early 20th Century.
Ganaway’s career as a photographer took off after that. Forty years before the first black photographers were hired full-time by Chicago’s daily newspapers (Chicago’s newsrooms were almost exclusively white until the late 1960s), Ganaway was freelancing for such papers as the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Herald-Examiner, while also doing work for periodicals like Fort Dearborn Magazine and National Geographic, along with the Defender, the University of Chicago and numerous industrial periodicals and corporate groups.
Christopher Morley, a founder of the Saturday Review of Literature and one of the standout writers of the 1920s, wrote effusively about Ganaway. Fort Dearborn Magazine editor W. Frank McClure called Ganaway “the greatest photographer I ever knew.”
For the Daily News, Ganaway took masterly photos of scenes like the last day of South Water Street in 1925, before that outdoor market was obliterated to make way for Wacker Drive. And he took atmospheric shots of trains, Southeast Side steel mills and barges on the Chicago River in the dead of winter.
“He was intrigued with industrial life on the waterfront and equally fascinated with water, massive structures, angles and elements of mysticism,” wrote Deborah Willis in 2000, when she was curator for the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for African-American History and Culture.
“I see pictures and designs in everything,” Ganaway told The American Magazine. “As I am riding on a streetcar, I am constantly watching the changing lights and shadows along the streets. Using the car as a frame, I compose pictures.”
Ganaway was able to quit his butler’s job when he was hired in 1925 as the sole staff photographer for the Chicago Bee, a black weekly newspaper founded by Bronzeville insurance magnate Anthony Overton. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Ganaway also had his photos exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, at traveling exhibits sponsored by the Harmon Foundation and at the Century of Progress Exposition.
But Ganaway’s photos stopped appearing in the Bee in the mid-1930s. U.S. census figures show him remarrying sometime in the mid-1920s to a black woman named Jennie, but the 1940 census has him still married but living alone as a lodger on the 6400 block of South Rhodes Avenue.
By that time he apparently had stopped taking photos professionally, instead becoming a Bible teacher at a local Unity Center and an active member of Greater Bethel AME Church on Chicago’s South Side.
Ganaway died in 1944 at Cook County Hospital after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island.
“He was buried by his Bible students, God bless them,” said Brenda Fredericks. “No one knew him well enough to give accurate information for his death certificate. And here was a man who, at the peak of his creativity, was so well-known in Bronzeville that some of his Defender photos were just credited to ‘Ganaway.’”
What’s worse, his photos and their negatives have largely disappeared.
A print of “The Spirit of Transportation” was bought a few years ago by a Pennsylvania couple from an antique dealer in Brimfield, Mass. The photo is now an issue in that couple’s contentious divorce.
Meanwhile, Brenda and Tim Fredericks found the 1925 Daily News photo of the last day of South Water Street on eBay. And scans of layouts featuring Ganaway’s photos in Fort Dearborn Magazine can be found online.
But almost all of Ganaway’s work is missing, including all of his photos from the Bee.
John Gruber, president of the Madison, Wis.-based Center for Railroad Photography and Art, has been on the lookout for Ganaway photographs for the past decade, with little success.
“I found a photo of his of the Chicago skyline on an antique postcard, some photos of his in an Illinois Central promotional book,” Gruber said. “I think there’s a lot more out there, but … he’s been gone so long, and the family has gone in so many different directions, that it’s difficult to find.”
* * *
“We were brought up in an old shack, my parents were old, our car was old and I was pretty much ashamed of everything.”
— Bill Brody, King Ganaway’s grandson, at the family reunion
After Ganaway and Pauline Barrew divorced in the 1920s, she moved to the western suburbs, eventually settling in Elgin. Their only daughter, Lucille, married a man named Walter Brody and raised eight children in Glen Ellyn.
Bill Brody, Lucille’s son, never met his grandfather Ganaway but vaguely recalls Pauline. “I know she had long white hair, and she would watch us when my parents were working, because my dad drove a cab and my mom was a taxi dispatcher.”
What he remembers vividly from his childhood is the constant harassment from neighbors who suspected that he and his olive-skinned family members had black blood.
“I was called half-breed, and I never knew for sure what I was,” said Brody, now 66 and living in Aurora. “I’d have friends in grade school and we’d be friends for about a month or so, and their parents would find out who they were hanging out with and then they’d come back and tell me that they couldn’t hang out with me, and I’d wonder why.
“Every girlfriend I had, when the parents found out, I would have to sneak to go out with them,” Brody said.
By the time Ganaway’s great-grandchildren were born, someone in the family had concocted a story about Ganaway being a Costa Rican who had perished in a fire in the 1920s.
“We were all told that Costa Rican story, and we all believed it,” said Susie Schlottman, 62, a great-granddaughter of Ganaway who now lives in Villa Park.
Yet they felt an affinity with African-Americans.
“I loved black people — when I was in the Army (in the ’60s), all my good friends were black,” Bill Brody said. “They’d tell me, ‘Bill, you’re one of us.’”
Things became clearer about eight years ago when Tim Fredericks visited ancestry.com, a website that helps people research their genealogy.
“I knew about the name Ganaway, and I knew about my great-grandmother Pauline,” Fredericks said. “And when I saw my grandmother Lucille was listed as their child and that she was listed as black on her birth certificate and that King was listed as black … that was a real eye-opener.”
The Frederickses did not know this, but Susie Schlottman and Carol Santos were doing their own research on ancestry.com.
Santos even located Ganaway’s gravestone at Lincoln Cemetery. “When I saw it, I cried like a baby,” she said.
When Brenda Fredericks learned of the other cousins in the family doing research on Ganaway, she decided to arrange the family reunion at the Marine Drive high-rise, where Fred Rabe-Pickett, another Ganaway great-grandson, lives.
Christopher Reed, a retired scholar who specializes in African-American history, also attended.
“Your story is an American story, a classic American story,” he told the family.
The next day, some family members visited the Bronzeville building on the 3600 block of South State Street that once housed the Chicago Bee but now is home to a library branch. Then they headed farther south to Ganaway’s gravesite at Lincoln Cemetery.
The gravestone was chipped but intact. Family members joined hands with the Rev. Willie Gholston, the current pastor of Ganaway’s church, Bethel AME, and they prayed over the spot where the photographer was put to rest.
Talk turned to what the family should do next. Some thought certain family members still needed convincing to accept the notable African-American as their ancestor.
Carol Santos and Brenda Fredericks said their main focus is trying to find Ganaway’s photos.
“We should tell his story,” Fredericks said, “because he didn’t let tremendous circumstances prevent him from creating beautiful photos.”