Rubin: From the 1930s, Detroit photos in need of words

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

You see the kids in their boxing poses, smiling behind upraised fists, and you know almost 80 years later that they are imitating local hero Joe Louis.

You know the settings of the photos are Black Bottom or Paradise Valley, because it was Detroit toward the end of the Great Depression and the kids are black.

What you don’t know — but someone might — is who they are.

A talented but not hugely remembered photographer named Edward Stanton took the pictures three generations ago. The Reuther Library at Wayne State University has them now because someone there happened to mention a need to Stanton’s nephew.

Some of the images are on display at the library, where they will hang through mid-August. All 96 can be seen online through the library’s website,

Archivist Elizabeth Clemens’ hope is that the kids in the pictures will recognize themselves, assuming they’re still alive in their 80s or 90s, or that the copies they received as payment are still mounted in family albums and descendants will say, “That’s Grandpa!”

In the seven weeks since the Reuther began asking for help, two of the young men have been identified by a visitor who recognized one as the son of a local photographer and the other from sandlot baseball.

That was step one. The all-important steps two, three and four would be to track the people down, verify their identities, and tap their memories.

The unfortunate truth is that “there’s a bit of a hole in our local historical record,” says Clemens, 42. “What was it like growing up on the Near East Side in the late ’30s and early ’40s?”

There’s no shortage of images and information on white Detroiters from that period. Black residents didn’t generally have the same resources, and no one was collecting what they said, wrote, bought or thought.

It doesn’t help that Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were leveled by urban renewal projects in the 1960s, scattering families and their artifacts.

Assuming she can find any of the people in the pictures, Clemens knows where she’ll start her interviews:

Do they remember getting their pictures taken?

The Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University seeks to identify the subjects in Edward Stanton photos like the one above.

A natural joy

The photographer was born Edward Stankiewicz and raised near City Airport.

The second of 10 kids, he had artistic friends and considerable ability himself. Familiar with Paradise Valley’s jazz clubs, he gravitated there with his camera when he decided to learn portraiture.

“He told me the parents would want to dress up their kids,” says his nephew, author and University of Detroit Mercy professor Tom Stanton of New Baltimore. “He’d try to talk them out of that.”

He wanted them to pose more naturally, or not pose at all: shooting marbles, eating a Popsicle, playing in the spray of an open hydrant on a hot summer afternoon.

“There’s a natural joy to the kids,” Clemens says. “They’re impossibly photogenic — these great, willing subjects with this beautiful outdoor light.”

Images like the one above offer a rare glimpse into two of Detroit’s earliest black neighborhoods, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

Void in history

Edward Stanton earned a Purple Heart in Africa in World War II, came home, married, and moved to California.

He worked a blue-collar sort of job for the state, Tom Stanton says — a printing technician, maybe — and kept taking pictures. He lived to 91, and as he pruned and downsized, Tom would tell him, “You can’t throw that out!”

Tom, 55, wound up with 30 or 40 of Edward’s tapestries and tens of thousands of his negatives, many of them now stored beneath his bed.

The nephew’s latest book, “Terror in the City of Champions,” hit No. 16 this month on the New York Times’ list of sports bestsellers. It overlays Detroit teams’ unequaled mid-1930s success with the rise of the Klan-like and deadly Black Legion.

Much of his research was done at the Reuther, and Clemens mentioned to him one day that there was a void in its collection. He realized immediately that he could help fill it.

So the library has his uncle’s pictures, and it’s on the prowl for words to go with them.

Knowing who we were, the theory goes, helps us figure out who we are and what we’ll become.

Plus, it’s interesting. And in this case, the photos are a knockout.