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Window Into Time : Jackie Napoleon Wilson's collection of 19th-Century photos shows facets of black life too long ignored.


DETROIT — I know this truth to be self-evident:

The gentle face, the dewy eyes, the beatific presence of the unnamed madonna among the rare 19th-Century photos in the collection of Jackie Napoleon Wilson belong to my grandma Hattie; to someone's Aunt Betty; to someone else's mother, May.

This tintype, circa 1860, is believed to be the earliest existing image of a married African-American mother with her sleeping child. What it is not is "idealized."

Critics of popular culture often describe as idealized depictions of African-Americans that do not conform to stereotypes--as in "The Cosby Show" or in "To Sleep With Anger," an underrated film that captured everyday reality down to the morning light on a mahogany dresser much like the one my grandmother polished weekly with lemon oil.

The neighborhoods and domestic settings in many of Spike Lee's films also embody the essence of what W.E.B. DuBois called "the life behind the veil," which separates the actuality of black life from perceptions of it. So too do these rare glimpses of African-American lives from the collection of Wilson, a 46-year-old attorney and amateur painter.

It is a collection that includes the earliest forms of photography, dating from the 1830s, when a camera allowed light to etch an image on a chemically treated sheet of copper, iron or glass. Each image was one of a kind, with no negative. And yet these ephemera survive six score and 10 years later.

An image that old, taken from its gilt-edged frame and embossed leather case, appears reproduced and projected on a wall in Wilson's museum-like parlor: "Civil War Soldier and Companion."

This tintype of a black infantryman and a lovely young black woman, circa 1862, "is highly unusual, no matter what the race. It was rare to see soldiers with a wife or woman," explains Wilson, who has amassed hundreds of these images in 15 years, mainly through private transactions now that he has exhausted the nation's antique stores.

Moving from the slide projector to the enlarged tintype, he gently strokes the image on the wall and elaborates: "Most photos of Civil War soldiers were taken at encampments by itinerant photographers, although this one was taken in a studio, probably in the North."

Perhaps he was a soldier on leave, Wilson muses in a barely audible voice. Perhaps, gauging the quality of tenderness between the couple, she is his sister: "She is very well dressed--perhaps a little overdressed.

"She might have borrowed that dress," he says suddenly with force, and imagines her running to a friend to ask the loan of the perfect outfit for an occasion she instinctively knows will be held for posterity. "Ah," he finally whispers, "who knows?"

Wilson flashes a new image on the wall--one of an antebellum Southern family that "Gone With the Wind" never portrayed. "This could be all one biological family," he asserts, pointing out the white and "mulatto-looking" children in an ambrotype titled "Group Portrait in a Kitchen Garden."

It seems, he says, "that this was not meant for display, but possibly as a photo of endearment for the master. His wife is not in the picture. When you look closely at an enlargement of this, there is a striking similarity in the features between the black and white children. . . . You know, these masters forced black women."

In contrast to such real-life drama is the equally real, but less familiar, image of a well-to-do African-American couple and their extended family in "Wedding Scene." This tintype, taken in the North before the Civil War, "has an English feel about it. We could not help but be influenced by them," says Wilson. "Look at the three dogs in the picture; that was a sign of some wealth. And they are perfectly still--you could tell these were dogs acclimated to the family. They look like Brittany spaniels.

"I used to show dogs," he adds in a hushed but excited voice, then excuses himself, heading for the kitchen. He does not entertain often and admits to being "a bit of a recluse." But he is a gracious host, preparing tea and serving cake--delighted at the attention his collection is beginning to receive.

Moving around his large old house filled with Americana of all sorts--American Indian art; Civil War memorabilia; oil canvases of his own work; a hodgepodge of other people's paintings, and the ubiquitous African-American images--he is light on his feet, his slight frame clad in the vintage clothing that is his trademark. Such taste in clothes is often attributed to eccentricity when one is rich; it is a necessity when one is poor.

"My mother had 11 children," says Wilson, named for his uncle, a world welterweight boxing champion in the 1940s. His father gave him the middle name Napoleon, and that was about the extent of his contribution. He deserted the family when Wilson was 4.

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