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A Search For The Story In A Long-Buried, Jim Crow-Era Photo

James Estrin of The New York Times' Lens blog and his colleagues have become fixated on a old, recently rediscovered old photo taken by Gordon Parks,the legendary Life magazine photographer. So they've put out a call to their readers for any helpful info about it.

Here's what they do know. The image was taken at the Atlanta airport in 1956. It captures a black woman in a maid's uniform cradling a white baby in her arms. She is sitting next to a white woman dressed in black and wearing a turquoise necklace.

According to Parks' notes, it captures the complicated mix of personal intimacy and social distance between black domestics and the white women they worked for in the Jim Crow South.

"These shots were all taken candidly in the Airlines Terminal in Atlanta," Parks wrote to the photo lab at Life. "[It] shows the continuous matter of servitude which extends into the terminal around 2 a.m. Here, a white baby is held by a Negro maid while the baby's mother checks on reservations, etc. Although the Negro woman serves as nurse-maid for the white woman's baby, the two would not be allowed to sit and eat a meal together in any Atlanta restaurant."

The Times has no idea who those women are or what their relationship to each other might be. It was likely in the spring, but Parks fudged the exact date. The photo was found in an unopened box in 2012.

The photo is part of an exhibit on display at Atlanta's gallery. Its owner, Anna Skillman, has been poring over the photo for clues.

"Ms. Skillman also studied the clothing and jewelry of the women in the photo and noted that the all-black dress might mean that she was flying to or returning from a funeral. Ms. Skillman also said she thought that the turquoise necklace might have been an uncommon choice — as opposed to pearls — and wondered whether the woman was an artist or interested in the arts.

"Besides the clothing, we can see a blue and white teddy bear on a seat. When the box of transparencies was found, there was one alternate frame that showed the mother smoking a cigarette. If the infant is alive he would be about 60; the women in their 80s or 90s."

So we turn to our readers: Do any of the folks in this photo look familiar to you? If so, emailJames Estrin at the NYT's Lens blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.