Located at the busy intersection of Imperial Avenue and 27th Street in Logan Heights, a small terracotta and blue party store sells piñatas and candy.
It’s called Las Delicias, and it’s one of many party stores that line Imperial Avenue. But there is something special about Las Delicias that few people remember.
The building is an important landmark for San Diego’s black community. Long before it was a party store, this is where Baynard Photo Studio operated for over 40 years.
Norman Baynard, a self-taught photographer, led the studio and, through his work, created an unintentional portrait of black life in San Diego from the early 1930s until shortly before his death in 1986. A devout Muslim, it then changed its name to Mansour Abdallah in 1976.
During his lifetime he took nearly 30,000 photographs, all of which are now archived at the San Diego History Center. It is one of the largest photographic archives of black life west of the Mississippi River.
“What he did, intentionally or not, was capture the 3D of Black San Diego,” said Shelby Gordon, marketing manager for the San Diego History Center. “The faces, the emotion, the victories, the struggle, the dimension, the wide range of colors and sectors and classes.”
Baynard emigrated from Michigan to San Diego in the early 1920s, and after a few stints playing banjo in a nightclub and gardening in Mission Hills, he finally found his passion for photography.
His son, Arnold, donated the photo collection to the History Center. He recalled in an interview for the history center podcast how his father, who was also colorblind, built the business despite the odds.
“He learned everything through experiments and trial and error and from there he just took off from there,” Arnold Baynard said.
The photos show childhood birthday parties, like the one taken at Janette Bowser’s sixth birthday party in 1950. In this one, Bowser and all his friends pose in white dresses.
They also show baptisms, such as the one held by the Seventh-day Adventist Church on 31st Street under the so-called “big tent,” which shows two young boys being baptized in a large pool. Baynard captured the everyday moments of life.
“History is personal. It’s about individuals collectively,” Gordon said. She urges people to celebrate black lives during Black History Month, not just well-known leaders.
Baynard’s photos are a testament to the story being told through the lives of powerful people but made by ordinary people, she said. They show snapshots of ordinary black life lived and enjoyed, despite the struggles.
Among the thousands of photographs in the center, 500 have been uploaded. And in 2011, community members scoured the archives, ultimately identifying hundreds of people and places captured in the photographs.
One person identified was Essie Smart, who won ‘Woman of Color of the Year’ in 1957, an award given by the local black newspaper Lighthouse.
Community members also identified places that no longer exist, such as the RBG House of Music, which was located on Market Street, directly across from the Mt. Hope Community Garden. Now this building is empty and closed. Baynard’s photographs are the last remnants of a place that once drew crowds.
In this way, the photos help connect the past with the present. This is more vital than ever when the teaching of black history is challenged in schools across the country, Gordon said.
“We still have some of those struggles and the hope and the desperation and the intention and the commitment that you may have seen in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it builds a bridge,” she said. .
The Baynard Collection ends in the 1980s, leaving the History Center with a big void in its collection and a big question: Who is building the future archive of black life in San Diego today?
“I think the key to archiving black history is reaching out to communities to tell their personal story,” Gordon said. “Tell us your story, submit your leader, tell us what’s missing from our timeline.”
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The History Center already collaborates with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to document and preserve the Black Lives Matter movement and has created an online portal for Black San Diegans to contribute photos and complete archives.
Future archives are likely to be largely online and less focused on portraits like the Baynard collection was, given the decline of photo studios and the advent of smartphones and social media, but Gordon said it was a good thing.
“What I really want people to do is capture their family event at Mission Bay Park, post it to Instagram, and then upload it to our site,” she said. “Because everyone has a phone in their hand now and we take tons of photos, so that’s what’s going to save us.
This means there will be more content and perspectives to consider and learn from, but she urges people to save their photos and consider contributing them to the History Center archive. Because in the future, today’s moments will become bridges to the past.
Photograph collection provides link to Black San Diego’s past