Family's racial history comes into focus

Photographer King Daniel Ganaway in an undated portrait. Library of Congress photo (From the collections of the Library of Congress)

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.

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"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.