University of Kansas showcases historic black photography online

The Leon K. Hughes Photograph Collection is a chronicle of African American family and community life in Wichita, Kansas from the late 1940s through the 1970s.  During these decades, the arrival of newcomers from nearby states and the South increased the city’s African American population from 5,623 to 26,841.  Employment in the area’s burgeoning aircraft industry and the presence of the McConnell Air Force Base fostered this growth in the community’s population and network of institutions and organizations.

The leading photographer of this community’s family, church and civic events was Mr. Leon K. Hughes (1913-1978).  A self-taught photographer, he established a home-based photography business in 1946 with the assistance of his wife, Mrs. Rose Knight Hughes.  While maintaining his employment in the city’s aircraft industry, he usually met his clients on weekends and evenings. After capturing the community’s fond memories for three decades, Mr. and Mrs. Hughes retired their enterprise in 1976.

Acquired from Mrs. Rosie Hughes, wife of Mr. Leon K. Hughes and his assistant photographer, the L. K. Hughes Photograph Collection consists of more than 2,700 images. Although some of the photographs date from the 1950s, the majority were taken during the 1960s and 1970s. They are in black and white and in color.

These images provide an “inside” view of African American life rarely seen by the general public.  They show family gatherings celebrating marriages, birthdays and graduations and reveal a vibrant community life comprised of a wide array of churches, schools and organizations Together, these photographs suggest how African Americans, for centuries, refused to allow the nation’s color line deny them experiences of love, faith, dignity, and grace. It is this rich context of family and community life in Wichita, Kansas that enabled the city’s African American youth to express their pride and determination by successfully organizing the nation’s first successful lunch counter sit-in  during the beginning of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, July 1958.

The Leon K. Hughes Collection is among the many archival resources acquired by Spencer Research Library’s Kansas Collection for its African American Experience materials.  The Kansas Collection has maintained an active collecting program on African American life in the Kansas Region since 1986.

Leon K. Hughes: African American Life in Wichita, Kansas