J. W. Johnston, an African-American Photographer in Georgia and South Carolina

The New York Public Library has a nice photograph in their collection that I noticed when I was searching for another Georgia image. This photo is labeled as being made in Georgia (Black women suffragists holding sign reading “Head-Quarters for Colored Women Voters,” in Georgia ), but the stamp for “Johnston’s Studio, Columbia, SC” found on the bottom right of the photo mat, is mentioned in the description, so I think the “Georgia” in the title is a mistake. The photographer, J. W. (John William) Johnston, was known to have worked in Savannah, Georgia, but as of 1917, he also had a studio in Columbia, South Carolina. Although I have written a bit about Johnston before, I thought this would be a perfect time to tell you more about him.

Johnston’s Studio (J. W. Johnston), Columbia, SC, group photo “Headquarters for Colored Women Voters”; New York Public Library Digital Collections, Shivery family photograph collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

According to his Social Security application filed in 1937, John William Johnston was born in Jamaica, on February 22, 1880, in what was then the British West Indies. It is stated on census records that he immigrated to the United States in 1898, when he would have been sixteen or seventeen.

By 1910, according to the census, he was a photographer in Detroit, Michigan. In 1912, he arrived again at the port of Detroit on December 24. The occupation on the “Application for Admission Port of Detroit / U. S. Border Crossings from Canada to the U.S.” is given as “Porter,” and it is possible this should have been “Photographer,” but perhaps he took a porter’s job in order to travel? He is noted as coming out of Montreal, and Detroit is given as his final destination.

He moved to Savannah, Georgia, in January 1914, to a climate closer to that of his home country. On January 17, 1914, on the first page, a mention of his arrival appeared in the Savannah Tribune, under the heading “Colored Photographer in Town.” The Savannah Tribune, known as the Colored Tribune, until 1876, is one of the oldest African-American-owned and operated publications in America.

Mr. Johnston has had considerable experience in photography and will undoubtedly find considerable work here. He has already done some work for individuals and many of the Negro business houses. Mr. Johnston’s decision to settle here will beyond a doubt be greatly appreciated by the local Negroes.

By that May he had a studio on W. Broad street (at number 605 in May, and at 609 in October), working under the name West Broad Street Photo Gallery. By November he was making portaits, postcards, and crayon pictures, By December the studio was at 813 W. Broad Street, and he had installed “a new enlarging lamp known as the Eastman’s Bomide lamp.” By March 1915, his photographs were being used regularly in the Tribune. That spring he made photographs of every department of St. Phillip’s Church, and took graduation photos as well as graduating individuals. His photograph of the “Graduating Class of the Cuyler Street School” appeared on the first page of the June 26, 1915, Savannah Tribune, and every graduate is identified.

J. W. Johnston advertisement, Savannah Tribune, Sept. 11, 1915, page 3

In June 1915, he also began to advertise himself as “Johnston, the Picture Man,” and his advertisement with this slogan making use of a photograph of him appeard in the Tribune well into September. He always advertised as “The Only Colored Studio in Town,” and the next year, in March 1916, his advertisement for his West Broad Street Studio stated the same, minus his photograph, but including a new telephone number.

Johnston not only photographed his Savannah community, he participated in it. He played baseball, and in the summer of 1916, in the Savannah Tribune (July 29, 1916, p.1) under “Business Men Will Play Baseball Thursday,” he was referred to as “Gen. Johnston.” He would take photographs at the game, but he would also be playing third base on the “Germans” team, playing against the “Allies.”

Later that summer, in the Savannah Tribune, August 19, 1916, on page one, was a photograph by Johnston, “one of many taken by him,” of the “Crowd waiting —- for the departure of the two labor trains for the north.” According to the photo caption, there were thousands of people lined up for a half mile. This documentation of The Great Migration during the WWI era, is fascinating. One wonders where those other photographs he took that day may be.

An article in the Tribune on the community’s automobile-owning residents shared that J. W. Johnston, “the popular photographer,” purchased an Overland passenger car (Nov. 18, 1916, p1). The next summer he had “some words” with a mechanic who was to repair that car, but Johnston would not pay for it until he drove it. One thing led to another and Joe Hall, the mechanic, attempting to move the car, somhow backed into Johnston and knocked him down and ran over both his legs! The Tribune account (July 28, 1917, p.1) ended with “He is one of the most energetic of the younger Negro business men of the city and his friends regret to learn of the accident.” He was not back at work until early September. Perhaps he was accident-prone? Several months earlier, on February 10, 1917, the Tribune reported he had burned his face with “flashlight powder” in his studio. He recovered from the burns, but lost his eyelashes.

In Spring 1917, Johnston ran another advertisement using his own photograph. This one was for his Correspondence School of Photography, where he taught others to “make a good picture in 30 days,” either in person or by mail. The ad ran through September, but we do not know if the school was very succesful.

J. W. Johnston advertisement, Savannah Tribune, May 5, 1917, p.6

Always the entrepenur, J. W. Johnston prepared and opened another studio in Columbia, South Carolina, in November 1917. He saw what was happening there, as reported in the Savannah Tribune, Nov. 3, 1917, p.5:

[he was] much impressed with the general conditions surrounding the capitol and the great possibilities of he picture business there, especially since the government will have thousands of colored troops camped there. His going to Columbia, however, will not interfere with the work of his local studio which he has conduted on West Broad street for the past three years. This place will be in charge of Mr. Johnston’s capable assistant, Miss Frances Segee. Photographer Johnston is a hustler, and it goes without saying that he will make good in his new field.

Stamp mark for Johnston’s Studio, ca. 1918

He ran another advertisement using a photograph of himself in the Savannah Tribune on November 10, 1917, stating “as proprietor — back on the job to personally attend to our work,” with no mention made of an assistant. Even so, by August 1918, he had been in Columbia, South Carolina, for some time and he, his assistant Frances Segee, and a friend, Mr. R. W. Lindsay, drove back to Savannah from Columbia, where he “is conducting a splendid business. —- while Miss Seegee is looking after the busines in this city. During Miss Segee’s absence, her sister Miss Hettie Segee, was in charge of the West Broad Street Studio” (Savannah Tribune, Aug. 31, 1918, p.1).

Frances Alethia Segee (born about 1895) and her sister Arita “Hettie” Segee (born about 1899) grew up in Savannah with their father William, a house carpenter, their mother Dora, four brothes and a younger sister. On about February 12, 1919, photo assistant Frances A. Segee and photographer John William Johnston were married in Columbia, South Carolina.

Frances Johnston ran both the Savannah and the Columbia studios when her husband left the United States for a month, in order to see his family in Spanish Town, Jamaica. As reported in the Savannah Tribune of March 1, 1919, on page one:

Mr. Johnston is a most progressive young businesman and he enjoys an enviable reputation here. He is the leading Negro photographer of this city, and perhaps this state, conducting a first-class studio in this city at West Broad and Huntingdon streets, known as the West Broad Street Studio, and also a similar studio at Columbia, S.C. While he is away the business will be managed by Mrs. Frances Segee Johnston, his wife, who has been in charge of the local studio while he managed the Columbia studio.

Johnston stopped in Havana, Cuba, on his way to Jamaica. While there he dined with the boxer and ex-world champion, Jack Johnson and his wife. He wrote to the Tribune about that experience with “the famous pugilist” (Savannah Tribune, March 22, 1919, p.9, section 2). He was back in Savannah in mid-April 1919, returning via Havana and Key West, and went back to running the Columbia studio.

Johnston’s Studio, Savannah, ca. 1918, Real Photo Post card of an unidentified woman, collection E. Lee Eltzroth

In spring and summer 1920, J. W. Johnston was advertising his 605 West Broad street studio in Savannah regularly, making his “High Grade Photography.” According to an article that September (Savannah Tribune, Sept. 11, 1920, p.1), he retained possession of the Columbia studio, with “a competent man in charge there.” It appears that Frances was no longer working in the photograph studio by winter 1920, when the federal census was taken, but her sister Arita was. John W. Johnston returned to Jamaica at least once more, again returning to Key West, Florida, via Havana, Cuba, in January 1920.

By mid-April 1921, Johnston had closed out the Columbia, South Carolina business. Now that he was in personal charge of the Savannah studio, he planned some upgrades (Savannah Tribune, April 23, 1921 p.1). At the end of April 1921, he held various sales for the month and could make enlargements of Kodak films “to any size — no size too large.” By January 1922, (through November), he advertised that he would finish and enlarge Kodak films at his studio at 819 West Broad street. From March 1922, into November, he advertised that he also made post cards (6 for $1.00) at that address.

There was a great deal of excitement around the Labor Day “colored automobile race” held at the Fair Ground, with J. W. Johnston as the “Official Photographer.” At his studio he displayed the “beautiful circuit or panorama pictures of the whole race track showing spectators, gand stand, race track, and cars” and sold them for $1.00 each. The cuts from these photos were printed as a collage on the front page of the September 7, 1922 Savannah Tribune, with a description of the races, including horse and motorcycle races, on page 8.

Cropped section of photographs of Labor Day Races, by J. W. Johnston printed on page 1, Savannah Tribune, Sept. 7, 1922

At the end of December 1922, J. W. Johnston’s advertisment changed considerably. He called himself “Johnnie-On-The-Spot,” and was now at 817 West Broad street and making all kinds of pictures, day or night, with the popular Ping-Pongs, a specialty. This is the last advertisement posted by J. W. Johnston in Savannah, I have seen thus far. I believe there was finaly too much competition in Savannah, and he and his wife moved out to California about 1923.

In 1930, the census-taker documented J. W. Johnston working as a photographer in Oakland, California, and Frances was probably not working in the studio with him. Frances A. Segee Johnston passed away on June 9, 1935. Her husband John William Johnston died in 1951, but I am uncertain of the month or day. Both he and his wife are buried in Oakland California’s Evergreen Cemetery.

I hope you found this interesting. There is so much more we need to know about this photographer. His work is found in collections in Georgia and South Carolina, in addition to his work found in collections out of the region, in New York, Washington, D.C., etc. Please contact me with any other information on J. W. Johnston or his wife Frances Segee Johnston, or her sister Arita (or Areta, Orita) Segee. For now, just enjoy your hunting and gathering of the information that interests you.

© E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including her photographs, without written permission from this blog’s author, is prohibited. With permission, excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

5 comments

  1. Quite an interesting story. Enjoyed it very much. By the way, fix the date under the first photograph of himself in his advertisement. Fred

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    1. Good spot! My husband and I both missed that one! I corrected several othr of my typos!

  2. Nicole Hudgins · · Reply

    Fascinating, Lee, and the site looks great!

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Nicole!

  3. FRANCES OSBORN ROBB · · Reply

    WHAT A WONDERFUL TRIBUTE TO A REMAKABLE MAN. FRANCES

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