In the article below, Al “Butch” Smith Jr., PhD, and Peter Blecha describe the process by which the family of prominent Seattle photographer Al Smith Sr. chose the institution to permanently house the ten-thousand- image Smith collection. The process they developed and followed could be a model for other families deciding how to handle the personal records and memorabilia of deceased relatives.
In spring 2014, the Al Smith family in Seattle, Washington, donated the complete photo collection of Al Smith Sr. to a well-regarded local institution. Since another prominent public institution also sought this donation, in order to enhance fairness in decision-making, we decided to develop a vetting process and asked each institution to participate by responding to twenty questions that the family wanted clearly answered by both institutions in order to make a well-thought-through decision about the donation.
Who was Al Smith?
Al Smith Sr. (1916–2008) was born in Seattle to Jamaican immigrant parents and grew up in the heart of the Central District, the city’s historic African American community. Smith was the first African American to attend O’Dea High School, the largest Catholic school in the region. After graduation, he worked as a train porter and merchant marine sailor aboard ships that regularly traveled to Japan, China, and the Philippines. Smith developed an early interest in photography, and after first experimenting with a simple Kodak Brownie camera that he’d gotten at age twelve, he acquired a superior Swiss-made Icoflex camera during one of his trips to Japan.
In 1942 Smith married Isabelle Donaldson, whose local roots date back to the 1890s coal-mining days in Roslyn, Washington, where her family first settled after fleeing Jim Crow practices and violence in the post-Civil War Deep South. Thus, the Smith/Donaldson family is today one of Seattle’s oldest and most accomplished pioneering black families.
Meanwhile Smith, by now a self-taught photographer, picked up a professional-quality