It's Not Trash -- It's a Treasure

We didn't think the album was rare, but we did think, or hope, that the photos had historical interest. Now all we had to do was find the right place so we could donate it. That seemingly straightforward quest turned out to be more frustrating and fruitless than we had anticipated.
12/17/2015 01:39 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2016

Trash or treasure? That's the perennial question when my partner Gary and I go through one of our "we have to de-clutter our house" phases. Sometimes we're successful. Sometimes we just end up moving items around since one of us has a sentimental attachment to an item that the other thinks really could be tossed or donated. However, there was one item we couldn't bear to toss. This was a 19th century album of photos... but not of either of our families.

So if not photos of one of our families, how did we come to have the album? Gary was doing some renovations on his prior home when he found the album buried in a corner of the unfinished attic. He had no idea how long it had been there and had no way of getting in touch with the previous owners.

Over the years, we've periodically thumbed through it, wondering about the people in these beautifully faded photos. Who were these children, women and men? We began feeling very protective of these unknown people. There weren't any names under the photos. The only clues we had were a single handwritten note on the first page indicating the album was given to someone in 1867 and one striking photo with some haunting personal information.

The photo was of a man of indeterminate age clad in a Civil War uniform. How did we know that? Because of the very faint note, in beautiful, tiny cursive. We couldn't make out his name but we could read: "killed at Sharpsburg, MD."

We didn't think the album was rare, but we did think, or hope, that the photos had historical interest. Now all we had to do was find the right place so we could donate it. That seemingly straightforward quest turned out to be more frustrating and fruitless than we had anticipated.

That was, until I heard Audrey Davis, Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum (Office of Historic Alexandria) (www.alexandria.gov/Black History) speak in November. She was a member of the panel discussion following a preview showing of PBS' Mercy Street. Ms. Davis served as a consultant for the series. Very briefly, Mercy Street is a multi-part series telling the story of individuals and families on both sides of the Civil War. It's based on real events and is set in Virginia, largely in Alexandria, in the Spring of 1862. The series will premier on January 17, 2016 (www.pbs.org/mercy-street/home).

Ms. Davis' expertise and commitment to historic preservation gave us hope that she could help us learn if the album did have historical value. Not only did she graciously take my cold call, she was so encouraging after hearing about the album. We arranged to meet to see if the album was a fit for her museum or if she could recommend another resource for us.

We met and her positive response to the album was heart-warming and donation papers were quickly completed. Ms. Davis made plans to show the album to two of her curator colleagues, one of whom is a Civil War photos expert who had been with another Alexandria museum. Although there's no guarantee, her hope, and ours, is that something can be learned about the people in the photos -- maybe even if they had some connection to Alexandria or elsewhere in Virginia.

After consulting with her other colleague, they agreed that the album fit best with the collection at the Alexandria Black History Museum. And that happily is the album's new home where it will be appreciated and valued by those who know it to be a treasure.