Cindy Lange-Kubick joined the Lincoln Journal Star in 1994 and has loved covering life in her hometown ever since. Will write for chocolate. Or coffee.

Stan Schmunk has been a California man for decades now, but for most of his years growing up he called the South Bottoms home.

His dad worked in the toy department at Gold’s -- the giant store that took up most of a downtown block -- and later owned his own toy shop a few doors down on O Street.

His mom stayed home with Stan and his sister when they were small and, after the divorce, she went to work for Back to the Bible.

They were first-generation Americans, two of the many descendants of Germans from the Volga River Valley of Russia who settled in Lincoln.

Stan’s boyhood neighborhood ran along the west edge of town, modest clapboard houses from A Street north and from the railroad tracks on First Street east for nine blocks.

Stan is 74 now and retired. He remembers those places well, his old stomping grounds.

And he knew some of the people that a photographer named John Johnson had captured with his camera, most of them members of Lincoln’s African American community in the early decades of the 1900s.

Like the little white girl at the edge of a portrait that featured the children of Cora and Alonzo Thomas, a black couple who ran a small grocery from the front room of their house at 715 C.

That’s Marie Busche, Schmunk told Doug Keister, the man who had acquired a box of Johnson’s glass negatives when he was a budding photographer in 1965.

Schmunk knew the little girl was 3 when the photo was taken. He knew that she lived with her father a few houses from the Thomas family on C Street.

And he shared that history with Keister, who had co-authored the book “Lincoln in Black and White” with the city’s historic preservation planner, Ed Zimmer, in 2008.

This spring, nearly three dozen of Johnson’s photographs from Keister’s collection are on display at History Nebraska. Later this month, Zimmer will lead bicycle tours around the neighborhoods Johnson captured in his work.

Schmunk won’t be here to see them, but he has spent nearly 20 years doing research of his own on the history of his old neighborhood.

“There’s this unbelievable intersection of blacks and Volga Germans in Lincoln, Nebraska,” he says. “There’s nothing else like it in the United States.”

His own interest in that bond began when he returned home for a funeral 20 years ago and drove by an empty lot south of the Bottoms at 10th and Rose streets.

Schmunk had been a Lincoln Star paperboy in 1958 and the house that once stood on that corner was on his route.

He liked the black gentleman who lived there, a recent widower.

“He was one of the few customers who invited me in when I came to collect,” Schmunk says. “He was so warm and welcoming."

On a cold morning in February, his mother drove him to deliver his papers and they saw smoke spilling from the home.

They reported it to the fire department and found out later its owner, 82-year-old James Dean, had died.

“He was just the sweetest old man. I can remember the inside of his house like it was this morning.”

The day of Schmunk’s return visit, the empty lot had looked overgrown and neglected. Once back in California, the former paperboy sat down at his computer.

“I looked him up. I just wanted to know more.”

That quest eventually led him to Keister and the book of photographs he and Zimmer published.

Over the years, he’s supplied the pair with information on more than a dozen photographs.

“He’s put in a lot of time and given me some identifications I did not have,” Zimmer said. “And uses the sources like yearbooks and census and puts in considerable effort.”

Keister calls it a treasure hunt.

“After Ed figures out an address, armed with the information, Stan gets (online) and tries to connect the dots.”

A few years ago, Keister met up with Schmunk in Los Angeles and they paid a visit to one of Cora and Alonzo Thomas’ grandchildren -- the daughter of the baby in the old Johnson photo. (Dee Thomas is an accomplished singer who performed with Lionel Richie and Dionne Warwick.)

It’s the only time the pair have met in person -- and Schmunk has yet to see Keister’s collection of photos on display.

But, he’ll keep looking.

He learned a lot of history -- and black history -- from his African American neighbors in the South Bottoms.

And John Johnson’s photos keep that history alive.

“I’ve done a lot of research and there are great stories from each and every family.”

Historic images of black Lincolnites

Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @TheRealCLK.


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