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St. Paul’s Harry Shepherd opened Minnesota’s first Black-owned photography studio

Shepherd was also a candidate for St. Paul alderman but did not win the endorsement of his local Republican organization, something he attributed partially to the color of his skin.

photo of harry shepherd
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Harry Shepherd, 1906. Photo from the Appeal, August 18, 1906.
Harry Shepherd, an African American photographer who lived and worked in St. Paul between 1880 and 1905, became one of the most successful photographers in the city. Shepherd’s work earned awards and an opportunity to provide photographs for the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Politically active, he took part in the National Afro American Council (NAAC), and ran for Fourth Ward alderman in 1902.

Harry Shepherd, born ca. 1856 in Salem, Virginia, came to Minnesota in about 1877. He worked as a news boy on a steamboat before becoming the first African American photographer in Minnesota to own a photographic studio. Shepherd’s first studio, the People’s Photography Gallery, was located at 93 East Seventh Street, St Paul. Shepherd went on to open and sell at least four studios in the city, including People’s Photography Gallery, the Annex (later the Swanson Gallery), the Elite Gallery, and the Shepherd Photographic Company.

Shepherd won two gold medals at the Minnesota State Fair and two gold medals from the Minnesota State Agricultural Society. Shepherd’s surviving photographs show that he specialized in portraits of both African and white Americans. One of his best-known portraits includes Mary E. Schwandt Schmidt (Mrs. William) and Snana Good Thunder (Maggie Brass). It illustrates that, while communities were segregated, his gold medals, quality of work, and fair pricing drew patrons into his studio.

Shepherd was politically active in his community. He held meetings in his studio for the National Afro-American Council (NAAC), an organization established in 1898 to address critical issues for African Americans, and served on the membership committee. He attended the NAAC convention in Philadelphia in 1901 as a delegate of the Business Men’s Club of St. Paul and Minneapolis and succeeded in persuading the council to hold its next convention in Minnesota

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In 1902, Shepherd ran for Fourth Ward alderman, an elected member of the municipal council. The St. Paul Globe reported that he refused to take direction from the Republican Party. As a result, the Republican Fourth Ward Club voted to endorse a white candidate whom they persuaded to run for alderman. Shepherd argued that the party should not endorse one candidate, but allow all candidates into the primary to let the voters decide. At a Republican ratification meeting, Shepherd protested his treatment as a black man running for alderman. The Globe reported that Shepherd “promised to fight to the bitter end the men of his party who opposed him because of his color.” These inflammatory statements by Shepherd reflected his determination to fight racial discrimination.

In February 1900, Shepherd won the appointment of official photographer for the Afro-American exhibit at the Paris Exposition, created by Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Thomas J. Calloway. Earning a salary of four dollars per day for expenses plus a per-photograph fee, he traveled the southern states, taking pictures of African American businesses, agriculture, homes, and individuals. About a month later, he lost the appointment for encouraging southern blacks “to combine against the United States in the event of war with foreign powers,” a charge he didn’t deny. Newspapers wrote inflammatory descriptions of Shepherd, labeling him an anarchist.

In 1904, Shepherd’s wife of eighteen years, Margaret (or Margett), sued for divorce on the grounds of “cruel and inhuman treatment.” She wanted “an absolute divorce,” with alimony payments of fifteen dollars, plus $100 in legal fees. The following year, Shepherd sold his photography studio “for a large sum” and his half-share in the Sangre Chemical Company for $5,000 cash. He moved to Chicago and established another successful photography company at 3018 State Street.

In 1909, Shepherd relocated to Seattle, Washington, where he incorporated a monthly newspaper, The Bertillon Eye. Ever the entrepreneur, he landed a contract to sell shares in a Klondike gold mining venture begun by G. W. Cormack.

By 1912, he reportedly became the general manager of the International Biographic Finger Print, a magazine published in Los Angeles, California. Little is known of Shepherd’s life beyond that time, including the date of his death.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.