John Lewis Dowell Sr. (probably)

John Lewis Dowell Sr., my great grandfather. Or maybe not.

John Lewis Dowell Sr., my great grandfather, we presume.

My mother believes the image above is of her father’s father, the first J. L. Dowell. She doesn’t remember him and there’s nothing written on the photo, so we cannot be sure. It sticks in her mind that that’s who it is, so I assume that at some point she was more certain of it, that perhaps someone gave her the photo and identified her grandfather at that time, but she has forgotten that moment. There’s no reason, she says, to think it might be anyone else, and this man’s face certainly looks like all the males in my mother’s family tree, including my cousins, my brother and my brother’s son. The only reason I hedge is that the face in this first photo doesn’t look to me like the face of the man I see in the few other photographs I have where he is positively identified. Still, the other photos I have of John Lewis Sr., such as the one below, were taken in less subtle lighting, further from the subject, and at different points in his life, so the fact that I don’t see the same man’s face from one to the next is not a dealbreaker. The years may have changed him, as they do all of us.

The truth is, I very much want this photo to be my great grandfather because I find the image so compelling and the subject’s face so magnetic to my sympathies. I like this man. I think it’s a remarkable portrait, a stunning photograph. The face in its near-but-not-complete expressionlessness (I see that wry Dowell twinkle, just barely) and the looking off to the side make me wonder what this moment cold possibly be. It captures, even in the way the subject is almost slouching right out of the view, what looks to me like a kind of weary sadness. But it’s easy to project my own feelings on this person, who (probably) lived so long ago that I cannot even fully imagine the time he lived in. When I look at this photo I imagine a tired man at the end of his workday, questioning the value of his toil, the meaning of his existence. But perhaps I see that because those are the thoughts that run through my own head at beer o’clock.

What we know about John Lewis Dowell Sr. is very little. He was born in 1886 or 1887, in Maryland. The 1910 census for Baltimore City finds him at 23 years of age, living with his Dowell parents John T. and Lucinda C. and two younger siblings, Robert L. (for Lee), and Nellie M., who in 1910 were 19 and 12 years old, respectively, at No. 1956 Walbrook Avenue. According to my mother, her dad (my grandfather John. L. Dowell Jr.) never spoke of his father, who died very soon after she was born (so 1936, 1937 at the latest) so I have precious little that I can offer in the way of story by which to remember this man.

But there is this: John Sr.’s son John Jr. married my grandmother Wilma, and Mom says that Grandma always spoke very fondly of her father-in-law. When she married Grandpa she was unprepared for the condemnation of her mother-in-law, Jeanette, who (poor soul) expressed her discontent about life partly by nurturing and voicing the judgment that Wilma was not good enough for her son. Grandma actually spent her wedding night with her mother-in-law, because John L. Jr. had to pull a shift at Davis Chemical shoveling copper sulphate (or something like that) into railroad hopper cars. Grandma was able to bear up under her enduring disapproval partly because John Sr. treated her so differently. It made her feel ten feet tall when he would take her around town and proudly introduce her to people he knew, saying with a big smile, “This is my daughter, Wilma.” – mdf

Image archive ID:

About the physical photograph:
Nothing written on back


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