Woman connects descendants to family photos

By Syd Hayman Published September 11, 2016 at 12:00 a.m.
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Cori Henderson, left, shows an antique photo album to Renee Carr. Carr has helped numerous people connect or reconnect with decades-old pictures of relatives or classmates.

— A few years back, while browsing the Backyard Antiques flea market in Clinton, Renee Carr spotted a paper-framed, black-and-white photograph of a couple that appeared to be husband and wife. When she flipped the frame over, she saw their names etched on its back in pencil: “Clarence and Estelle Whittle.”

“I looked at that, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful’,” said Carr, a Fox resident. “‘Why would it be in a flea market? That’s the kind of thing you want to see in your home on your mantel.’”

Carr purchased the photo, sleuthed on familysearch.org and found the Whittle’s descendants through clues in an obituary. She contacted a woman believed to be the couple’s daughter — and turns out, it was — and presented the photo to the descendant as a gift.

“I struck gold on that very first one in that I found a descendant very quickly and easily,”

said Carr, the daughter of genealogists and Family History Center director at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mountain View. “So that was really exciting, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I continue doing this? They are thrilled when they get those pictures back.’”

The hobby soon stuck, and she named her project Return the Photos.

Carr has helped numerous people connect or reconnect with decades-old pictures of relatives or classmates, including individuals in Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington.

Sometimes, Carr’s relatives purchase flea-market finds for her to investigate, and other times, Carr will use gift cards she’s received from thankful descendants to purchase 30 more pictures.

“No matter where I buy the pictures, I have returned them all over the country because descendants get scattered everywhere,” she said.

As long as Carr has a computer, internet access and a photograph with just a clue of information — such as a high school’s name or individual’s name — she can investigate who the stakeholders of the photo might be. She’s even deduced the location of Memphis’

Southside Class of 1939 by researching the jewelry company listed as the sponsor for the photo. With the help of Memphis’ Commercial

Appeal, which published the photo in 2014, Anne Katz Prager, then 92 years old, came forward to claim the class photo.

Currently, Carr has about 25 photos she’s preparing to investigate.

“With a group photo, sometimes I’ll use the media to help solve it and get it back to the right person,” she said. “Other times, it’s phone calls, it’s emails, it’s just digging. Sometimes, the hardest part is not figuring out who that person is; it’s tracing forward. Who were their children? Who were their grandchildren?”

Last year, as a birthday present to Carr, her son developed the returnthephotos.com website to help show the progress of each photo returned — or that is hoped to be returned — to a descendant. The site labels photos as Cold Case, Mystery Solved or Under Investigation.

Carr said there are a few common ways photographs like the ones she investigates end up in flea markets.

“By and large, it’s because they end up in estate sales, stuck in a box under other things,” she said. “They get sold after the parties die. Somebody buys it and they put it in a flea market. Another way that I’ve discovered them is that someone has stored the pictures in boxes in a storage unit and either forgot about it or forgot to make their payment, and the storage unit sells their items. I had at least one example where that happened.”

Carr said the skills that she’s gained from her church’s Family History Center has strengthened her hobby of Return the Photos.

“What I found being director of the Family History Center is it’s just as much fun to help other people with [their research],” she said. “We just get really excited people in there when they’re researching. They might pull up a marriage license or immigration record or just being on a census with their whole family listed. It’s really exciting to see other people feel the joy.”

When Carr first reaches out to a family, individuals may not always believe or be interested in what she says.

“It may be that they’re wondering if it’s legit,” she said. “After I explain myself, they usually warm up. A lot of them are cold calls.”

Carr said that if she didn’t have her job as chief financial officer of the Rural Community Alliance, she’d run Return the Photos full time.

“There’s so much joy that comes from this hobby,” she said. “First, just to solve a mystery, and then to make someone’s day when you give them this gift.”

For more information, visit returnthephotos.com or contact Carr at rushing carr@gmail.com.

Staff writer Syd Hayman can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or shayman@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Syd Hayman can be reached at 501-244-4342 or shayman@arkansasonline.com.