Monday, April 15, 2024

Rockefeller Library Launches Project to Identify Photos From Trailblazing Black Photographer

The John D. Rockefeller Library is asking the community for help in identifying photos of Williamsburg’s Black community from the Albert Durant Photography Collection. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

WILLIAMSBURG — The John D. Rockefeller Library has launched a project to help document and honor Williamsburg’s Black community. 

In celebration of Juneteenth, the Rockefeller Library, which is described as the intellectual center of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, partnered with the Library of Virginia to post over 100 photographs from the Albert Durant Photography Collection that captured life during the segregation-era of Williamsburg and need further identification. 

Since the collection’s acquisition in 1992, the library has tried various strategies over the years to get community members involved in helping to identify the people and places depicted in the photographs. 

Marianne Martin, Rockefeller Library’s Visual Resources Librarian, said that the project began with different displays and exhibits held at the Williamsburg Lodge and Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL) where community members were invited to view the photos.

Most recently, a smaller exhibit was held in connection with the Let Freedom Ring event in 2016 that displayed photocopies of photographs with little identification. As a result of this, close to 75 new identifications were made.

An unidentified jazz band performing at a Williamsburg area night club in the 1950s. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg

As many of the images in the collection still have limited or no identification information, the library has invited community members to participate in filling in the gaps of these historical photos online.

The photos from the Durant Collection have been posted to the Library of Virginia’s crowd-sourcing site for volunteers to view the images and leave comments of identifications or memories about the people, locations and events depicted in the collection. 

“This is kind of a new twist on an old idea,” Carl Childs, Director of the Rockefeller Library, said. “We’re hoping it’s going to be a lot more flexible and we’ll reach a lot more people this way.” 

Childs said that with the collection online, the library will be able to tap into a much larger crowd, possibly even with people in other states or countries. 

Who was Albert Durant?

Albert Durant was Williamsburg’s first Black licensed photographer who captured what life was like in the segregation-era of Williamsburg. 

Albert Durant graduated from the James City County Training School in the late 1930s. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Born in New York City in 1920, Durant moved with his family to his mother’s hometown of Williamsburg at age nine. 

While living in the area, Durant attended the James City County Training School, which was the segregated school for African American children, located on Botetourt and Nicholson Streets.

There, he played on the school’s basketball team. It was also while attending James City County Training school where he presumably discovered his passion for photography. 

After graduating high school, it is unclear what he did during World War II. 

“That’s something we need to do more research on and find out if he served during that time,” Martin said.

He eventually obtained his chauffeur license and worked in that profession in Williamsburg, where he guided quite a few notable visitors, including Prince Akihito of Japan. 

On the side, he continued to follow his photography passion and developed business around it. It was at that time that Durant became the first African American to obtain a photography business license in Williamsburg. 

Durant photographed a wide range of moments and events in the community. 

He captured the standard family and wedding photos, but as a lover of jazz music, he frequented many of the area nightclubs and captured the jazz scene that permeated the region at the time. 

He also photographed many church events and worship services, as well as those of clubs and societies that African American community members were involved in. 

He was a photographer for Bruton Heights School, documenting students, sports teams, and faculty there. 

A group dinner at Log Cabin Beach, a segregated swimming beach and fellowship hall on the James River outside of Williamsburg.(WYDaily/Courtesy of Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg

“If you look at a lot of the photos, Albert Durant was exceedingly present at all community events,” Childs said. “One of our interpreter colleagues described him as an “ever present figure.” Always there, always taking pictures. It’s really fascinating.”

He accomplished many other firsts as well, Martin said. He became involved in civic affairs and attended city council meetings. 

He served as a spokesperson for his neighbors and his civic activism led to him eventually being appointed as the first African American Justice of the Peace and Bail Commissioner Magistrate of the General District Court in Williamsburg, offices he held between 1962 and 1975. 

“He was a pretty remarkable gentleman for sure,” Childs said.

The collection

The latest strategy in identifying the people and places captured in Albert Durant’s photos is a long-term project that serves many functions, Childs said.

There are currently 125 images up on the site, but batches more will be added to that down the road.

“There’s about 10,000 images, including a group of negatives that haven’t been digitized yet,” Martin said. “There’s been great progress over the years because of the different types of efforts, but there’s still more work to be done.”

An unidentified vocalist
performing with a jazz band at a night club in Williamsburg in the 1950s. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg

The library is currently in the process of writing a grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities to get those negatives scanned in hopes of adding a large group of the photos that most people haven’t seen.

“Pictures are so powerful,” Childs said. “And it’s great if we can identify all the people and the locations of where they are, but we also ask people to share their memories on the site as well, so if there’s a particular story that goes with an event or person, that just adds so much context to the story.”

Members of the community can obtain a login and password from Martin to be able to view the images and add comments. 

Childs said that by having this digital component, elderly members of the community can sit at the computer and reminisce about the photos with their children or grandchildren . 

“It’s such a great documentation of the Black community, which is here and was always here,” Childs said. 

The photos can be found on the Library of Virginia’s crowd-sourcing site. Interested volunteers can contact Marianne Martin at to participate.

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