Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

Durant Photographic Collection

Scope and Contents

The Albert Durant Photography Collection encompasses photoprints, negatives, slides, and personal papers which document the photographic production of Williamsburg's first black city-licensed photographer, Albert Durant. In addition, these materials offer a visual archive of the African-American experience in Williamsburg between the 1930s and 1960s.

The subject matter of this visual archive is well-documented in a negative log prepared from the identifications found on Durant's original negative envelopes. As negatives were re-housed in acid-free envelopes, information from the original envelopes was transferred to this log. Researchers can conduct keyword searches in the computerized version of this log to locate specific individuals, organizations, places, and events. The log also provides dates for some of the images. Although some photoprints have been matched up to their corresponding negatives, the process of linking prints to negatives is very time-consuming and is still in progress. Researchers who wish to locate the print made from a particular negative must examine all of the prints in a particular subject series in order to find a match. It is hoped that in time each photoprint will have a negative number on its back linking it to a specific negative in the negative file.

African-American family life is documented in both formal and informal family portraits and portraits of infants and children. Family events, such as birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, funerals, and holiday celebrations, are also represented in formal group portraits and candid shots of events taking place.

The collection provides a fascinating glimpse into African-American social life in Williamsburg during the 1940s and 1950s. Durant captured the atmosphere of local jazz and nite clubs through scenes of performers singing and dancing and audiences socializing. Many different taverns and clubs are represented, including Yorkie's Tavern in Lightfoot, Va., the Hillside Cafe Beer Garden, and various clubs in West Point and Hampton. Entertainers pictured in the images include Grant's Trio, Mell-O-Tones, and the Atomic Swingsters. Since Durant occasionally took trips to New York to meet members of well-known blues and jazz bands, the collection also features a few portraits of such musicians as Count Basie.

Durant also acted as photographer for many African-American clubs and organizations. Along with taking formal group portraits, he documented these groups through informal shots of meetings, dinners, and special events. Many African-American women's clubs dedicated to social reform, as well as women's missionary circles, are documented in these photos. The series of club portraits also encompasses occupational groups, such as hairdresser's clubs and doctor's conventions, as well as garden clubs, musical performance groups, hunting and fishing clubs, and community service groups. Several African-American organizations dedicated to fighting for civil rights are also represented, including the Yorktown Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

African-American student life during the late 1940s and early 1950s is also featured in this visual archive. Durant acted as a portrait photographer for Junior-Senior Proms at local black high schools and also documented the sports teams, marching bands, choirs, students, and faculty at Bruton Heights School in Williamsburg. The series of images he categorized as relating to “School Affairs” encompasses Homecoming parades and assemblies, football and basketball teams, theater productions, graduation portraits, and group portraits of classes, clubs, and faculty at various high schools. His negative identifications for this series indicate that he photographed students at Frederick Douglas School, James Weldon Johnson School in Yorktown, Charles City School, Bruton Heights School, Mathew Whaley School, and at various schools in Isle of Wight and Charles City counties.

Various clubs and student organizations are featured in images of parades in Williamsburg and Smithfield. Among the parades represented are the College of William and Mary's Homecoming parades, a Shriner Parade, and a parade celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Williamsburg. These photos show various floats prepared by such groups as the Puritan Club, the Junior Women's Club, the Smithfield Players, and college glee clubs and fraternities and sororities.

A popular summer recreational area for Williamsburg's African-Americans in the 1940s and 1950s was Log Cabin Beach. Durant took dozens of souvenir portraits of men, women, and children at this beach along the James River. The collection includes numerous examples of these souvenir portraits, some of which are still in their original mats with the Log Cabin Beach inscription.

African-American spiritual life is also well-documented by the collection. Durant photographed church groups, such as choirs and missionary circles, as well as individuals participating in rituals, at many different black churches in the Williamsburg area. Included in this collection are negatives and photoprints of members of the congregations of Mt. Gilead Baptist Church in Grove, Va., New Zion Baptist Church in Lightfoot, Va., First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va., and several other Baptist churches in the area. A series of photos also captures Baptist ministers performing full-immersion baptisms in a river.

Occupations, working conditions, and business opportunities for African-Americans in Williamsburg are also documented in this collection. The photos show African-Americans working in restaurants, beauty and barber shops, stores, offices, dry cleaners, and gas stations. Since he often picked up customers at the Williamsburg Inn and Williamsburg Lodge, Durant enjoyed photographing other chauffeurs and taxi drivers waiting at the hotels, as well as African-American porters and bell captains who were stationed at the entrances. African-American costumed interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg are also captured in some of his informal portraits.

Durant compiled a photographic record of the white community in Williamsburg in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s as he fulfilled commissions for wedding pictures, school portraits, businesses, nightclubs, organizations, and special events. Since he chauffeured many distinguished visitors around Williamsburg, Durant had opportunities to capture the visits of such heads of state as Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain and the Prince of Japan. In addition, Durant photographed various members of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s family at Bassett Hall and at various sites around the Historic Area.

Colonial Williamsburg's buildings, employees, and programs are also featured in many photos. As part of his photography business, Durant prepared Christmas photo cards with snow scenes of the Historic Area. In addition, he took a series of color slides which document the filming of “The Story of a Patriot,” the official orientation film still in use at Colonial Williamsburg's Visitor's Center. Durant also took many posed portraits of both white and African-American costumed interpreters who worked in the Historic Area.

Crime, accidents, and disasters in Williamsburg were also recorded on film by Durant, who appears to have provided photographic services to the Police Department. A series of photos provides a graphic visual record of a fire at the Brick House Tavern in the Historic Area. Durant also recorded automobile accidents and police investigations.

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Other local events commemorated in Durant's photos include the trial run of the S.S. United States, a ship built by the Newport News Shipyard and Drydock Co. (now known as Newport News Shipbuilding.) This series of photos documents staff on board the ship, as well as the interiors of various rooms and the exterior of the ship. Durant also compiled photographic documentation of the groundbreaking for the Anheuser-Busch plant and of the Bicentennial celebration at Yorktown in 1976.

Although this collection provides little photographic documentation of Durant's personal life, it does include one box of personal papers relating to Durant's limousine business and to his activities as a member of the city government. Some of these papers were removed for preservation purposes from a scrapbook and are retained in their original order in a folder. They include certificates, correspondence, news clippings, and photos documenting Durant's activities as a magistrate, notary public, and chauffeur. Durant's concern about equal opportunities for African-Americans is reflected in news clippings about housing discrimination, as well as a letter from President Johnson's secretary personally thanking Durant for his comments on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The scrapbook materials also include several letters from satisfied customers who enjoyed Durant's driving and historical commentary.

In processing this collection, an effort has been made to preserve the organization Durant used for his photographic materials. Negatives arrived in good order, filed in metal cabinets with index tabs identifying broad subject categories and individual identifications on negative envelopes providing more specific information. This arrangement is recorded in the computerized negative log, which was prepared by taking negatives from the drawers in consecutive order and entering their identifications into the computer.

Photoprints, slides, and oversize prints arrived in boxes in a less discernible order. They have been sorted and filed according to the subject categories Durant used for his negatives. Framed photos were removed from their frames except for those which were fused to the glass. Most photos were also removed from acidic mats, unless the mats were considered to have artifactual significance. In instances where there were more than two copies of the same image in a particular format, the two images in the best condition were selected for retention and the others were returned to the donor. Slides, negatives, and prints which were extremely deteriorated were also weeded out of the collection.