[brightcove videoID=4021088875001 playerID=3703125019001 height=315 width=560]
Albert Durant was born in 1920 into a society where everything was separate and nothing was equal.
But an interest in photography blossomed into a business that transcended the times – and race. It was Durant’s varied interests, in fact, that opened the door for a black man with an artistic eye to become the window to Williamsburg’s African-American community.
DURANT PHOTO COLLECTION
Albert Durant’s photos number close to 10,000 and can be viewed by appointment at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library at 313 First St., Williamsburg, VA 23185. You may also call 757-565-8542 or email for more information.
More information may be found at this online exhibit.
He moved from New York City to his mother’s hometown of Williamsburg after his father’s death. Both smart and ambitious, Durant started his own chauffeur and limousine business, which gave him the chance to drive many famous guests around the area.
Durant saw another opportunity ‒ to provide historical information in addition to transportation. He took classes at the College of William and Mary in American history, and was able to provide context and sights for his guests.
Then came the chance to add another of Durant’s interests to the entrepreneurial mix ‒ photography. During the time he was taking classes at William and Mary, Durant was also taking photos of the area’s many African-American social activities . This quickly developed into a lucrative second business and he became the first city-licensed black photographer in Williamsburg. Before his death in 1971, Durant had collected more than 10,000 photographs – many of which showing everyday people involved in everyday activities.
Durant found that his chauffeur job combined perfectly with his passion for photography and he had frequent opportunities to practice his craft. His business sense and historical context made him popular with guests. Dignitaries including Prince Akihito of Japan, Queen Elizabeth, and John D. Rockefeller and his wife Abigail hired Durant to make their portraits while at historical sites.
Durant’s varied interests and ability to blend in allowed him to chronicle everyday life. It was a love of jazz music that led him to travel to New York City to photograph the nightclub scene both there. He did similar work locally in the Hampton Roads area.
Working conditions and various occupations for African-Americans in Williamsburg are chronicled in the collection.
Durant collected a photographic record of Williamsburg during the 1940s – 1960s.
He photographed school and civic groups, church baptism ceremonies and business groups.
The groups were critical to the social life of the African-American community, providing camaraderie, support and eventually a united front to demand equal rights for blacks. The Buckeye Club, Boy Scouts of America (for blacks) the Just Us Club and church missionary groups were among the groups Durant photographed.
Durant took school portraits for several of the area’s African-American schools. He was also the official photographer for proms, sports teams, marching bands and faculty at these schools.
Durant had a gift of getting people to simply be themselves. His talent was to capture subjects looking natural – and that usually meant that they looked happy.
He was usually behind the camera and rarely in front. In fact, the only omission from Durant’s collection is Durant himself. A few photos remain of Durant during his athletic days at James City County Training School – the segregated high school for blacks at the corner of Botetourt and Nicholson streets.
It was during his high school years that Durant first discovered a love for the camera. He began taking pictures of classmates, faculty and family members as they engaged in daily activities.
Part of the collection contains newspaper clippings and papers related to his civic responsibilities, as well as letters from dignitaries and government officials. It includes several letters from satisfied customers who enjoyed both Durant’s driving and his historical commentary.
Durant also embraced and served his community in other ways, including as the first black justice of the peace and bail commission in Williamsburg and the first black magistrate of the General District Court, a position he held for 13 years.
Durant made Williamsburg his home until his death. He and his wife Elsie Lucille Ferguson had five children, some of whom continue to live in the area.