BIOGRAPHY

Portrait of Albert Wadsworth Durant

Portrait of Albert Wadsworth Durant in his chauffeur uniform. Photographer unidentified.

          On February 2, 1920, Albert Wadsworth Durant was born to Samuel and Bessie Durant in New York City. He spent his early childhood in the bustling metropolitan environment, where his mother worked as a domestic servant.  Upon the death of his father when he was age nine, Albert moved with his mother and siblings back to her hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.[1] Albert attended James City County Training School, a segregated school for Williamsburg’s African American residents located at the corner of Botetourt and Nicholson Streets. An accomplished athlete, Albert played on the school’s basketball team. He also discovered his love of photography and began taking pictures of classmates, faculty, and family members as they engaged in daily activities. Photographs from a scrapbook he assembled to commemorate his high school years offer a glimpse into the life of a typical African American teenager in late 1930s Williamsburg.


 

Albert Durant with Prince Akihito of Japan

Albert Durant holds the door of his limousine open for Prince Akihito of Japan during the crown prince's visit to Williamsburg in 1953. Photographer unidentified.

 

            While it is not known how he received his training as a photographer, community residents speculate that it may have been via classes he audited at the College of William & Mary, where he frequently sat in to further his knowledge. As an adult, Albert Durant ran a chauffeuring and limousine service as his principal source of income. He became well known as a sought-after guide to the historic sites of the area for distinguished visitors to the city. Famous individuals he chauffeured included Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother of the United Kingdom, Prince Akihito of Japan, and various United States government officials.  Durant soon found that he could at times combine his photography skills with his chauffeuring by offering to take a portrait of his clients at a historic site.  He also began frequenting many African American events to offer his services as a photographer. Eventually, he became the first licensed African American photographer in the Williamsburg area.[2]

 

Portrait of Albert Durant in a Basketball Uniform

Albert Durant in his James City County Training School basketball uniform, 1937. He noted on the back, "Our new uniform after a couple of good games at the age of 16, varsity center. This picture was taken [after] we play[ed] Yorktown, beating 79-19." Photographer unidentified.

 

            Albert Durant also achieved several other “firsts” as an African American in his community. He took a keen interest in civic affairs and became involved with helping to defend equal property rights for African Americans in Williamsburg. A regular attendee at City Council meetings, Durant served as a spokesperson for many of his neighbors. His civic activism led to his eventual appointments as Justice of the Peace, Bail Commissioner, and Magistrate of the General District Court in Williamsburg. Durant was the first African American in each of these offices.[3] 

 

Letter from the U.S. Attorney General to Albert W. Durant

Letter from Nicholas Katzenbuch, U.S. Attorney General, to Albert W. Durant, Justice of the Peace, in response to Durant's letter of July 22, 1965, regarding his study of the law "in hopes of becoming a United States Commissioner." Office of the Attorney General, Washington, D.C., July 27, 1965.

 

            In his various roles, Albert Durant received accolades and encouragement to explore his interests and career goals. Many of the high-ranking officials he chauffeured around Williamsburg praised him for going out of his way to be courteous and friendly, and in turn, they served as sources of career advice. A small group of personal papers within the Albert Durant Photography Collection illustrate his desire for self-improvement as a result of his contact with his clients. Durant’s efforts to further his development as a legal advocate for the community are evident in a letter he received from the U.S. Attorney General addressing his questions on how to become a United States Commissioner.[4]  Although he never reached this particular goal, Durant took many opportunities to make his voice heard, whether by writing to President Johnson about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gathering information to support the protection of individual property rights, or attending civic meetings.[5]

 

 

Letter from the Assistant to the President of the United States to Albert W. Durant

Letter from Paul M. Popple, Assistant to the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, to Albert W. Durant, expressing the president's thanks for Durant's "comments on the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965." The White House, Washington, D.C., August 19, 1965.

    

        At age 36, Durant married Elsie Lucille Ferguson on August 18, 1956. They raised three sons, Albert W. Durant, Jr., Byron Murphy, and Roderick Ferguson, and two daughters, Yvette Durant and Deanna Ferguson. Albert Durant died at age 71 on April 14, 1991.[6]


 

 

 

 

Advertisement for Durant's Photography, 1956

Advertisement for Durant's Photography, 1956. From Souvenir Program: Dedication Services and 180th Anniversary of First Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Va. (October 1956), p. 29. Reproduced with permission of Ms. Opelene L. Davis, First Baptist Church.

[1] “In Loving Memory of Mr. Albert Wadsworth Durant, Sr.” (Newport News, Va.: Carter Funeral Home, Inc., April 18, 1991).

[2] Obituary of Albert Durant, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), April 17, 1991, final edition.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nicholas Katzenbuch, U.S. Attorney General, Washington, D.C., to Albert Durant, July 27, 1965, Albert Durant Photography Collection, AV1992.1, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.

[5] Paul M. Popple, Assistant to the President of the United States, to Albert Durant, August 19, 1965, Albert Durant Photography Collection, AV1992.1, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.

[6] “In Loving Memory of Mr. Albert Wadsworth Durant, Sr.” (Newport News, Va.: Carter Funeral Home, Inc., April 18, 1991), 3.