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Highlights of the Albert Durant Photography Collection


      Albert Durant’s photographic output, preserved in a collection of ten thousand negatives, four thousand black and white prints, and six hundred color slides, provides a fascinating glimpse into the African American communities in Williamsburg, Virginia, and surrounding areas. Albert Durant and his camera presided over the usual weddings, birthdays, and family picnics, but also witnessed the sizzle of local jazz clubs, the dignity of NAACP meetings, the reverent spirituality of river baptisms, the excitement of Homecoming parades, and the dedication of local businesses. With no substantive written history by African Americans about life in twentieth-century Williamsburg,[1] Durant’s visual history of African Americans in the city in the later 1930s to early 1960s is priceless and offers a much needed perspective on their achievements in education, entertainment, religion, and civic life.

                The bulk of the collection was purchased by Colonial Williamsburg’s research library in 1992, after a boxful of Durant’s photos caught the attention of former vice president Steve Elliott at a garage sale. Intrigued, he inquired about the photographs and learned that they were the work of Albert Wadsworth Durant, a local Williamsburg resident who had recently passed away. Elliott urged library staff to investigate the scope of Durant’s photographic collection, which led to the eventual purchase of the photos from Durant’s widow.[2] By a happy coincidence, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation had recently purchased the former Bruton Heights School, once a segregated educational facility in Williamsburg.  The Foundation planned to refurbish the school as an educational center for the museum and desired to commemorate the thriving African American community that once cherished the building. After Mrs. Durant’s death in 2008, her daughter uncovered a scrapbook and miscellaneous loose photos that document Durant's high school years and his early efforts as a photographer.

                Since its purchase, portions of the collection have been exhibited at Williamsburg Regional Library, and reproductions of many of the photos are an integral part of a permanent exhibit at the remodeled Bruton Heights School facility, which is used today as office and production space for Colonial Williamsburg staff. Members of the community have faithfully come by the library over the years to help identify people, places, and events depicted in the images. New identifications and commentary about the photos are always welcome.

                Due to the collection’s size, highlights of the major subject categories in the collection are presented here. As time and staffing allows, additions to each subject area, as well as new categories, may be added in the future.  This online exhibit provides a glimpse behind the lens of Albert Durant, the first licensed African American photographer in Williamsburg, who created a lasting visual legacy of his community.

[1] Rex M. Ellis, “The African-American Community in Williamsburg (1947-1998),” in Williamsburg, Virginia: A City Before the State, 1699-1999, ed. Robert P. Maccubbin (Williamsburg, Virginia: City of Williamsburg, 2000), 231.

[2] Daniel Frederick Hodapp, “The Albert Durant Collection: African American Life in the 1940s and 1950s in Williamsburg, Virginia,” (baccalaureate thesis, College of William & Mary, 2003), 23.


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