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The Extraordinary Photographs of Albert W. Durant Capture African-American Life Aboard the SS United

Continuing its commitment to protect and showcase the legacy of America’s Flagship, the SS United States Conservancy is proud to include a series of spectacular black and white photographs by Albert W. Durant in our permanent curatorial collections.

The photographs were taken by Durant — Williamsburg, Virginia’s first African-American city-licensed photographer — during the ship's top-secret trial runs in early 1952, and depict African-American kitchen staff and stewards aboard the SS United States.

African-American porters and restaurant captains aboard the SS United States.

Photograph by Albert W. Durant.

Albert Wadsworth Durant was born on February 2nd, 1920, in New York City. Following the death of his father, his mother, Bessie Durant, relocated the family to her hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1929. The Colonial Williamsburg foundation writes in a biography of Durant:

"Albert Durant ran his own chauffeuring and limousine business in the Williamsburg area, providing services to many distinguished visitors to the city, including the Queen Mother of England, the Prince of Japan, and various chief justices. He often took his customers on excursions to local historic sites, including Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and the James River plantations. Through course work at the College of William and Mary, Durant acquired a background in American history which enabled him to provide historical commentary as he drove customers through the countryside.

Durant's contacts at the College of William and Mary sparked his initial interest in photography and once he had obtained equipment and training, Durant began creating his own historical record of the Williamsburg area. He produced hundreds of portraits documenting the families and activities of African-American residents and also documented significant events, places, and persons in and around Williamsburg.

In addition, Albert Durant worked to improve conditions for African-Americans in Williamsburg by serving in various positions in the city's government. He acted as the first black Justice of the Peace and Bail Commissioner in Williamsburg and served as the first black magistrate of the General District Court from his appointment in 1962 until his retirement in 1975. Albert Durant died at age 71 on April 14, 1991."

Portrait of photographer Albert Durant in his chauffeur uniform. Courtesy of Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

African-American cooks and galley help pose behind the galley counter.

Photograph by Albert W. Durant.

The twenty-two black-and-white photographs in the Albert W. Durant collection were acquired by the SS United States Conservancy as part of a generous donation of over 600 artifacts from the ship made by the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, VA, in 2016. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s John D. Rockefeller Library also owns a set of the images, and was the original source of the donation.

“As we ramp up our museum planning and expand our permanent collections, this extraordinary donation helps ensure that the legacy of America’s iconic flagship will inspire for generations to come,” said Susan Gibbs, Executive Director of the SS United States Conservancy. “The Mariners’ Museum continues to be a wonderful partner in our efforts to save the United States. These original items from the ship...pay tribute to the people who made this ship a global Ambassador for our nation.”

See more photographs from the Conservancy's Albert W. Durant collection in the slideshow below. You can also learn more about Durant and his work on the website of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Various photographs of African-American kitchen staff, porters and restaurant captains aboard the SS United States. Photographs by Albert W. Durant.

Do you own artwork, objects or photographs from America's Flagship? Click HERE to find out how you can make a donation, or reach out at archives@ssusc.org.

Not ready to part with your SS United States memorabilia? The Conservancy is undertaking a project to catalogue the location and ownership of surviving original fixtures, furniture, artwork and ephemera currently held in private collections. Fill out our collection survey HERE.

#photography #curatorial

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