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Picturing Black America

NCCU celebrates a native photojournalist


NCCU celebrates a native photojournalist by doug stuber Photojournalist Alexander "Alex" Rivera Jr. may never be as well known as Margaret Bourke-White or Alfred Eisenstadt, but this may not be just because there is a bias against lionizing African Americans in general. It is also because Rivera, himself, felt it far more important to support the struggle for equality and civil rights, and to remain loyal to North Carolina Central University, than to seek personal triumphs.

In 1939, Rivera gave up his studies at Howard University and his post as a photographer at the Washington Tribune--D.C.'s largest black-owned publishing business--at the bequest of NCCU founder James E. Shepard. Shepard invited him to complete his degree at NCCU and organize the university's first news bureau. (Later, in 1957, Rivera would be invited by Vice President Richard Nixon to cover a tour through Africa and Europe.)

"It was easy to start the news bureau and be a student in 1939 because Central was just a college then and only had 502 students," says Rivera in a recent phone interview. "Only one student had a car, and we were family, everyone knew everyone, so the stories were easy to find. The trip with Richard Nixon was amazing. It was my first trip overseas, and it commemorated Ghana's independence from England. Hoisting the new flag over Ghana, it was an exciting scene as the British flag came down and the flag of Ghana passed it on the way up," he remembers.

NCCU's Art Museum pays tribute to Rivera and his historically informed and visually stimulating photographs with Alexander "Alex" Rivera: Picturing Black America. The exhibit showcases the diverse range of Rivera's black American subjects--from Thurgood Marshall to Mary McLeod Bethune to Duke Ellington--and highlights a career that was both local and international.

In one photo, taken during Ellington's visit to Durham in the 1940s, Rivera's artistic, informative approach captures Ellington dancing with a friend. Though Ellington and his band were forced to lodge in a train car (there were no hotels in Durham that accepted black visitors then), Rivera still catches a moment of pure joy, one that reflects not only Ellington's ability to cope with outside pressures, but also the resiliency of a culture that continually supported each other and made a living playing to crowds even in an area where racism dominated.

Robert Lawson, current NCCU photographer, remembers his first association with Rivera, when Lawson came to the university from a farm family that included nine sisters and brothers.

"I asked Mr. Rivera if he needed some yard work done, as I was working my way through school," Lawson says. "He asked if I thought I could learn photography, and for two years I developed, printed, sepia-toned and touched up photographs."

Sit-ins and Lawson's resulting jail time caused some rough moments with his boss, as Lawson would fall behind in his work. But, as he explains, "I pulled back on the student protests for desegregation and am very appreciative of the time I spent learning photography under Alex Rivera."

Rivera's contributions to journalism, history and the struggles of African Americans are worthy of much praise, but are his photographs worthy of an art museum?

Yes, and here's why: Knowing when to snap the shot is the most important aspect of photojournalism. All the other technical skills of photography are also required, but a great photojournalist does a lot more than focus, shoot, develop and print.

The genius of Rivera lies in his ability to capture the moment and tell a story--in real time. Like many of his colleagues, Rivera risked life and limb getting the most important stories of the day.

In 1948 he heard of the lynching of Isaiah Nixon in Montgomery County, Ga. Rivera arrived just days after the murder to write about and photograph the story of Nixon's grieving family. In one photograph, Nixon's stunned widow pulls biscuits from a stove; in another she holds a crying child, while four other children look deep into the camera lens and another woman scowls. The family poses in front of a porch full of raw cotton, where, tipped in the midst of the crop, is Isaiah Nixon's hat. It is impossible to know whether someone placed the hat there on purpose before the photograph, but the contrast of the fallen hat against the cotton blended with the strong human emotions that penetrate the foreground makes for rich symbolism.

Museum director Kenneth Rodgers offers insight about the Nixon photographs, which were taken at some peril to Rivera.

"Alex Rivera took a chance going to Montgomery County, but he was smart enough to go with a disguise, if needed--a chauffeur's cap and tie. He tried to get people to take him to the Nixons' house, but could not convince anyone until he offered to pay $25, a large sum at that time," Rodgers says. "He found a ride, and, after his interview--where he found out that Nixon had been shot and then lynched in front of his whole family--the car was stopped by the sheriff, who was with three other white men. Rivera asked his car-owning friend who they were, and he said they were the Klan. Rivera figured his time was up when the sheriff asked what he was doing there. The car owner quickly stepped in and said he was attending the funeral of Isaiah Nixon. The sheriff questioned the family, and Rivera was allowed to leave."

Rivera's particularly candid shots of men and women involved in the Civil Rights Movement will be his permanent contribution to photography and to the cause. Art photographers Ansel Adams, or more locally, Jon Rosenthal, present crystal clear images that reflect their philosophy, but which are usually stationary. Rivera made art while also being required to hit a moving target.

"In 1947 I went to cover the trial of the lynching of Willie Earl in South Carolina," says Rivera. "It was a very dangerous situation, and a disaster in the court, as their lawyers brought in all the kin of the defendants as co-conspirators, and that made for over 60 defendants in the case. After hearing that the FBI knew the exact details of who sat in which car, and the ugly report of the lynching, including cutting Earl's body to death, the jury came back with a verdict saying the defendants did what 'any red-blooded American would do," Rivera remembers.

Regardless of personal peril, Rivera was a photojournalist who went where he had to to document the struggle for equality. In 1993, when he retired at the age of 80, former governor James Hunt awarded him with the state's highest honor by admitting him into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

Theresa El Amin, co-coordinator of the Southern Anti-Racism Network and developer of the Durham-based organization S.P.I.C.E. (Strong Parental Involvement in Community Education), recognizes Rivera's essential role in documenting the struggle for equality for over 70 years.

"The movement developed an aesthetic that reaches into the souls of black folk to tell our story," she says, as she walks through the exhibit. "It is a much more extensive exhibit than I was anticipating."

Lawson, Rivera's No. 1 student, put his admiration in another way: "I had never dreamed of being a photographer--I don't know where I'd be today without Alex Rivera." x

Alexander "Alex" Rivera: Picturing Black America runs through Nov. 3 at the NCCU Art Museum. Rivera will attend a reception on Friday, Oct. 29, 2:30-5 p.m. 1801 Fayetteville St., Durham. Call 560-6211 for more information.

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