A pioneer of history in images
NCCU alumnus Alex Rivera’s photography now on display at art museum
Published: Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 12:02
The name Alex Rivera is synonymous with photojournalism.
Well known for portraying the civil rights movement through his camera lens, he told stories the country would never forget.
"I never thought I was involved in anything that was history-making or great. To me, it was just another day-to-day assignment," he told the New York Times. Rivera died on October 23, 2008 at 95.
In honor of N.C. Central University's centennial anniversary, some of Rivera's photography is on display in the University art museum through April 23.
Rivera was born in Greensboro in 1913. His father, a dentist, was active in the civil rights movement and a member of the NAACP.
Rivera attended Howard University but hard times during the 1930s forced him leave school and seek work.
His first job was working as a photojournalist and arts editor for the Washington Tribune, a black weekly in Washington D.C.
Rivera's first major photo assignment was to shoot Marian Anderson's historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.
Fearing he was having too much fun, Rivera's father and Dr. James Shepard, NCCU's founder, "conspired" to get him off the streets of D.C. and back to the South.
Rivera arrived at NCCU in 1939, then called North Carolina College for Negroes, to finish his education and establish the University's public relations office.
He was elected student body president his senior year and received his BA in 1941.
Rivera often took pictures of football games for other black colleges when they had no photographers.
The famous photograph of Zora Neal Hurston attending a football game at the University in the 1940s was taken by Rivera when the current Greek bowl was the football field.
Following graduation, Rivera served in the military with the office of Naval Intelligence from 1941-1945.
After the war, Rivera worked for Pittsburg Courier, a black newspaper with a circulation of 200,000.
It was for the Courier that Rivera took his renowned photos of the segregated South, called "The South Speaks."
Between 1947 and 1948 Rivera traveled to South Carolina and Georgia to investigate the last reported lynchings in those states.
He became well known for his articles and photos that documented segregation.
Rivera wrote several articles about the first blacks to integrate UNC-Chapel Hill's law school in the early 1950s, among them Floyd McKissick, Kenneth Lee and Harvey Beech.
Kenneth Rodgers, director of the NCCU art museum, said Rivera's photography of the Brown vs. Board of Education saga is what catapulted Rivera to fame.
"He never went anywhere without a chauffeur cap and bowtie," said Rodgers. "He said if he was stopped [by police] he could say he worked for such and such."
Rivera photographed Durham's first black male police officers in 1944 when the force was integrated and did the same for the city's first African-American female officers in 1973.
Rivera worked as NCCU's public relations director from 1974-1993. He chronicled the University's history in all for over 66 years.
In 2002 Rivera said the photo he took of a mother and child seated on a segregated bus was one of his favorites.
"It shows the kind of country that this little child was being born and reared in," he said.
"That's the reason why I like it so much."
Rodgers said that Rivera was "humble and took pride in his work."
"People forget he wrote the stories along with the pictures," said Rodgers. "He was the mentor to any number of black writers and photographers."
"Where else will one find a history in pictures and text of North Carolina's early days, Durham's black wall street, celebrities of national and international stature and some of the most celebrated civil rights photographs in the nation?" he said.