SEDALIA — Already famous for using his camera to shine a harsh light on racism in the American South, Alexander Rivera visited Palmer Memorial Institute in the early 1950s to document life at this prestigious African American prep school. He captured images of students, teachers and administrators far different than the civil rights marches often featured in his photos.
Now through Aug.15, visitors to the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum in Sedalia can see the award-winning photographer’s work, including one photo taken at Palmer of Nat King Cole, Dr. Brown and other family members. “Bearing Witness: Civil Rights Photographs of Alexander Rivera” is free and open to the public.
This exhibit brings together 31 images and articles from Rivera’s career with some of the nation’s leading black newspapers including the Pittsburgh Courier (Pittsburgh, Pa.), the Journal and Guide (Norfolk, Va.), and the Washington Tribune (Washington, D.C.). From pivotal moments in civil rights history to events in everyday life, the exhibit illustrates how his work brought national attention to African Americans, including North Carolinians. Rivera received the North Carolina Award for Fine Arts in 2008.
Visitors may see these photos during the museum’s normal operating hours and during the African American Heritage Day program scheduled for Saturday, July 18, from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Rivera had a particular interest in the former Palmer Memorial Institute, which the late Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown turned into one of the nation’s most elite prep schools for African American youth. His sister, Raven Rivera Elliot, attended Palmer, and their father, Dr. A.M. Rivera, a prominent Greensboro dentist and community leader, served on the school’s board of trustees.
The photojournalist’s press coverage ranged from the aftermaths of lynchings to “firsts” for black students, entertainers, athletes and others. Coincidentally, while reporting on others breaking racial barriers, Rivera was also breaking new ground. He not only made history but helped change it. His arresting images and impassioned articles revealed facts about the civil rights movement that mainstream media often ignored. Throughout the turbulent struggle for racial equality from the 1940s to 1960s, this award-winning photojournalist kept his lens and pen focused on the South’s African American communities.
“I had no idea that I was involved in the making of history,” Rivera once said. “To me, it was just another day on the job.”
Rivera also kept North Carolinians in the headlines. As southeastern correspondent at the Pittsburgh Courier, he followed the efforts of five African American students to integrate the law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. His articles attracted support for their efforts, and in 1951 the first blacks, Harvey Beech and Kenneth Lee, were admitted.
Nationally, the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 changed history. After this landmark decision ended legal school segregation, Rivera and Pittsburgh Courier News Editor Robert M. Ratcliffe initiated the series “The South Speaks,” which chronicled the political climate and public reactions across the South. In 1955 they received a Global News Syndicate Award for their coverage of the Brown decision and its impact on desegregation in public schools throughout the South.
Born in Greensboro in 1913, Rivera graduated from N.C. College for Negroes (now N.C. Central University) in 1941. Throughout his career, he regularly featured stories of his alma mater and Durham’s African American commercial district then known as “Black Wall Street.”
Visitors to “Bearing Witness” will see images of state and national events, well-known individuals and everyday citizens. These include:
• Nine-year-old Arthur Ashe attending a Durham tennis camp in 1952 (Ashe went on to become the first black man to win the Wimbledon championship in 1975)
• A mother and child on a segregated bus in Alabama in 1955
• New York congressman and prominent civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell Jr. with N.C. College for Negroes founder Dr. James E. Shepard
• Vice President Richard Nixon in Ghana in 1957, attending ceremonies marking the country’s independence
• The Fultz quadruplets, born in 1946 in Reidsville, who gained international fame as the “world’s only identical quadruplets”
• Students on the campus of N.C. Central University during a 1965 Malcolm X rally
• African Americans voting in a Democratic primary in Columbia, S.C., in 1948 (for the first time since 1876)
After his newspaper career, Rivera returned to N.C. Central University, where he served as public relations director from 1974 until his 1993 retirement. Rivera died Oct. 23, 2008, at age 95 in Durham.
Opened in 1987, the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum State Historic Site honors the late Dr. Brown, who first began teaching children here in Sedalia in 1902. For 50 years after founding PMI, Dr. Brown labored unceasingly to educate young people, building what started out as a tiny academy into a renowned African American prep school.
PMI closed in 1971 but after it was turned into a state historic site, five former school buildings have been designated as official projects of Save America’s Treasures, a public-private partnership between the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The museum’s mission is to preserve and interpret the history and legacy of Dr. Brown, PMI and African American education in North Carolina.
It is located in Sedalia on Hwy. 70 between Greensboro and Burlington. Groups of 10 or more are encouraged to make reservations in advance. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and admission is free. The site is located at 6136 Burlington Road, 10 miles east of Greensboro off I-85, exit 135.
Administered by the Division of State Historic Sites, Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum is part of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, the state agency dedicated to the promotion and protection of North Carolina’s arts, history, and culture through such programs as “Treasure N.C. Culture.” For more information, visit www.ncculture.com.