As archivists and librarians we’re frequently confronted with piles of books, letters, photographs…you name it. And it’s easy to become so focused on cataloging and describing them that we forget to actually stop and think about the stories they contain and the people who created them. That’s especially the case when the name doesn’t immediately jump out as a noted North Carolinian. But here’s an example of why it’s good for us to occasionally stop and take note.
During a North Carolina Collection staff meeting on Thursday, a colleague mentioned that she recently added photographs by Albert Rabil Jr. to Digital NC, a website administered by the North Carolina Collection and featuring scans of yearbooks, scrapbooks, newspapers and various and sundry other items from libraries and archives around the state. The Rabil photographs were just one in a number of collections that she listed as new to Digital NC. And neither she nor anyone else at the meeting commented further on them. But the name jumped out to me. At least the surname did.
I’ve long had an interest in the Lebanese who settled in North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century. And I recognized Rabil as the surname of some of those settlers. I wondered if Albert Rabil Jr. might be (or have been) of Lebanese ancestry and, just as importantly, whether he might have photographed some of the early Lebanese settlers or their descendants.
The prints and negatives that make up the Albert Rabil Jr. Collection are held by the Braswell Memorial Library in Rocky Mount. The subjects of the Rabil photographs on Digital NC include dances, groundbreakings, weddings, Boy Scout gatherings, homes, businesses, sports and many other aspects of daily life in Rocky Mount in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But, alas, there are no images of Lebanese celebrations or people who appear to be Lebanese.
I wanted to know more about Albert Rabil so I looked for his name among our holdings. But I found nothing by or about him. Then I turned to Google. That search yielded several sites promoting books on Renaissance history and literature. Could Albert Rabil the photographer be Albert Rabil the scholar? Albert Rabil the scholar had ties to the State University of New York at Old Westbury. Could a Rocky Mount boy end up in New York? Sure, I told myself. We’ve been a mobile society for at least a half century. Digging deeper into the Google search results, I discovered that Albert Rabil the scholar earned an undergraduate degree at Duke. Then I struck gold. In 2004 the scholarly Mr. Rabil lived in Chapel Hill. And, there, on a web page, was his phone number.
I dialed the number and shortly thereafter spoke with Albert Rabil the scholar, who was also Albert Rabil the photographer and Albert Rabil a Tar Heel Lebanese. Here’s his story.
Rabil, 77, grew up in Rocky Mount. Three of his four grandparents emigrated from Lebanon. His father, Albert Sr., and his mother, Sophie, opened Vogue Dress Shop in 1932 and later started a construction business, Modern Builders. Rabil took up photography when he was about 12. There was a polio outbreak in town and he and his friends were isolated in their homes. Rabil worked with a Speed Graphic camera, the standard tool for American press photographers until the mid-1960s. He set up a dark room in his father’s toolshed.
Rabil’s Speed Graphic was his constant companion, accompanying him to plays, sporting events, dances and family gatherings. At Rocky Mount High School he shot photographs for the yearbook, The Hi-Noc-Ar, and eventually became the publication’s editor. The young photographer found a mentor in Osmond L. “Bugs” Barringer, a one-time news photographer who opened a portrait studio in Rocky Mount in the early 1940s. Rabil spent as much time as he could in the company of Barringer on photo shoots or at the older photographer’s business on Western Avenue. Barringer and his wife, Dot, never had children and Rabil says the couple treated him as their adopted son. Barringer, a freelance photographer for The News and Observer and for 42 years the newspaper’s gardening columnist, shared his press contacts with Rabil. And, as a result, the young photographer had several of his images published in the Rocky Mount Telegram and The News and Observer.
Rabil continued taking photographs at Duke, where he enrolled in the fall of 1952. He was active in the university’s Methodist student fellowship and during his freshman year he shot photographs of the group’s activities. At the end of the school year he compiled those images into a book, which he published and distributed to his fellow students. Rabil says he was proud of that book, but sadly he’s lost his copy and knows of no others.
Rabil started out as an engineering major at Duke, a path he thought would prepare him to take over the family’s construction business. But Rabil says he found history more to his liking. By the time he graduated from Duke in 1957, he had stopped taking photographs. He also had ditched the name Albert in favor of Al.
Rabil went on to further study and teaching history in such locales as New York City, Berkeley, Chicago, Hartford and Old Westbury, New York. He married, raised two children and published (and continues to publish) books on the Renaissance. Now retired, Rabil says the camera has never again become the companion it was in the late 1940s and 1950s. A year ago, at his brother’s urging, he donated his photographs to the Braswell Memorial Library in Rocky Mount. Until yesterday he hadn’t seen his photographs online.
After taking a look at them, he emailed to say that we had the wrong last name for one of the subjects of his photos (we’re working on getting that changed). He described the photo as one featuring Blanche and “her boyfriend, later her husband” Koka. He wrote that he thinks that Koka’s last name is Booth, but that he wasn’t sure. A quick check of some clippings on Koka Booth, the longtime mayor of Cary, verified that his wife is indeed named Blanche and she’s from Rocky Mount. Could the photo below be an early photo of Koka Booth?
Rabil may have photographed a young Koka Booth, but sadly (at least from my perspective) he didn’t capture (or at least preserve) photographs of his Lebanese ancestors and their celebrations. Rabil says his family used to dine at his grandmother’s on Sunday nights and she laid a beautiful table with Lebanese fare. He thinks he photographed the spread. But those images are lost to time. In an email he wrote,” I wish I had gotten interested in all this at an age when it might have been useful, i.e., when I could have learned things and taken photographs that would now have great historical interest.” But, he says, like many a child or grandchild of immigrants, he was focused on blending in—on playing the same games, eating the same food and speaking the same ways as his longer established neighbors.
Al Rabil may not have preserved the Lebanese of North Carolina. But he’s preserved mid-20th century Rocky Mount. And for that, we’re grateful.