The Photographs of Alexander Rivera

Harvey Beech (left) and J. Kenneth Lee
Harvey Beech (left) and J. Kenneth Lee

The image:  two young men stride through two large open doors.  Each man is carrying a packet of papers.  The men are smiling and seem confident.

I had seen this image many times before.  In fact, we have a print of this photograph in the SHC’s collection of J. Kenneth Lee Papers.  From our description of the photograph in the finding aid for the Lee Papers and from the other images that accompanied it in the collection, I knew that the photograph depicted the historic moment, on the morning of June 11, 1951, when Harvey Beech and J. Kenneth Lee entered South Building on UNC’s campus to complete their registration in the UNC School of Law, thereby becoming the first ever African American students to enroll at the University.

What I didn’t know, until this morning, was that this photograph was taken by Alexander M. Rivera Jr.  Thanks to a news release from the NC Department of Cultural Resources regarding the mounting of an exhibit featuring Rivera’s work at the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum in Sedalia, N.C., I now know the correct attribution for this image.

Alex Rivera was a nationally renowned and prominent photojournalist.  He also established the public relations office at North Carolina Central University, and served as the office’s first director.

Beech and Lee were both students at Central’s Law School who, through a lawsuit supported by the NAACP, were able to argue that their educational opportunities at Central were not equal to those that they would receive at Carolina.

So, it would follow that Rivera would have been present to document this moment as two of N.C. Central’s top law students transferred from Central to enroll as the first African American students at Carolina.

Last October, Alex Rivera passed away in Durham, N.C. at the age of 95.  His legacy lives on in the historic photographs that he captured during his amazing life.  Now, you have another chance to view some of these photographs. The exhibit, “Bearing Witness: Civil Rights Photographs of Alexander Rivera,” is on view the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum until August 15, 2009.

[One last note:  You can listen online to Harvey Beech speak about his experience at Carolina.]

0 thoughts on “The Photographs of Alexander Rivera”

  1. One important photo! And that would be the fabled Wilson Library in the dim distance between Lee and Beech?

  2. I should point out a slight correction. Here’s the background…

    In this post I refer to “N.C. Central” or “Central” – referring to the university in Durham that is now called North Carolina Central University (NCCU). NCCU has gone by other names at other points in its history.

    North Carolina Central University was chartered in 1909 by Dr. James E. Shepard as the National Religious Training School at Chautauqua. The school opened its doors on July 5, 1910.

    The school was reorganized in 1915, and became known as the National Training School.

    In 1923, the school became a taxpayer-funded institution, and was renamed Durham State Normal School.

    In 1925, the school was renamed again as the North Carolina College for Negroes.

    In 1947, the General Assembly changed the name of the institution to North Carolina College at Durham.

    Therefore, it would be more precise to say that “Beech and Lee were both students at the Law School at the North Carolina College at Durham.”

    I stand self-corrected.

  3. Thanks to the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) you can actually listen to Alexander Rivera talk about his life and career. The SOHP tapes are held at Wilson Library and many of the interviews have been digitized over the past few years. Here’s a link to the Rivera interview, recorded in 2001.

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