Robert H. McNeill was an American photographer most noted for his documentation of African-American life. “In the 1930s and 40s, any time there was a political, social, religious, or community event in Washington’s black community, Robert H. McNeill was there to photograph it.”
Early life and education
McNeill was born in Washington, D.C.: his father William C. McNeill was a physician and medical educator, and his mother Mary A. McNeill was a DC school teacher and member of the Board of Education. He discovered his interest in photography as a high school student at Dunbar High School, which produced a corps of black artists and intellectuals during the first half of the 20th century.
As an 18-year-old sophomore at Washington’s Howard University, McNeill photographed the 1936 Olympics hero Jesse Owens during his post-Olympics visit to the campus. He sold the photograph to the two local African-American newspapers and to all four of the daily “mainstream” DC newspapers, whose coverage of the African-American community had generally been very limited. That was a pivotal moment in his career. After attending Howard University for two years as a pre-medical student, he entered the New York Institute of Photography where he graduated in 1938.
New York City was a fertile field for photographic subjects and an inspiration for McNeill. He photographed dancers at the Savoy Ballroom, cartoonist E. Simms Campbell and Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman (rehearsing for the famous Carnegie Hall Concert of 1938) among others.
While at the institute, McNeill learned that Fortune magazine was looking for photographs of the “domestic workers, mostly black, who assembled on designated street corners each day to sell their labor to the highest bidder.” McNeill was developing his own style of documentary photography as he juxtaposed images of the black workers with their surroundings; for example, three women and a man standing beneath a movie poster that reads, “Make a Wish”. As part of the project, McNeill was able to follow Bessie Windstown as she stood waiting on a corner for a prospective job, through her negotiations with a white housewife from the Bronx for her hourly wage to the employer’s home, where he was able to photograph her scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees. In the end, Fortune did not use McNeill’s pictures; their final story, “The Servant Problem”, portrayed the story from the employers’ viewpoint. McNeill was able to publish the essay “The Bronx Slave Market” in Flash!, a Washington and NYC-based, black-edited magazine. He returned to Washington in 1938 and established himself as a free-lance photographer.
That same year, McNeill’s work came to the attention of Sterling Brown, a faculty member at Howard University and the Negro Affairs editor for the Federal Writers’ Project. Brown was launching what was to be known as the Negro in Virginia study. The project was unique in that it had “an all-black research staff led by Hampton Institute scientist Roscoe Lewis”; the mission was to document “three centuries of black history through sources as varied as ex-slave narratives, economic statistics, and photographs.”
McNeill spent most of September 1938 traveling as an uncompensated consultant through the state of Virginia alone in a black coupe with USA license plates. With 160 images for his Speed Graphic camera and a few rolls of 35 mm for a borrowed Leica, the young photographer had to be very judicious about his shots. During those three weeks, he filmed workers at their jobs from the most menial to the black middle class. He encountered the tobacco workers, the longshoremen, and bankers.
Only a few of McNeill’s epic photographs of black life in the state were eventually published in Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion and that world invisible to most of America, The Negro in Virginia, in 1940.
During the 1930s and 1940s, McNeill chronicled the lives of African Americans in Washington, DC. He photographed events for the Boy and Girl Scouts, the black YMCA and YWCA, and the African American Junior League. He recorded weddings, cotillions, graduations, meetings, awards ceremonies, and baptisms; one of his famous photographs is of a multiple baptism by Pentecostal minister Daddy Grace. He paid particular attention to people going about their daily lives—an iceman, a hairdresser, workers at a corner market, movers, and boys reading comic books on a street corner.
After his success with the Jesse Owens photograph, McNeill continued to contribute to black newspapers throughout the country. He had an eye for significant events in the African American community, and he had an ear for learning where things were happening. “People would give me tips and leads; knowing that I was a photographer, they’d call me up,” said McNeill.
McNeill photographed the famous and the ordinary. He met “his subjects head-on they take up the entire frame of the picture. Nothing distracts from the main event. The list of the famous includes Joe Lewis, Duke Ellington, Hattie McDaniel, Ella Fitzgerald, Eleanor, and Franklin Roosevelt. He caught Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in action from the wings of the Earle Theater because he could not purchase a ticket in the front row.He captured the opening of the T Street Post Office in Washington, the first with an all-black staff, and the opening of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was present and recorded the confirmation of William Hastie as governor of the Virgin Islands. He documented the growing civil rights movement in the 1940s.
During World War II, McNeill served in an ammunition ordnance company (594th Am Ord Co), which was a very common posting for African American troops;he was stationed in Alabama and Guadalcanal much of which time he spent as the First Sergeant of his all African-American company. He left the Army in 1945 as a Second Lieutenant having been commissioned at the very end of the war. He also compiled a personal photographic record of his experiences in the Army.
When he returned to Washington, he resumed his photo business, McNeill News Photo Service. He was commissioned by the United Negro College Fund to document the post-war veterans’ education programs at eleven Negro colleges.
In 1950, McNeill became a government photographer for the Department of Defense. In 1956, James Steven “Steve” Wright brought McNeill to the U.S. Department of State as a portrait photographer. Wright had started as a chauffeur-messenger in the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, but Hyman Greenberg, recognizing his talent as a photographer, hired Wright first as a “photographic assistant” and quickly changed it to the assistant photographer. Greenberg and others helped break down racial barriers for Wright and by 1954, Wright had become Photographic Branch Chief of Audio Visual Division, at the Department of State. McNeill was a direct beneficiary of Wright’s policy of giving out assignments to whoever was available at any given time, which gave all of the photographers equal opportunity in the department. McNeill eventually succeeded Wright as Photographic Branch Chief and retired from the Department of State in 1978 in that position. As a portrait photographer at State, McNeill is credited with creating the official portraits of Secretaries of State Dean Rusk, Henry Kissinger, and Cyrus Vance.
In 1997, McNeill was selected as Photographer of the Year by the Fotocraft Camera Club of Washington. In 1998 he received the Maurice Sorrell Lifetime Achievement Award from the EXPOSURE GROUP, African American Photographers Association.