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Behind the Scenes on the SS United States with Albert Durant

I don’t know about you, but I’m always up for a behind-the-scenes tour! It wasn’t so common in the 1950s to photograph the waitstaff and working areas of an ocean liner. This, combined with the African Americans pictured in a group of photographs I discovered in our Collection drew my attention.

Waitstaff stands behind a SS United States model with plates and a clock on the back wall. Photograph by Albert Durant, The Mariners’ Museum, MS0536–034.

Photographer Albert Durant approached the opportunity to be on board the SS United States during its trial run to focus on fellow people of color whose service made the passengers’ journey pleasurable. I’ve since learned Durant was a trailblazer right here in our backyard.

Entrepreneur Albert Wadsworth Durant (1920-1991) is credited for several “firsts,” including being the first licensed black photographer, first black Justice of the Peace and Bail Commission, and the first black magistrate of the General District Court, all in Williamsburg, Virginia.

African American kitchen help standing behind a counter. Photograph by Albert Durant, The Mariners’ Museum, MS0536–011.

Durant operated his own limousine and chauffeur business and frequently served distinguished guests to the area like the Queen of England and the Prince of Japan. To provide his customers with background information on sites they saw, he took various American history courses at the College of William and Mary.

Alongside operating his limousine business, Durant also conducted a photography business for both Black and white citizens. He would take formal and candid shots of anything, but his focus was on documenting the African American experience in Williamsburg during his lifetime.

The Mariners’ Museum has a collection of photographs that Albert Durant took when the ocean liner SS United States underwent its initial trials in 1952. This luxurious vessel was in operation from 1952-1969, and hosted many famous political and social figures. Durant gives us a behind-the-scenes look at its waitstaff and crew, who were primarily African American.

This collection of 39 photos came to the Museum from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which holds most of Albert Durant’s photographs. To learn more about Durant’s life, follow this link:

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