By the time he was twenty years old, photographer Robert H. McNeill had already completed an important photo essay on the plight of domestic workers in New York City. His series of thirteen photographs, which was published in Flash, a “weekly newspicture magazine” for African American readers, caught the attention of Howard University professor Sterling Brown. At the time, Brown was supervising an unprecedented project supported by the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project that sought to record the complete history of African American life in the Commonwealth of Virginia, from the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619, to the present day. Unsatisfied with the images of African Americans he had already procured, Brown reached out to McNeill hoping he could gain access to communities that were wary of white photographers with government credentials.
Published in 1940, The Negro in Virginia featured eight of the hundreds of photographs McNeill captured as part of this project. This exhibition contains some of those images with other unpublished photographs that demonstrate McNeill’s interest in the people who lived and worked in segregated communities. Though he was not given explicit instructions about what subjects to photograph, McNeill later recalled, “I understood what they wanted were pictures of people at work, pictures that would show the soul of people in their jobs.” While deftly avoiding both stereotypes and propaganda, McNeill’s photographs are incisive portraits of Virginians in their homes, places of work, and communities.