In Memory of Reuben V. Burrell

The International Review of African American Art and Hampton University are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our beloved photographer, Reuben V. Burrell.  Affectionately known by his Hampton family as "One Shot," Burrell passed Tuesday, February 3, 2015.  He would have celebrated his 96th birthday on February 27.  

Reuben V. BurrellReuben Burrell, or "Mr. B" as he was also called, said he would work until the day he died and that he did, rarely missing a day of his 66-year career as Hampton's photographer until his final day.  His last day of work was February 2, 2015.

Director of the Hampton University Museum Nashid Madyun says, "Mr. Burrell represents the essence of Americana.  He blended craftsmanship, passion, cultural perspective, integrity in every step of life and every photo that was produced by his hand.  His portrayal of life was a fine art that was honest and rich.  Unlike the volumes of photos in his archive, he will never be duplicated."

Hampton Institute student Billy Smith, 1940s. Photo: Rueben BurrellReuben Burrell will be incredibly missed but his legacy will live on through his very long and eloquent photographic record.

The following is an IRAAA+ article by Kendall Alexander which was posted on the occasion of Mr. B's 94th birthday.

The Griot Speaks

In my imagination, Mr. B. is reminiscent of the Energizer Bunny because he keeps going and going.  And going.

In the run up to the celebration his 94th birthday on February 27, 2013, Hampton University’s legendary photographer Reuben Burrell, affectionately known as “One Shot,” shared his experiences during a discussion held February 15 at the Hampton University Museum. 

Marian Anderson on the steps of Ogden Hall, c. 1950s. Photo: Reuben Burrell. Collection of Hampton University Museum and ArchivesThe program location – the Museum’s Archives – was symbolic because Burrell and his camera have been a witness to a long history.  He has worked under eight presidents recording now-historical events, student life, graduation ceremonies and famous visitors.  He still comes in every weekday to work half days, organizing his vast collection of prints and negatives.

J.W. Meddling Tailor Shop, Hampton, c. 1950s. Photo: Reuben Burrell. Collection of Hampton University Musuem and ArchivesThe famous visitors included Stokely Carmichael in the 1960s. Burrell recalled how the young firebrand regaled the students to see how "black is beautiful."  James Baldwin’s visit to campus probably occurred around the time that he returned from France to promote his new book, No Name in the Street.  When Duke Ellington came to perform at the Hampton Jazz Festival in the 1960s, he signed autographs for excited students.

Nina Simone performing at 1969 Hampton Jazz Festival. Photo: Reuben Burrell. Collection of Hampton University Museum and ArchivesBurrell also recalled Hampton alumna, Alberta Williams King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s mother, and Rosa Parks, who worked at the campus faculty dining room after she left Birmingham.

He was joined in the discussion by Alphonso Knight, a 1947 Hampton Institute graduate and his friend of 70 years.  

Another nickname for “One Shot” is “the griot.”  There is no one more deeply knowledgeable about Hampton University than Burrell.  He’s also forthright about what he sees as its, and everyone else’s, shortcomings. 

Burrell and Knight talked about how “Hampton could have become the black M.I.T and Tuskegee could have been the Cornell of the South, but with integration that’s not the case.  Now you can’t find a decent black carpenter,” Knight lamented.

Knight was referring to the trade school at Hampton Institute which trained generations of young black people for artisanal, mechanical and technical careers.

Only a few people –friends and colleagues—were invited to the event because of Burrell and Knight’s advanced age.  So this small, warm and intimate program was like a family gathering  where stories were told to the young’uns and jokes cracked about how things aren’t like they used to be.

Martin Luther King, Jr. with Hampton Institute students. Photo: Rueben BurrellWe also learned how Burrell got his original nickname. (His third nickname is “Mr. B.”  When you’ve lived that long you accumulate nicknames.)  During World War II when resources were scarce, it was hard to get film and photographic equipment.   So when photographers went out to shoot, they were only going to get ‘one shot’.  When he was shooting in front of Ogden Hall one day, a student shouted the nickname and it stuck.

 Duke Ellington and Hampton Institute students. Photo: Reuben Burrell. Collection Hampton University Museum and ArchivesBurrell also recalled the early days of his photography career: obtaining film, acquiring licensing, processing auto chromatic film, and experimenting with color.  His photographic skills also include restoring old, fragile photographs in the university’s archives.  None of these lessons were taught in a classroom.  Burrell learned it all through trial and error experience, becoming a master known for the artistic qualities of his prints.

The Marching Force, c. 1980s. Photo: Reuben Burrell. Collection of Hampton University Museum and ArchivesAfter completion of auto mechanics courses in 1940, Burrell was sent to New York to study diesel and return to Hampton to teach.  After teaching in the naval department for some time, he was drafted and stationed Naval Air Station in Norfolk.

There, he became a stevedore because black people were not permitted to work on base.  After his discharge in 1947, Burrell returned to Hampton Institute to complete his B.S. in Industrial Arts and went on to graduate study at NYU.

Returning south, he looked for employment as a diesel teacher at Hampton but learned that many of the courses pertaining to the trade had been dissolved.  This was when Hampton Institute was transitioning from being a trade school to becoming a four-year academic and graduate degree-conferring institution.  So Burrell joined the staff as part-time, campus photographer and also worked as a freelancer in the area, taking pictures that now reveal a golden age of African American life in the South, despite the restrictions of the Jim Crow era.  In the 1960s, Burrell’s campus position became fulltime.

In 2012 the Hampton University Museum published One Shot, A Selection of Photography by Reuben V. Burrell, edited by HU Museum curator Vanessa Thaxton-Ward.  Flipping through the pages of history, the reader will find Marian Anderson descending the steps of Ogden Hall; Rosa Parks in front of rows of white cups at Hampton’s Holly Tree Inn; “Mr. Git Down” himself, the drum major of the HU Marching Force, at the culminating bust of a move; and, at the 1969 Hampton jazz festival, Ray Charles caught in mid-sway, rocking from side to side on stage, with the joyous anguish of the blues etched into his face

Hampton University’s broad range of history and culture is readily apparent through Burrell’s work and the skill and determination of its oldest employee is evident everyday through Burrell's devotion to his craft: he keeps going and going.

Kendall Alexander is an IRAAA intern.