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Wed, 12.19.1917

Robert H. McNeill, Photographer born

Robert McNeill

*Robert H. McNeill was born on this date in 1917.  He was a Black still photographer. 

He was born in Washington, D.C., the son of a doctor and a schoolteacher, and grew up in the Shaw neighborhood. He became interested in photography at a young age after observing a demonstration on developing photographs. He joined a camera club at the 12th Street YMCA and took pictures for the Dunbar High School paper.

McNeill attended Howard University as a pre-med student for a few years but eventually left for the New York Photography Institute.  One year later, he returned to Washington and set up a freelance business out of his father's house on T Street, eventually moving to his studio.  As a freelancer, he was expected to know where the action was and get the pictures of interest to the newspaper readers. He would often photograph entertainers and sports figures as well as civil protests and political appointments. 

In the 1930s and '40s, any time there was a political, social, religious, or community event in Washington D.C.’s Black community, McNeill was there to photograph it. McNeill's subjects include Joe Louis, Marian Anderson, and Jesse Owens.   He did not avoid racial discrimination because of his prestige as a photographer.  As a Black man during Jim Crow, he was not allowed to buy a ticket at the Earl Theater (now the Warner Theater) or sit in front of the audience to photograph; he took the picture from the stage's wings.  

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.  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. 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.  Robert H. McNeill died on May 25, 2005, of complications of diabetes. McNeill was married three times. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he was widowed twice. He had two children, Robert McNeill Jr., and Susan McNeill.  

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