Terra Sigillata

From this press release:

i-1757fd2118a19e3f8a0c0608d616f7e9-alexRivera.jpegIt is with deepest sadness that North Carolina Central University announces the passing of photojournalist Alex Rivera [Alexander M Rivera, Jr]. Rivera, a nationally renowned and prominent photojournalist, established the public relations office at North Carolina Central University, and served as the office’s first director.

“This is a sad day for NCCU”, said Chancellor Charlie Nelms. “Not only was Mr. Rivera an integral part of the university’s history, he made invaluable contributions to the world through his photography. He was a valued member of our community and we were deeply honored to have him in our midst for so many years.”

Born in 1913 during the height of the Jim Crow era, Rivera was the eldest of three children of Greensboro dentist and civil rights activist Dr. Alexander M. Rivera Sr. and his wife, Daisy Irene Dillard Rivera. Rivera grew up immersed in civil rights activism, since his father was a zealous NAACP member.

Rivera attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and worked at the Washington Tribune before he was recruited in 1939 by founder Dr. James E. Shepard to establish the first news bureau for N.C. College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University).

During World War II, Rivera departed the university to serve with the Office of Naval Intelligence from 1941 to 1945. After his military service, he joined the Norfolk Journal and Guide. In 1946, Rivera became a regional correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s leading black-owned newspapers with a national distribution of nearly 200,000. Based in North Carolina, he covered Virginia and the Carolinas for the Courier and the National Negro Press Association.

During his stint with the Pittsburgh Courier, Rivera became famous for his coverage of the last lynchings in South Carolina and Alabama, the legal challenges to school segregation, and the aftermath of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. His coverage of those events garnered him a Global Syndicate Award in 1955.

Rivera returned to N.C. Central University in 1974 to serve as public relations director, a position he held until his retirement in 1993. He was one of the first African-American reporters to regularly participate in North Carolina governors’ press conferences.

In 1993, Gov. James B. Hunt, Jr. recognized Rivera’s lifelong contributions to the state and nation by awarding him the Order of the Longleaf Pine, the highest civilian honor that can be granted in the State of North Carolina.

Rivera’s passion was athletics and at NCCU, he had the opportunity to photograph some of the world’s greatest men in sports, including legendary basketball coach John B. McLendon whose mentor had been the architect of basketball, Dr. James Naismith. Thanks to Rivera, images of McLendon with his players, including five-time NBA All-Star Sam Jones, have been preserved for the historical record. In 2005, NCCU honored Rivera with the naming of the Alex M. Rivera Athletic Hall of Fame located in the McLendon-McDougald gymnasium.

The North Carolina Museum of History honored Rivera earlier this year with an exhibit of his works, “Bearing Witness: Civil Rights Photographs of Alexander Rivera”. [some photographs here from the exhibit]

Arrangements are incomplete at this time.


The University Library at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains a regional history treasure called Documenting the American South. Through their resource, Oral Histories of the American South, Mr Rivera left with us nearly three hours of stories of his rich life split over two interviews in 2001 (Part I) and 2002 (Part II).

Racism continues to permeate American society and the events throughout this year’s US presidential election are potent reminders of how far we have to go. Mr Rivera’s contributions vividly captured a time when this racism was formally institutionalized, in many cases before you and I were born.

I cannot speak for the African American community and I recognize that I can in no way fathom the African American experience, particularly in the American South. However, reflecting on Mr Rivera’s decades of work reminds me that this country has the potential to make great leaps forward in equality and social justice. I can only hope that our children are able to catalyze another significant step forward from the ignorant racism that we are seeing every night on television leading up to this election.

Update: Historian, author, and columnist, Jim Wise, has this story on Mr Rivera as well as an earlier article on Rivera’s skepticism about efforts to preserve a deteriorating house where he once lived.

Here also is Mr Rivera’s New York Times obituary.