The septuagenarian shutterbug, who bought the camera that would transform his life in 1975 on a whim, became an eyewitness to black history. He took thousands of pictures of everyday folks and famous African American figures, of minor meetings and momentous events, from the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington to the Million Man March.
On March 14, he will be honored by the Greater Washington Urban League for his photographic work, which he mostly pursued as a passion, not a profession.
“I wanted to be involved in the history,” said Wilson, 76, a retired Navy chief petty officer.
“It wasn’t about the dollars and cents. I was just so enthusiastic about the things that were happening. Being able to document our people and this history was a gift and a joy. I didn’t know where it was leading when I started; I just enjoyed doing it.”
If there was a bold-faced black name in Washington during the years Wilson worked, then he likely shot them, said Kerrie Cotten Williams, archivist for the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, an Atlanta institution that recently received several hundred photos from Wilson.
“I don’t think he missed anybody,” she said. “That says something about him as a photographer and how he was able to insert himself into places to get his shots. He has a huge, national collection that’s really unique.”
Wilson, who sometimes worked for black newspapers or civic organizations but mostly made pictures for himself, was especially fond of firsts. Here’s a picture of Jesse Jackson embracing Shirley Chisholm — “our first two to run for president,” Wilson said. Here’s Douglas Wilder at his inauguration in Richmond — “our first governor.”
As fate would have it, Wilson lost his sight to glaucoma not long before the ultimate first, Barack Obama, was elected to the White House four years ago. A framed picture of the nation’s only black president now hangs near the front door of Wilson’s house.
“But it’s something my oldest son picked up for me; it’s not one of mine,” he said. If not for his total blindness? “I would have gotten that shot.”
No doubt, said Sharon Farmer, who served as chief White House photographer in the Clinton administration and has known Wilson since the 1970s, when he began pointing and clicking after retiring from the Navy.
For years, Farmer said, she kept bumping into Wilson around Washington, often wearing a tan photographer’s vest with an Old Ironsides hat perched atop his head. He’d show up at small community gatherings at somebody’s house — and also for major happenings at the White House.