Maurice Sorrell missed the chance to attend college, but he perfected a craft and photographed nine U.S. presidents. Racial bias delayed the early flowering of his career, but he became the first black member of the White House Press Photographers Association. He was nearly 50 when his career kicked into high gear, but he worked with the zeal of a man half his age.

His story -- a hometown boy who became one of America's foremost news photographers -- celebrates many still-relevant lessons: the need for persistence against the odds, the necessity of developing a skill and the love and dedication to family.

A week ago, the Exposure Group, a local African American photographers association, saluted Sorrell, a retired photographer for Johnson Publishing Co., which publishes Ebony and Jet Magazines. The group named its Lifetime Achievement Award after Sorrell and made him its first recipient.

Born just 13 years after the turn of the century, Sorrell suffered an early blow -- the death of his father when he was 5. His mother raised him and a younger brother alone until she remarried when Maurice was in his teens. He attended Shaw Junior High and Armstrong Senior High schools. "I wanted to go to college. But we couldn't afford it, and our family didn't know anything about scholarships at that time," he said. So he took a job as a skilled helper at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Meanwhile, his interest in cameras was being tweaked. His two uncles were amateur photographers. He was fascinated as he watched them set up their tripods, drape their heads and shoot family photographs.

He decided to try to get reassigned as a photographer's apprentice at the bureau. "One supervisor told me I'd never get a job in the photo lab as long as he lived. He died two months later. But I still didn't get the job," he recalled in an interview.

Later he applied for a job as a photographer at the Pentagon. He was hired but again was thwarted because of racial segregation. "They threw me into the darkroom. I became a very good darkroom technician. They thought I was the greatest. But they wouldn't let me take any pictures."

Deciding to promote his own professional photographic career, he purchased a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera in 1946 and began shooting homecomings, weddings, anniversaries and newborn babies. To solidify his skills, he took a three-year photography course at the Agriculture Department's graduate night school, finishing in two years.

In 1957, he left the Pentagon to work as a full-time, freelance photographer. He was a regular photographer with the Afro-American newspaper, and his pictures of black events in the nation's capital appeared weekly. He also was the official photographer for the Prince Hall Masons for several years.

Sorrell's career started in the Jim Crow era and kicked into high gear during the battle to tear down the walls of segregation. In 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement, he was hired to work in the Washington bureau of Johnson Publishing Co. Sorrell was fortunate that these black enterprises were thriving and hiring. "That's where the story really begins," he says.

He traveled throughout the South, covering many of the historic moments of the movement and marches, including the Montgomery to Selma March led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I was in Memphis the night King was killed. Since I'd taken so many pictures of him, I didn't see the need to take more than two or three photos at the church. . . . The next shots I made of him, he was in the hospital . . . lying dead on the gurney. I came back to Washington and called my wife, Bea, and she told me the tanks were coming down New Hampshire Avenue. D.C. was in the midst of a full-blown riot."

"I was in a lot of the hot spots during the civil rights days. . . . {But} we always had a place to stay, even if it meant sleeping in a car," he said, referring to the Southern segregation that kept most hotels closed to him and such colleagues as Johnson's Washington bureau chief, Simeon Booker. "They were scary times. Sometimes we had to sleep on the floor."

There is a modesty about Sorrell that belies the importance of the contributions of men like him to the success of the civil rights movement. He brought to his work a passion for the cause of freedom that pushed him to go to any length for a photograph in the Southern war zone. He rode in the back of hearses, risked the shotguns of angry sheriffs and rabid racists, and shot pictures while fighting tear gas and dodging barking dogs. These pictures brought the reality of Southern injustice right into people's faces.

But Sorrell's job had plenty of fun mixed in as well. He traveled to more than 24 countries and covered nine presidents. Being admitted to the White House Press Photographers Association was a high point.

"At times, I had problems shooting in the White House. They had a little thing where they would get arm in arm and try to push me back. Once they found out that I could shoot as well as they could, they accepted me," he said.

Spending a recent afternoon with him and his wife in their comfortable home in Northeast Washington, I flipped through some of the thousands of photographs Sorrell has shot over the last 30 years.

It was a Who's Who of Black America: civil rights leaders King, A. Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, Benjamin Hooks, Roy Wilkins and others. There were past members of Congress, including Adam Clayton Powell, Charles Diggs, Andrew Young and Shirley Chisholm, and one of the early portraits of the Congressional Black Caucus.

At last week's salute, John H. Johnson, publisher and chief executive of Johnson Publishing, called Sorrell "clearly one of the finest photographers I have ever known," a high compliment given the number of excellent photographers who have worked for his company.

In response, Sorrell paid the highest compliments to his wife of 51 years.

A retired public health nurse, she inspired his hard work, tolerated missed holidays and birthdays while he was on the road, and was a partner to him -- supporting his efforts, managing their finances and building a good home and retirement life for them.

Grinning at her lovingly, he said, "I guess you could say Im just a hometown boy who made good." CAPTION: Members of the Exposure Group named its Lifetime Achievement Award after Maurice Sorrell and made him the award's first recipient. From left are George Tolbert, Joe Brooks, Oggi Ogburn, Maurice Sorrell, Bernie Boston, Jason Miccolo Johnson and Milton Williams.