When Robert Lawson had his father drop him off at North Carolina College at Durham, he was a young man sweet on a girl who had enrolled there, and wasn’t much the serious academic.
But that school, later renamed North Carolina Central University, would become the epicenter of his life. Two degrees and an esteemed career in photography later, Lawson remained not only an avid Eagles supporter, but also the person responsible for documenting decades of happenings at the school.
Lawson died this month at 74 after a battle with cancer.
As the university’s lone official photographer from 1992 until he retired last year, Lawson photographed every event worth noting, ranging from tennis matches to theatrical productions, from graduations to visits from ambassadors. His work took him overseas as well – he visited Kenya in 2007 to document a program through the School of Education.
“He was it. He was everywhere on campus, all the time. It was a huge responsibility,” said Cynthia Fobert, former director of NCCU’s office of public relations and Lawson’s former supervisor.
Lawson was one of 10 children raised picking tobacco on some 1,500 acres in Roxboro. His parents were landowners, and he and all of his siblings earned college degrees, a point of some pride for Lawson.
His original interests were entrepreneurial, and he studied business while an undergraduate at NCCU. To support himself, he took on jobs from washing dishes to raking lawns. One such lawn belonged to Alex Rivera, a staff photographer at NCCU known for his work documenting both Eagles sporting events and the civil rights movement.
Lawson’s family says Rivera saw something in Lawson, insisted he had an eye for photography, and an apprenticeship began. Rivera impressed upon Lawson the importance of developing a trade. With a trade he could always find gainful employment, regardless of where he’d come from or what he looked like, a point that mattered greatly in the segregated South.
It proved a good fit, and soon Lawson was accompanying Rivera on jobs around the state, many times photographing students at all-black schools, ranging from public elementary schools to the historically black colleges and universities that dot the South.
It was on such a trip that Lawson met Clara, his wife of 48 years, who was teaching at a public school in Weldon. She recalled how important it was for people of color to have access to a photographer who took the time to stage the lighting and develop the photos in a way that truly captured what people looked like.
“He wanted to provide that service because he knew that it was not available otherwise,” Clara Lawson said.
The couple shared a passion for justice and participated in the civil rights movement, often traveling together and insisting they be served at white-only gas stations or hotels. As a student, Lawson was arrested repeatedly for breaking Jim Crow laws at restaurants.
Before he was hired full time at NCCU, Lawson owned and operated a number of businesses near campus, including L&J Seafood and Lawson Florist and Photographic Services. There are generations of families who used Lawson to capture weddings, christenings, and family reunions.
“He was meticulous about quality control,” Fobert said.
When asked by a school reporter about his photography philosophy, he said, “I look for something that will tell the story. I don’t want anybody to stand around and wonder, ‘What on earth was he trying to show?’ ”
“He was a softy”
Those who knew Lawson well understood that the gruff exterior he was known for belied a tender heart. Friends say he preferred the safe distance a camera lens provided as a way to control emotions that often ran deep.
“He was a softy,” Fobert said.
Lawson quietly provided encouragement to the young people who worked in his office, insisting they go back to school, or even giving financial help to those who fell on hard times.
“If he helped you, you didn’t hear it again, because he was sincere in his approach. It was not for his glory, it was for you to get where you needed to go,” his wife said.
His daughter, Apryle Daye, agrees.
“His wealth was never measured by his money. His wealth was measured by the people he touched and the things he did for people,” she said.