Collection Spotlight: Dale Rich Collection

(28069) Demonstrations, Affirmative Action, University of Michigan, 2001

In honor of Black History Month, we highlight the Dale Rich Collection.

Over fifteen years ago, Mr. Dale Rich, professional photographer, longtime newspaperman, and historian, came to the Reuther Library to research African Americans and labor. As I, Access Archivist Carrolyn Davis, began working with him, he soon showed me hundreds of photographs he had taken over the years of the 2006 Detroit Public School Teachers Strike, of organizing groups supporting the teachers, of himself reenacting a black Civil War solider at the Elmwood Cemetery, and of the Detroit Labor Day Parade, especially the trucks driven by the Teamsters.

I asked what he planned to do with all of his photographs. He looked at me with a questioning eye, and I suggested he start a collection here at the Reuther Library, and, in 2002, he officially donated the Dale Rich Collection. Since then, Rich has added thousands of photographs and ephemeral material such as t-shirts, posters, and banners from nationwide parades, marches, and sit-ins.

Dale Rich was born in 1948 in Detroit, where he has lived most of his life. He learned the printing trade at Cass Technical High School. Shortly after graduating high school, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and became a Military Policeman. While in the Army, he took a class in American History at George Washington University. In that class, he was challenged to name any black person other than George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington that had made a significant difference in America. He could not, and since then, he has spent his life photographically chronicling persons of color.

Rich worked for the Detroit News from 1983 to 2008 as a press roller. Upon his retirement, he became a full-time photojournalist, contributing to such papers as The New York Times, The Detroit News, the Michigan Chronicle, the Michigan Citizen, and Tribe Magazine. Rich is also a social activist, genealogist, and Emmy-winning documentarian. Citing the work of Matthew Brady, the Civil War photographer, and the images of the civil rights movement as direct influences, Rich sees his work as “a conduit between the present and the future.” Like Brady, he hopes his images will one day lend an understanding to a turning point in history. “I see a movement coming back, and I have fresh film and I am ready.”

The Dale Rich Collection is currently composed of over 3,000 still photographs and digital images of modern Detroit, illustrating the political, cultural and grassroots movements of the city as well as the larger issues of the modern civil rights movement and organized labor. It is a unique addition to the Reuther Library’s urban holdings, especially because it is an entirely modern collection, with its dates spanning 1995-present.

The collection starts with the 1995 Detroit Newspaper Strike when Rich, as a means of recording the now historic events, started photographing the front lines. As a striker, he traveled the country to rally support for his colleagues and had the chance to photograph national events, such as the “Million Family March” and the dedication of the Spirit of Freedom memorial in Washington, D.C. When the strike ended, Rich continued to photograph Detroit, extensively capturing the essence of such movements as the Community Coalition and the Detroit School Board Reform.

Highlighted throughout the collection are images of notable African Americans with whom Rich has come into contact, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Coretta Scott King, Archbishop Desmond TuTu, the Reverend Joseph Lowery, and activists Dick Gregory and Dorothy Height. Recently, Rich has chronicled President Barack Obama's rise to office and presidential career.

Equally important are his images of ordinary Detroiters—a female firefighter at the scene of a fire, a homeless man sleeping on the street, a lone protester—each filled with a special dignity and an undeniable sense of compassion. Rich sees photography as “a way to express what others would like to express. [In Detroit], there are a million stories that need to be told—I want to tell a few of them. Everyone’s story is just as important.”

Rich’s personal interest in African-American history and desire to expose Detroit youth to a positive vision of history have compelled him to share his experiences through film and to donate his collection to the Reuther Library. The Dale Rich Collection offers a unique perspective on a changing city and will prove to be a rich and invaluable addition to the historical record, addressing eloquently, with camera lens, the complexities of the world in which we live. The Collection is open for research by appointment with our Audiovisual Department. Also, several of these thoughtful, arresting, and sometimes challenging images can be seen in our newly created image gallery.

Carrolyn Davis is an Archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library.