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Through His Lens: The photographs of Theobald Wilson

By John Zarrillo

Posted on June 5, 2017

Theobald Wilson self-portrait, 1974; Theobald Wilson photographs, 2013.005, Box 30 Folder 3; Brooklyn Historical Society.

In 2013, Brooklyn Historical Society acquired the photographs of Theobald Wilson, a commercial photographer who operated in Brooklyn from the late 20th to the early 21st centuries. These photographs, along with related records and photography equipment, are now open to researchers thanks to generous funding provided by the New York State Archives Documentary Heritage Program.

Wilson was born in the San Juan Hill neighborhood of Manhattan in 1923. His mother was a Jamaican immigrant. Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941 and was invited to join the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which is popularly known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He served in North Africa and Italy as a parachute rigger and took up photography during his service to document his experiences. In the late 1940s he married Marie Dowell and they had two children, Sidney and Susannah. The family moved to Brooklyn in 1956, eventually settling in the neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Gardens.

Congregation at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, 2010
Congregation at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, 2010Congregation at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, 2010; Theobald Wilson photographs, 2013.005, Binder 11; Brooklyn Historical Society.

For decades he operated his commercial photography business out of his home. His clients included corporations such as AT&T and CBS, as well as numerous churches, fraternal organizations, and other organizations in Brooklyn, especially among West Indian communities. It is these photographs that we at BHS were particularly interested in.  While BHS does hold a robust collection of oral histories relating to the African-American and West Indian communities of Brooklyn, those communities are generally under-represented in our photographic collections. Wilson’s photographs are a significant addition to our holdings in this regard, and provide a photographic complement to the voices recorded as part of our oral history collection.

Wilson’s catch, 1992; Theobald Wilson photographs, 2013.005, Box 30 Folder 2; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Additionally, the collection documents the life and work of Wilson himself. This includes numerous family photographs, many of which depict Wilson’s passion for outdoors. An avid angler, the photographs document fishing trips, including local outings to Sheepshead Bay and Jamaica Bay. Also included are photographs documenting the quilting of his wife, Marie, who was president of the New York Quilter’s Society and was selected to coordinate the “Weaver of Dreams” quilt displayed at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

Finally, the collection also includes an assortment of cameras and equipment that Wilson personally used throughout his career.

A guide to the collection is available to researchers online via our finding aid portal. Our library is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. To make an appointment to view the collection, please contact us at: [email protected]

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