Ellsworth J. Davis, Washington Post’s first black photographer

Ellsworth Davis contributed to the Washington Post’s coverage of the capital for three decades.

Sharon Farmer

Ellsworth Davis contributed to the Washington Post’s coverage of the capital for three decades.

WASHINGTON — Ellsworth J. Davis, who was the first African-American photographer hired by the Washington Post and who contributed to the newspaper’s coverage of history-making and daily life in the capital for three decades, died Aug. 14 at his home in Washington. He was 86.

Mr. Davis began his career at Jet and Ebony magazines and joined the Post in 1961, becoming, the Post reported years later, ‘‘the first black photographer hired by a major metropolitan newspaper.’’


At the time, the newsroom was a scrappy place where assignments were doled out to whoever was available and ready to go. As an experienced photographer and a Washington native connected to the community, Mr. Davis helped shape the paper’s visual coverage of social unrest surrounding the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

At one demonstration in 1965, Mr. Davis stood behind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and photographed the crowd of protesters as King saw them from the stage, their eyes fixed on him and their expressions as solemn and determined as his. When King was gunned down less than three years later, Mr. Davis helped cover the riots that broke out in Washington.

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Mr. Davis photographed Washington figures including a combative President Nixon before the press corps and Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher, during the paper’s legal battle over the printing of the Pentagon Papers.

Mr. Davis was credited with nurturing the photographers who worked under him, including Sharon Farmer, a former Post freelancer who during the Clinton administration became the first black director of White House photography.

‘‘There was nothing he couldn’t shoot,’’ she said. ‘‘Photography allowed him the outlet not only to be himself, but to depict things as a man of color who grew up in D.C.’’

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