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Black History Spotlight: Austin Victor Hansen

Feb. 23, 2006 – St. Thomian Austin Victor Hansen (1910-1996) developed a love of photography at an early age. The picturesque landscapes of his native St. Thomas provided an endless and ever-changing vista for his camera lens. Austin photographed the famous aviator, Charles Lindberg when he landed on St. Thomas on Jan. 31, 1928.
That same year, Hansen left St. Thomas and moved to New York City. Arriving in Harlem, Hansen worked as a dishwasher, an elevator operator and other jobs available to people of color at that time. Hansen continued to take photographs, as 1930s Harlem was a place that drew celebrities and dignitaries and offered glimpses of life from opulence to depression.
During World War II, Hansen enlisted in the Navy and served as a photographer's mate – a job at that time not usually given to a black sailor.
Hansen's reputation grew when he snapped a picture of a young black woman performing for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor. Hansen sold the photograph to the New York Amsterdam News for $2.
During the next 60 years, Hansen would take more than 100,000 photographs.
Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Louis, Harry Belafonte, Haile Selassie, the Queen of England, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King Jr. and baseball greats Roy Campenella and Jackie Robinson were among his subjects.
Hansen also played drums, and he always had his camera close by. It was through his musical connections that he was able to photograph Count Basie, Eartha Kitt and Dizzy Gillespe.
Other notable photographs include a shot of a very young Leslie Uggams and future movie idol Billy Dee Williams cutting a birthday cake with his twin sister at their 16th birthday celebration.
Hansen's photographs recorded life in Harlem and around the United States from the post World War II era to the mid-1980s. He served as official photographer for several black churches, and his photographs appeared regularly in the New York Amsterdam News and the Pittsburgh Currier.
Hansen died at the age of 95, three days after a stroke.
Today the Hansen photography collection of more than 500,000 negatives and prints is preserved and accessible to the public at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, N.Y.

The information referenced here is a result of Web-based research, books or newspaper articles. In some cases family members or friends have provided details of the subject's life. For more information or to send your comments on the article, contact the Source at source@viaccess.net.

In observance of February as Black History Month, the Source will be highlighting a number of contemporary and historic individuals born in the Virgin Islands who have made major contributions in areas including civil rights, science, literature, sports and entertainment.

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