Local Obituaries

Calvert McCann, whose photos chronicled Lexington's civil rights movement, dies at 72

Henry W. Jones walked at the front of civil rights march down Main Street in Lexington in the 1960s. As a young man, Calvert McCann  participated in and documented the events.
Henry W. Jones walked at the front of civil rights march down Main Street in Lexington in the 1960s. As a young man, Calvert McCann participated in and documented the events.

Calvert McCann was just a teenager when he began participating in sit-ins and marches as part of the civil rights movement in Lexington, but his foresight in photographing those events has left a legacy for generations to come.

Mr. McCann, 72, died Sunday.

"He's given us, literally, a treasure trove of historical documentation that not only is going to preserve his memory but also the memories of others" who participated in the movement, said Gerald L. Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor who discovered Mr. McCann's photographs and included them in his book Black America Series: Lexington, Kentucky. "We now have a record of the civil rights movement in Lexington."

Mr. McCann and his work gained more attention after he was highlighted by the Herald-Leader as part of a 2004 series about the fact that the paper's predecessors, the Lexington Leader and Lexington Herald, did not cover the civil rights movement.

As a teen, Mr. McCann was employed at Michael's Photography store on Main Street, where he processed film and worked as a janitor.

He recalled in later years how that work helped spark his interest in civil rights. He said he was not allowed to work the front counter, because management preferred to have white employees interact with customers.

So when he got off work, he joined the protesters at lunch counters and was counted among the marchers on Main Street — and through it all, his Pentax camera, loaded with black and white 35 mm film, went with him.

"I just wanted to document it and tell the story for me and my friends," Mr. McCann said in an interview in 2004.

He took pictures as Louis Armstrong stood at the door of his tour bus, trying to decide whether to cross a line of picketers protesting segregation at the Phoenix Hotel in 1961, and he was there when Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Frankfort.

He ended up traveling with and marching with King on more than one occasion.

"Here is a man who was clearly a foot soldier in the movement," Smith said. "He was a participant as well as a preserver."

Many of Mr. McCann's images remained undeveloped on film kept in a desk drawer in his parents' home for 40 years.

Smith said that while collecting photos for his book on black Lexington, he met a former classmate of Mr. McCann who remembered that Mr. McCann had always carried his camera during those days.

Smith said he went to visit Mr. McCann, who gave him the rolls of film to have developed.

"He was such a quiet, unassuming man, but very kind and generous," Smith said.

While Mr. McCann's friend Bob Treadway said Mr. McCann was somewhat of a loner, his funny side was evident to those who knew him well.

"He was hilarious," Treadway said. "He would tell stories that oftentimes had a serious subject matter to them, but he would put a humorous spin on them."

Treadway said he would remember his friend as someone who "wasn't bitter, but he did want the dream for everyone."

In his young adult years, Mr. McCann joined the Peace Corps and was among the first group of Peace Corps volunteers to work in Nigeria in the early 1960s, Treadway said.

He studied at a number of institutions of higher education, including the Tuskegee Institute, University of Kentucky, Kentucky State University, University of Texas at Austin and University of Wisconsin, Treadway wrote in columns published at Kyforward.com.

Mr. McCann retired from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, where he was a social worker, according to Treadway.

"He was a true hero of the civil rights movement," Treadway said.

In recent years, after undergoing surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, Mr. McCann had been a resident of Bluegrass Care and Rehabilitation on Pimlico Parkway.

He is survived by several siblings, including internationally recognized jazz pianist Les McCann, who was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2008, Treadway said.

Arrangements are pending at Smith & Smith Funeral Home in Lexington.

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