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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Robert Scurlock and F.B.I. Special Agent James Amos

As a young man Robert S. Scurlock and his brother George learned photography in their father Addison’s Washington studio. Robert was impatient with the constraints of formulaic studio portraiture, however, and sought different avenues of expression, especially photojournalism—such as the picture stories made popular by Life and Look magazines, as well as the picture magazines published for an African American clientele. Robert Scurlock photographed on assignment or on  speculation for some of them.  One example is his documentation of James Edward Amos (1879-1953), one of the first African Americans to be hired by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Amos spent his early career in the Interior Department and the Customs Office, and had been an investigator for the Burns International Detective Agency. He gained notoriety as personal attendant, confidant, and bodyguard for President Theodore Roosevelt for twelve years.  Roosevelt, some claimed, had died in Amos’s arms.

James Amos and colleagues at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Negative by Robert Scurlock, ca. 1940s. 
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. NMAH-AC0618-004-174.

Amos was recruited as a special agent for the F.B.I. on August 24, 1921 after William J. Burns (formerly of the Burns International Detective Agency) became the Bureau’s fourth director in 1921, Amos’s application for employment included references from Theodore Roosevelt, former Secretary of State Elihu Root, Senator Hiram Johnson, General Leonard Wood, and former Interior Secretary Gifford Pinchot.

Although some of Robert Scurlock’s pictures for this story utilized dramatic angles and lighting to suggest the shadowy life of a crime fighter, others show Amos enjoying meetings with both black and white colleagues in offices and laboratories. It appears that Amos was no longer engaged in field work, but was enjoying a more sedentary career during the 1940s when Robert Scurlock photographed him.

James Amos with colleague at Federal Bureau of Investigation. Negative by Robert Scurlock, ca. 1940s.
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. NMAH-AC0618-004-0000180.

Amos’s thirty-two year career with the Bureau often had its thrills. He participated in many investigations, including those targeting the Buchalter Gang, black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Steamship Company, and the German spy Joubert Duquesne, and assisted in the apprehension of the gangster Dutch Schultz.  He retired October 15, 1953, and died two months later.  [Athan G. Theoharis, The FBI:  A Comprehensive Reference Guide.  Oryx Press, 1999, pp. 314-315.]

The FBI’s web site includes an article on Amos.  It concludes: “Professor Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., sums up Special Agent Amos’s career in Seeing Red: Amos ‘proved’ what should never have needed proving: that African Americans could serve the federal government in sensitive positions with objectivity, intelligence, and professionalism. We can sum it up too:  Amos was a superb agent who served with fidelity, bravery, and integrity.”

From “A Byte Out of History: One African-American Special Agent's Story”

By David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, Archives Center
National Museum of American History

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