Theodore Gaffney accompanied the original Freedom Riders in 1961 as they boarded buses to challenge segregation in the Deep South.
CNN  — 

In his 92 years, Theodore Gaffney witnessed some of the most consequential moments in history.

He served in the US Army during World War II. One of the first black photographers in the White House, he took photos of US Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Queen Elizabeth II.

But he was perhaps best known for an assignment he undertook for Jet Magazine in 1961: documenting the Freedom Riders as they journeyed to the Deep South to challenge racial segregation.

On Easter Sunday, the legendary photographer died of complications from Covid-19, his family confirmed to CNN. News of his death was first reported by The Washington Post.

“We kept saying that he survived World War II, survived the struggle of civil rights, he survived a heart attack,” his wife Maria Santos-Gaffney said. “We were praying that he would survive this too, but his body could not handle the severity of the virus infection.”

He showed the world the Freedom Rides

In the spring of 1961, then 33-year-old Gaffney was tasked with accompanying journalist Simeon Booker on the first Freedom Rides, in which black and white civil rights activists boarded buses to cities in the Deep South to protest segregated buses and stations.

“My job on the Freedom Ride was to document what happened when blacks and whites sit together on the bus in the front, go to the counters in the bus terminals, drink out of the black or white fountain, go to the … ‘colored’ restrooms and water fountains and see what happened when they used those facilities,” Gaffney said in an interview for the Freedom Riders Interview Collection, footage of which was used in the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders.”

On May 4, 1961, a group of activists, along with Booker and Gaffney, boarded a Greyhound bus from Washington D.C. with the goal of reaching New Orleans. Gaffney told PBS interviewer Stanley Nelson that he kept his distance from the Freedom Riders during the trip, wary of the risks that came with carrying a camera.

“I didn’t want anybody to know I was a photographer either,” Gaffney said in the interview. “That was more dangerous than being a Rider because they don’t want documentation of things that happened, whether you’re a black or white photographer.”

He was afraid that the further South he traveled, he said, if people found out he had a camera, he might not come back – and his fears were nearly realized.

The Freedom Riders faced resistance and arrests as they traveled through Virginia and North Carolina. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, some encountered violence as they tried to enter a whites-only area – an incident that prompted widespread media coverage. But the real trouble, history would reveal, lay ahead in Alabama.

From Atlanta, the riders split off into two groups as they boarded buses for Anniston, Alabama. Some riders got on a Greyhound, while the others, Gaffney among them, hopped on a Trailways bus that left an hour later.

White protesters surrounded the first bus as it arrived in Anniston, attacking the windows and tires and eventually set it on fire. The Freedom Riders were forced to flee into the mob.

Meanwhile, as the bus Gaffney was on departed from Atlanta, a group of white men who had boarded began beating the Freedom Riders, Gaffney said in his interview for the Freedom Riders Interview Collection. As that bus reached the terminal in Birmingham, Alabama, the violence continued.

“When the bus pulled up, there was a mob. Looked like a thousand people. They had these iron pipes,” Gaffney said in the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders.”

The mob began beating the Freedom Riders, Gaffney said in interview footage. Police would not arrive until 10 minutes later. With his camera under his coat, Gaffney exited the bus and took refuge in a waiting area in the bus station. Ultimately, he walked away unharmed.

The violence in Anniston and Birmingham made headlines. The Freedom Riders tried to continue their journey the next day, but found that no bus driver would agree to transport them. Eventually, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy arranged for the group to fly from Birmingham to New Orleans – which came as a relief for Gaffney.

“I’d never flown before, but it felt good when that plane got off that runway,” he said in the documentary. “I’d rather take a chance on getting killed in a plane crash than to get beat to death by hoodlums with iron pipes.”

His work was informed by his ancestry

Though Gaffney said in the PBS interview that he didn’t consider himself to be an activist, his cousin Patricia Johnson said his career was largely informed by his family history.

His great-grandparents had been enslaved on a plantation in South Carolina, and his grandparents were sharecroppers in the town of Gaffney, Johnson told CNN. In the 1920s, Gaffney’s parents migrated from South Carolina to Washington D.C. for better opportunities. Gaffney was born in 1927.

In 1945, Gaffney enlisted in the Army. Johnson said he would tell his cousins stories about the segregation he experienced during his service. He was also close to his uncle, Johnson’s father, who she said had once faced a lynch mob in Montgomery, Alabama.

Those experiences were part of why he felt compelled to document the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, according to Johnson.

Gaffney was a “legendary figure” in the family, Johnson said. Despite his achievements though, his family members said he was always learning, and encouraging others to do the same.

Johnson recalled that as a young girl, Gaffney took her along to state dinners when he was on assignment at the White House, introducing her to world leaders and dignitaries.

“He wanted to make sure we were afforded every opportunity we could get,” she said.

When he wasn’t taking snapshots at the White House, on Capitol Hill or across the Deep South, Gaffney’s career sometimes landed him in more far-flung places. In the 1980s, a research project on the African diaspora took him to Brazil, where he met the woman he would marry, Santos-Gaffney.

Gaffney is survived by her and their two sons, Theodore and Walter.