Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

Historical Profiles

On February 24, 1934, the Pittsburgh Courier featured an article from historian Carter G. Woodson highlighting “‘Forgotten Negroes’: Who Played Major Roles in the Race’s March of Progress.” Woodson called attention to a number of African-American historical figures that deserved to be better known. “I have been deeply struck with the fact that with the exception of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, the heroes of our past are almost forgotten,” Woodson wrote. “Some few use the names of Benjamin Banneker and Phillis Wheatley, and figures like Andrew Bryan, Lott Carey, Richard Allen, James Varick and Daniel A. Payne live only as religious characters whose memory is revered largely in the churches…In fact, the Negroes are about in the same position as the whole nation would be if we remembered only George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.” Woodson went on to list a “galaxy of brilliant stars,” such as James Forten, Charles Lenox, David Ruggles, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, “whose names should be familiar in every household.”48

One of the most interesting contributions African-American newspapers made in this regard was publishing illustrated biographical profiles that offered readers capsule histories of hundreds of black figures. These series included “Your History” and “Facts About the Negro” by historian and journalist J. A. Rogers and illustrators George L. Lee and A. Sam Milai in the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender; “Our People: Pages from History” by illustrator Melvin Tapley in the New York Amsterdam News; “They’ll Never Die” by Elton Fax and “Interesting People” by George L. Lee, which were syndicated in several African-American newspapers.

As shown in the image galley above, each of these historical profiles included illustrations and brief textual descriptions of historical figures. What these biographical sketches lacked in depth, they made up for in breadth. Published in regular runs over a period of five decades, these series delved beyond the familiar names of King, Parks, Tubman, Washington, and Douglass to profile less well-known African-American inventors, entertainers, activists, athletes, and business people. Black women were featured frequently, including actress Rose McClendon, lawyer Lois Marie Browne-Evans, and New York educator Edwina C. Johnson. These historical profiles were embedded among the articles, editorials, advertisements, and cartoons that made up a typical newspaper. This placement made African-American history part of everyday popular culture. Readers could pick up a newspaper and learn a bit more about African-American history. It is easy to imagine people clipping the profiles from the newspapers to add to scrapbooks. 

In this way, the profiles call to mind The Black Book (1974), a collection of letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, advertising cards, and ephemera put together by collectors Middleton Harris, Morris Levitt, Roger Furman, and Ernest Smith, as well as Toni Morrison, who was then an editor at Random House. In a 1974 New York Times essay, Morrison described the project emerging from “an intense love of black expression and a zest wholly free of academic careerism,” and said the book was built “item by item, page by page…it was more like planting a crop than making a book.” Later in the essay, Morrison discuss what this “crop” had produced: “Looking at the fruits of that work displayed in ‘The Black Book,’ I felt a renewal of pride I had not felt since 1941, when my parents told me stories of blacks who had invented airplanes, electricity and shoes.”  The inventors and patents Morrison cites—“Grant Woods’s telephone system and apparatus, 1877; A. Miles’s elevator, 1887; William Purvis's improved fountain pen, 1890; J. H. Smith’s lawn sprinkler, 1897; L. S. Bailey’s folding bed, 1899; W. Johnson’s egg beater, 1884; C. B. Brooks’s street sweeper, 1896; Burridge’s and Marshman’s improvement on the typewriting machine, 1885; A. L. Lewis’s window cleaner, 1892; and H. L. Jones’s corn harvester, 1890”—are the sort of figures featured in series like “Facts About the Negro” and “Our People.”49  In a similar way to Morrison’s finding inspiration in stories of black inventors, the illustrated biographical profiles in African-American newspapers were seeds that could grow among readers into a deeper appreciation of history.  

More recently, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro (2017) draws its inspiration and title from these popular takes on African-American history. Gates opens his book by praising J. A. Rogers who self-published his volume, 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro with Complete Proof in 1934.  “Rogers’s little book was priceless because he was delivering enlightenment and pride, steeped in historical research, to a people too long starved on the lie that they were worth nothing because their ancestors had contributed nothing to world civilization,” Gates writes.  “For African Americans in the Jim Crow era, Rogers was their first black history teacher.”50  Like Rogers, Gates writes to educate and surprise.  “I wanted to maintain and mimic the sense of wonder that Joel A. Rogers had,” Gates suggested.  “[Rogers] consistently and tantalizingly raised questions about history that stimulated others to dig deeper.”51  Gates has long been interested in black language rituals and verbal play, and the entries in 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro are meant to be talked about and shared not just via social media but the old fashioned way, at family gatherings, cookouts, barbershops, and church.  “Very few black people are not conscious, at some level, of particularly black texts of being,” Gates wrote in his 1988 landmark book, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism.  “These are our texts to be delighted in, enjoyed, contemplated, explicated, and willed through repetition to our daughters and to our sons.”52  In a similar vein, Andr√© Brock emphasizes the importance of “joy” as a critical framework for understanding black digital practice.  Like The Black Book100 Amazing Facts about the Negro asks readers to embrace a mode of historical inquiry that emphasizes play, exploration, and amazement over linear narratives.  Black Quotidian draws inspiration from these earlier models.

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