Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

November 11, 1950

Guest post by Megan Wirtz, undergraduate student at University of Richmond.

The article “The Passing Scene: Sin of Omission as Demonstrated Again in an American History Book,” published in the Norfolk Journal and Guide on November 11, 1950, begins by acknowledging that much of the literature of the time seemed to have ignored or completely excluded the role of African Americans in history texts. However, a new addition to the field—A Picture History of World War Two, published by Life magazine—sparked a whole new outrage. The book, which contained 364 pages and 724 photographs from World War Two, contained only one picture of an African American in uniform, and in that picture he was playing the accordion at the president’s funeral. In response, Roy Wilkins, secretary of the NAACP, mailed a letter to the publisher, in which he went through the various contributions that African Americans made to the military.

Bomb covers. Truck drivers. Red Rail supply line workers. African Americans often had the most difficult jobs. In 1950, according to the article, African Americans formed 10 percent of the United States’ population. Yet, they were left out of textbooks. They were left out of picture books. “From the time that the American child enters the elementary school…he studies text books…[that] distort the truth,” states P. B. Young, author of the article, and the son of the founder of the Norfolk Guide and Journal.142

I found a strong correlation between the claim being made in this story and John Reuben Alley and Robert S. Alley’s University of Richmond. The Alleys’ book, which is similarly a picture book, paints a far too picturesque portrait of post–World War Two University of Richmond. This book has a similar problem to that referred to in the article; skim through the pages and you will have difficulty finding a person of color. In fact, mention of African Americans on campus are in the form of “celebrations” for the university: the first black students admitted or the star basketball player.143 Yet, when you pause to look at the dates—several of which are in the 1960s—you can’t help but think to yourself that there is an essential piece of history missing there.

Books such as University of Richmond and A Picture History of World War Two leave the reader with more questions than answers. Without proper context, one might assume that these books do, in fact, portray what society was like post–World War Two. The Alleys’ book—as well as, following Young’s review, Life’s portrayal—glosses over the essential fact of civil unrest. In postwar Richmond, for instance, there was an ongoing massive resistance movement, which included a school walkout, the placement of the first black member on the school board, and fallout from the Brown v. Board of Education decision.144

As readers, what can we gauge from these two examples? What do they say about the history that they contextualize? Rather than looking for what these books do contain, we need to recognize the absences implicit (or, perhaps, rather explicit) in these texts. Why, exactly, do these books attempt to gloss over such an essential piece of history? Erasing African Americans from the war effort allows for an entire fleet of soldiers, who often worked the hardest jobs, to go unrewarded. They had some of the most dangerous jobs in the war, and yet they are almost completely excluded from history with the publication of this book. These soldiers are just a small faction of all of the African Americans left forgotten, so we must take these books as a precaution: intentionally forgetting a part of society perpetuates the theory that there are inherent differences between people. Every soldier deserves his or her rightful recognition, and Life magazine failed to deliver that right to all, choosing instead to forget a part of the war effort.

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