Roller Skating Socials and a Black Rosie the Riveter

Discovering a different side of black history in the archives of the black press.

Mr. John Sengstacke, part owner and general manager of the Chicago Defender, March 1942, Chicago, Illinois.
John Sengstacke, part owner and general manager of the legendary Chicago Defender, pictured in March 1942 in Chicago.

Library of Congress

O’Day Short, a black refrigeration engineer from Los Angeles, defied local racism when he bought land in a traditionally white neighborhood of Fontana, California, in 1945. Short and his family—wife, Helen; children, Carol and Barry—were building a home on the five-acre lot when they started getting threats of trouble, cloaked as warnings. (A sheriff’s deputy came to tell them their neighbors were disturbed by their presence; the person who sold them their land, who had apparently thought they were white, advised them that the local vigilante committee might cause trouble.) On Dec. 16 of that year, their house exploded, and all four Shorts died of their injuries. Law enforcement wrote the fire off as an accident.

The all-too-common story of O’Day Short and his family shows the lengths to which white vigilantes have been willing to go to enforce housing segregation in American cities. But, writes historian Matt Delmont on his new website Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers, the Short story also illustrates how important black newspapers have been to people rallying to combat exclusions and seek justice for wrongs done.

O’Day Short visited the Los Angeles Tribune, a local black newspaper, after receiving the threats that preceded the bombing. Hisaye Yamamoto, a writer for the paper at the time, remembered Short’s plea for an investigation and wrote that the father “was making the rounds of the three Negro newspapers in town to enlist their assistance.” After the family died, black newspapers insisted that the fire be investigated in light of what Short had reported and interviewed an arson expert who “flatly denied” the theory that the fire was accidental. The black press, while unable to save Short and his family, gave their story a public voice it wouldn’t have otherwise had.

The black press has been the subject of several recent books, including James McGrath Morris’ biography of journalist Ethel Payne and Ethan Michaeli’s history of the Chicago Defender. What sets Delmont’s Black Quotidian site apart is that it lets readers engage with the papers directly. Delmont, who used articles from the black press in researching two books (one on American Bandstand and civil rights, and one on the failure of busing), started the site as a way to share more widely from an archive that fascinated him.

The Colored citizen. (Helena, Mont.), 15 Oct. 1894.
The Colored citizen. (Helena, Mont.), 15 Oct. 1894.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress

Throughout 2016, Black Quotidian will reproduce and analyze historical articles from the black press that were published on a given day. High points so far include a young Nelson George writing about the controversy over the 1979 movie The Warriors while an intern at the New York Amsterdam News; the Atlanta Daily World’s 1936 report on Ethiopians fighting Mussolini’s invading forces; and a 1942 notice in the Pittsburgh Courier, written by the wire service Associated Negro Press, informing readers of the Red Cross’ decision to segregate blood donated by black people.

Kim Gallon, a historian who has started a site called the Black Press Research Collective, argues that reading historical black newspapers offers a complex and unvarnished perspective on black history. Because black newspapers, the first of which was founded in New York City in 1827, have often been black-owned and black-operated, Gallon said, they were accountable to their own communities and reflected community interests. “[Black newspapers] didn’t have to depend and couldn’t depend on white advertisers, who didn’t want to advertise in black newspapers,” Gallon told me. “So they could say what they wanted to say. They could call out white society as much as they could.” In their granular detail, black newspapers are also a great place to see how individual communities dealt with larger national issues.

I decided to take a look for myself. Using the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site, I read the Oct. 15, 1894, issue of the Helena, Montana, weekly the Colored Citizen, curious to see what the black community in a place like Helena was talking about in the 1890s. I picked the Colored Citizen on a whim, but the experience of looking through its pages immediately confirmed something Gallon had told me about the diversity of black newspapers: “The term ‘black press’ is almost a misnomer because that doesn’t suggest the nuances,” she said. “These papers had different politics, and different ways of understanding the black community; readership looked really different across the nation.”  

It turns out that the newspaper I had picked was a short-lived venture, funded for the duration of one election season by boosters who wanted Helena to be named Montana’s state capital (an issue that was on the ballot that year). J.P. Ball Jr., the editor—who (historian William Lang writes) was the son of a photographer and had recently immigrated west from Ohio—was charged with convincing black citizens of the state to vote for Helena, and against the faction led by the Anaconda Copper Co., which pushed for the company town Anaconda to be named capital in its stead.

This, Ball did with gusto; most of the Colored Citizen is devoted to Helena boosting. “Public sentiment is fast crystallizing in favor of Helena. … The fight has reduced itself to a moral campaign with the good citizens waging relentless warfare against the boodlers,” he wrote. (Boodlers: People who trade in bribes.) Helena was “the most progressive and liberal city in the state,” with a black community that was, Ball wrote, thriving. A vote for Helena, Ball argued, was tantamount to a vote for the Republican Party, which at that time enjoyed overwhelming black support. I knew this fact, but it was fascinating to see how that allegiance played out in this local context. Ball argued:

The race interests of our people lie in the hands of that political party that is the synonym of progress. … It cannot be denied that the republican party has stood by us in every crisis that has confronted us. … It must be distinctly understood that our interests lie with the republicans, not because of good done for us in the past, but because of its promises for the future, its progressive tendencies and the utter rottenness and unreliability of the other parties.

Even the paper’s “Local and Personal” section was full of the pro-Helena agenda. Gossip items like “Robert Lawrence of Butte, the popular tonsorial artist [barber], was over on a flying visit last week” and “The genial and popular Phil Simmons, who has been rusticating over in Tewnsend for the past few days, is home again looking well and happy” alternated with plugs like: “Let the colored voters of the state vote solidly for Helena as a compliment to her 500 prosperous colored citizens.”

Much of the back section of this issue, where service-y bits about housekeeping and fictional stories were to be found, seems not to vary much from the white-published papers from the same time period. Ball reprinted many service-oriented “filler” items, which were commonly lifted and repurposed in the world of 19th-century newspapers: “When you are going to use spices of any kind or pepper, get the whole grains and grind them yourself. Then you will not run the risk of spoiling your viands with pulverized chips.” Or: “A sooty chimney can be cleaned by firing a gun or pistol up the flue. The concussion dislodges the soot, and it tumbles down.” Then Ball slid in this particular bit of filler, which indicates an awareness of how prejudice operated worldwide: “Hebrew [Jewish] drummers for German business houses who travel in Russia cannot get passports for longer than three months at a time. Christian drummers get them for a year.”

Both Delmont and Gallon are fascinated by these nonpolitical sections of the newspapers, which depict everyday life in detail. In her research, Gallon writes about gender and sexuality as it was discussed in the black press in the 1920s and 1930s, looking at the parts of the paper that some might consider sensationalist—fiction, or salacious news stories about “divorce cases, or stories about adultery, ministers cheating with their parishioners.” Gallon finds evidence of community standards and beliefs there. “I use some of those stories as a way to think about what black people thought about and did sexually within the black community, and make the argument that outside of the gaze of white society, who saw promiscuity and immorality and all these other sort of labels that get attached to black people, black people had all sorts of different opinions and perspectives about African-American sexuality,” Gallon told me.

In looking at newspaper stories that identified openly gay men, and the letters to the editor that followed, Gallon said: “I found lots of letters, debates among readers where they’re going back and forth about how homosexuals should be understood and recognized, and they’re taking issue with one newspaper, the Philadelphia Tribune, and its portrayal of African-American gay men as sort of depraved and a threat to the community. Many readers were outraged that this paper would treat [these] men this way.” This kind of evidence is important, Gallon says, because it counteracts a vision of the historical black community as a “monolith”—an undifferentiated group of people who share the same opinions and experiences. 

For his part, Delmont mentioned an affection for the sports pages, the editorial cartoons, and the society pages. “I like the society pages a lot,” Delmont said. “I found something from the Atlanta Daily World, a society page piece from World War II, about a going-away party for a woman who was going to do factory work in Mobile, Alabama. So she was going to be a black Rosie!” Black newspapers definitely paid attention to violence and discrimination, as in the case of O’Day Short, often acting in an activist capacity to right wrongs. But they also covered the other goings-on in the community: parties at roller rinks, high school girls’ volleyball games, movies that were coming to the local theaters.

To Delmont, who uses black newspapers in the college classes he teaches, this variety in coverage is important. “It’s really hard to teach African-American history right now,” he said. Though there are plenty of parallels to be drawn between the injustices and discrimination of the past and present-day cases of police brutality (for example), the exercise of pointing out those connections has its own dangers, offering a constrained and narrow picture: “It’s so hard to talk about black history and not focus on death, dying, or mistreatment,” he said. Reading black newspapers is a way into a richer history, where struggle was a part of everyday life, but not always dominant in people’s minds. “My sense is most nonblack people haven’t been asked to engage with black history in that way,” Delmont said. “And to me that’s valuable. To get a sense of the whole experience, a mix of joys and sorrows.”

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If you’re interested in perusing the archive of the black press yourself: Perhaps the easiest place to see black newspapers without an institutional subscription to the paywalled database run by ProQuest is via the Chronicling America site. (Filter the site’s papers, which date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, using the term “African-American”; you should reach this page of results.) The Black Press Research Collective has a page rounding up other freely available online offerings; individual projects like Advocate Recovered, a site run by historian Julian Chambliss that collects the contents of the Winter Park Advocate of Winter Park, Florida, can be found there.

What’s the best way to delve into an individual issue? Both Delmont and Gallon, who fondly recall doing research on microfilm in the days before the advent of widespread digitization and keyword searching, recommend a completist approach. “I sound like a Luddite, but when you go through microfilm it’s the unexpected things” that make for the best discoveries, Delmont said. In doing research for his first book, he’d be looking for articles about American Bandstand, but “the things that stuck with me were coverage of the recreational sports teams, and the high school girls sports teams, that got featured in the Philadelphia Tribune. It wasn’t what I was writing about,” he said, but it was a valuable window into community life. “As best as you can from a digital standpoint, look at the paper as a whole,” Gallon advised.