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Art

Black Life In Black And White

The Afro’s anniversary prompts re-examination of the African-American 20th century experience

Photo: <em>Afro</em>, License: N/A

Afro

Newsboy Oliver E. Boykins on his route in 1953.


Growing Up AFRO: Snapshots of Black Childhood from the Afro-American Newspapers

Runs through December 30 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture

For more information visit africanamericanculture.org

THE 120 BLACK-AND-WHITE photographs that make up most of this absorbing new exhibit ostensibly tell the story of the 120-year-old Afro-American newspaper franchise, which started in Baltimore in 1892 and spread throughout the East Coast.

But more than that, they warmly display the vitality of urban African-American communities in mid-century America through pictures of young people. There are nods to the brutal racism and discrimination that the community endured through much of the 1900s (though there are no depictions of endemic poverty that was also part of the story); but the exhibit focuses more on the strong communal and familial bonds that helped black communities endure and overcome, rather than focusing on the obstacles themselves.

Indeed, the exhibit rightly shows the Afro-American papers as one of the key institutions that brought the community together. The photographs run from the 1920s through the 1970s, a period in which the Afro, as it’s always been known, was at the height of its importance. Pictures of hundreds of grinning, suit-clad newsboys gathering for their annual banquet or of top sellers piling onto a bus during a trip to New York City—Bronx Zoo pennants in hand—show the breadth and depth of the operation.

Beyond that, the papers both reported on and initiated community projects that few institutions seem capable of today. The Afro’s “Clean Block” program sent scores of broom-bearing young people into the streets and awarded cash prizes to “Clean Block Captains,” publishing their pictures alongside their prize-winning blocks. The paper also covered mass community gatherings, such as one in the 1940s, when students at one school raised $30,000 (about $460,000 today) in a war bond-and-stamp drive, using $1,950 to buy an ambulance for the community and sending the rest to the U.S. Treasury for the war effort.

Other pictures show the day-in, day-out struggles of the civil rights movement. Among the most moving are shots of 12 of the first 15 African-Americans boys to attend Poly during their first days at the school. Their faces speak volumes— a mix of pride, bravery, and apprehension. The faces of the dapper Dunbar students standing outside the Mergenthaler School of Printing after trying and failing to integrate, display anger and determination.

Only two photos reflect the harshest realities of segregation. In one, students at all-black Moton High School in Farmville, Va., somberly stand around the remnants of a cross that was burned on the lawn the previous night. In another, young people protest the segregation of Rosedale Park with signs that read, among other things, “America, this is your shame,” while white young people laugh and jeer at them from behind a fence.

But despite these moments of harshness, the exhibit shows a much more pleasant, mundane, day-to-day reality that is often forgotten when the African-American experience of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s is depicted. There are students napping on cots during rest time at city schools; crowds of kids, some integrated, some not, at playgrounds, at recreation centers, at swimming pools; and children sledding down hills behind rowhouses. There are graduations, May Day celebrations, and lots of youngsters dressed to the nines, in white gloves and bonnets, on Easter Sunday.

And you get the sense it is this reality that older African-American visitors refer to when they write messages in the guest book like. “This exhibit brings back so many memories,” and “I was transported to my childhood with every shot.”

Even some of the photos that depict the African-American struggle have a soft edge, like the one of a father and son at a protest for higher wages. The toddler holds a sign that reads “My Daddy Deserves a Living Wage,” while the father smiles. One photo depicts Martin Luther King, Jr. greeting over-excited students at a school in Prince Edward County, Va.

Amid the photographs in the exhibit are three display cases showing bound volumes of the Afro-American, open to apparently random editions of the weekly paper. One is struck initially at the giant size of the broadsheets, so drastically have our own daily papers been downsized over the years. There is a comfortable calm to the stories. There is a piece about a family that had quadruplets (who so fascinated readers that the editors would give updates on them from time to time), pictures from the grandstands of the Pimlico on the day of the Preakness Stakes, pictures for kids to color, and a series about how young people led change in their neighborhoods.

The African-American community in mid-century urban America is often portrayed as being dominated by anger, unrest, hard lives, and constant struggle. The pictures and papers in Growing Up Afro paint a different picture, one that strikes a chord of truth. It shows a community slowly, carefully pushing its way into a new world while still carrying on with the everyday lives of its members as men, women, and children.

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