Black Press on Exhibit in National African-American Museum

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Black Press on Exhibit in National African-American Museum

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Friends and fans of the black press will find its influence is ubiquitous in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which rests prominently and appropriately in the shape of a crown in the shadow of the Washington Monument on the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue. From the tools of the craft to one of the most powerful stories ever carried by black media – the lynching of Emmett Till and its aftermath – the museum’s exhibits demonstrate the critical role of the black press in undergirding the African-American journey.

Dr. Benjamin Chavis, for one, appreciates that. Chavis, the president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, said: “The museum’s displays about the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Baltimore Afro enshrine the freedom-fighting legacy of the black press. Since Freedom’s Journal first published in March of 1827, black-owned newspapers have played a leading role in the African-American struggle for freedom, justice and equality. For 190 years the black press has not only reported and published the news relevant to black America, but also has been and remains the voice of black America.”

But A. Peter Bailey, a veteran journalist who fell in love with the black press as a child in Tuskegee, Alabama, in the late 1940s, reading his grandmother’s copies of Ebony and the Pittsburgh Courier, thinks the representations of the black press are too diffuse. “It’s too scattered,” he said. Bailey would have preferred a single section in the museum with newspapers and magazines; headlines about major events; stories of publishers, editors, reporters and photographers;highlights of crusades waged by newspapers and covers of the special single-issue editions of Ebony like its “The White Problem In America” in August 1965. “I think the black press should have gotten much more serious treatment than the museum gives it.”

One of the annual special-issue editions of Ebony magazine from the 1960s

The museum, which had its grand opening in September 2016, is divided into galleries below ground that tell the story of European contact with Africa in the 1500s, the horrors of the ensuing Atlantic slave trade, the quest for freedom that began when the first Africans were forced onto slave ships, and United States history through the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president. Above ground galleries offer in-depth looks at the life and culture of a people who have mastered, as the third-floor’s theme celebrates, “making a way out of no way.” An expansive main floor, Heritage Hall, serves as a fitting welcome into the world of African-American life that awaits, starting with a film by Ava Duvernay, August 28: A Day in the Life of a People, that is shown hourly in the theater. Using poetry and news events, it features Don Cheadle, Regina King, Angela Bassett, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Michael Ealy, Andre Holland and Glynn Turman. “In my eyes, August 28 tells so much about black history through the lens of one date,” Duvernay has said.

Telling that story, too, is the black press. On the third floor, there is an exhibit called The Power of the Press. Artifacts and video showcase publications that include The North Star, published by Frederick Douglass in 1847; the Tulsa Star, a victim of a 1921 massacre that destroyed Tulsa’s thriving black community and its “Black Wall Street”; the National Council of Negro Women’s Aframerican Women’s Journal in the 1940s; and Ebony and Jet magazines, which are still published but struggling to find their place in this digital age. As you make your way to the exhibit, you can’t help but notice the large, iron, square machine. It is a paper cutter donated by the Afro-American newspaper, the nation’s oldest family-run black newspaper enterprise, dating back to 1892.

E.R. Shipp
Paper cutter donated by The Afro

“The Afro was elated when a representative of the NMAAHC requested a donation of any artifact we believed to have been instrumental in our long history of publishing the news of the African-American community,” said John “Jake” Oliver, publisher of the Afro-American, known to most as simply the Afro.

Michèle Gates Moresi, a curator for the NMAAHC, said the process of collecting artifacts took years and was a combination of a systematic approach and the grace of things falling into place. “For the most part, the narrative of the exhibition drove the selection of where and how a black newspaper was represented. It was also serendipitous – where we need material artifacts to represent a theme or story, and we managed to locate such an artifact, we were able to use the materials effectively,” Gates Moresi said. That explains why in the Power of Place exhibit on the third floor there is a linotype machine from the Chicago Defender, she said.  Chicago, during the Great Migration, and largely through the efforts of the Defender’s publisher, Robert S. Abbott, became one of those powerful places in African-American history.

NMAAHC/Alan Karchmer
Patrons visiting the Making A Way Out of No Way exhibits

Materials related to the black press have served as primary sources for the research that goes into the creation of exhibits on a variety of subjects. They rotate through various displays and are also featured in some of the interactive exhibits, such as the simulated road trip that lets visitors experience what it could be like if one traveled by automobile from the North to the Jim Crow South without the benefit of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide published from 1936 to 1966.

The museum offers many little-known stories, like that of Mary Ann Shadd Cary. In 1853, she became the first African-American woman to publish and edit a newspaper, the Provincial Freedman in Windsor, Canada. She had been born in Wilmington, Delaware, and lived in the United States until fugitive slave laws forced her family to flee to Canada.

Robert Churchwell, considered “the Jackie Robinson of journalism,” has become the pioneer that even most black journalists have never heard of. His story is also featured in the museum. In 1950, three years after Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, Churchwell became the first black reporter on a major Southern newspaper, the Nashville Banner, and toiled there more than 30 years. According to the exhibit: “As the first black reporter at the Nashville Banner, Robert Churchwell endured racist attitudes and discrimination on a daily basis. For the first five years, he worked from home because white reporters refused to share an office with him. Even after he received a desk in the newsroom, he was ostracized by most of his co-workers. His determination to support his family, prove his capabilities, and pave the way for other black journalists kept him from giving up.”

In rendering his story, the museum seamlessly reminds us of the connectedness of black people: Churchwell matriculated at Fisk University after his World War II military service. His journalism instructor was a man named Robert Hayden, who later became the first black poet laureate of the United States.

The newspaper most represented in the museum is the Pittsburgh Courier. On the fourth floor, its decades-long crusade against the Amos and Andy series that ran on radio and then television from 1928 to the 1960’s is featured. Beginning in 1931 – two decades before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People joined the fray – it waged a petition drive against the show that began on radio with white actors portraying blacks as vaudevillian stereotypes and ended with black actors portraying blacks in equally exaggerated stereotypical fashion.

Perhaps more significant was the Courier’s World War II Double V Campaign (for victory abroad and victory at home), which went viral, to use today’s parlance. Thousands of men, women and children threw themselves into a nationwide effort that was at once an act of patriotism, a protest and a cultural phenomenon. Through its news coverage and its crusade, the Courier carried the message of black men serving in segregated forces to fight for freedom half a world away while they were denied those same freedoms within the United States. At the museum, the entire section dedicated to military life is named “Double Victory: The African-American Military Experience,” recognizing the social impact of the Courier’s Double V Campaign.

Rodd Doss, publisher of the New Pittsburgh Courier, as the paper is now known, said he is honored that his publication has been recognized. “The black press, individually and collectively, fought against segregation and discrimination in all areas affecting African-American. It told ‘our story’ and lifted our community from the negative images perpetuated by other media. It challenged our community to pursue its own destiny, not others.”

Camera used by Pittsburgh Courier’s Charles “Teenie” Harris (NMAAHC Collection)

Photographers whose images countered those “negative images” about which Doss spoke include the Courier’s Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-1998), whose 80,000-plus visual images of everyday life in the Pittsburgh area is considered one of the most significant visual recordings of 20th century African-American life.

Entrance to the Emmett Till exhibit

The most moving photos remain those that shocked the nation in 1955 as they gave vigor to a burgeoning civil rights struggle and purpose to a generation of young blacks who entered fields such as law, social work and journalism. They are the photos of a brutalized Emmett Till that ran in the September 15, 1955, issue of Jet magazine. A photographic display leads the way to the most solemn exhibit in the museum, which tells the story of the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was lynched in Mississippi and of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley who was determined that the world see the injustice that had befallen her son. In an alcove where no photography is allowed, visitors quietly view the original casket in which Emmett was buried. (After his body was exhumed a decade ago during a Justice Department investigation, he was reburied in a new coffin in Illinois.) They may sit on a pew in a funereal setting, reliving what it was like when thousands attended Emmett’s funeral in Chicago. For many visitors, this is one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of the museum. “I never wanted to exoticize or exploit Emmett’s murder,” Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the museum has said, “but I kept hearing his mother’s voice as she used to always talk to me about how important it was to her that Emmett didn’t die in vain.”

The museum is now preparing to celebrate its first anniversary, but it is still building upon its black press collection. Gates-Moresi, the curator, said she hopes to acquire artifacts of other black journalists, including Ethel L. Payne (1911-1991), who worked for the Chicago Defender for 25 years during the height of the civil rights movement and was known as the “First Lady of the Black Press.”


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