Monthly Archives: May 2014

60 Years After Brown v. Board: The Future the Black Press Couldn’t See

This 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision is a time for reflection upon both the the increased opportunities for African-American students in a post-Brown world, and the continuing problems of racial inequality in education in the United States.

In 1954, the Black Press, understandably, reported the decision as a moment of incredible triumph.  The Chicago Defender newspaper also interpreted the decision from a vantage point of northern superiority.  Editors at the Chicago Defender discussed the case in the context of northern achievements of racial equality. As the nation awaited a ruling in the case, Chicago Defender columnist Albert Barnett reminded readers that districts not prejudices decided what schools Chicago children would attend, and that “If this Chicago situation prevailed in the South, there would be no need of Supreme Court action.” (CD, National Edition, January 30, 1954, p. 4)  For longtime Defender writer Enoch Waters, the lesson that Chicago offered a nation in turmoil in the wake of Brown was that “being all-white or all-Negro does not necessarily mean that a school is jim crow. It is not the physical complexion of the school that determines whether or not it is jim crow. It is, rather, whether all who wish to attend the school can do so if they qualify otherwise regardless of race.” (CD National Edition, July 17, 1954, p. 11) These statement contained powerful and politically useful critiques of Jim Crow racial segregation.

This southern shift of the fight against racial discrimination elided local concerns among African-American community leaders, teachers, administrators, parents, students, as well as some white fellow-travellers, about the continuing patterns of educational discrimination and inequality in northern cities like Chicago.  In 1949, school officials in Chicago undertook a large-scale redistricting project in response to a rapidly growing school-aged population (from 42,900 in 1942 to 67,000 in 1954).  While Chicago did not have an official policy of racial segregation in public schools, most schools were completely or largely segregated through a combination of carefully crafted residential boundaries, steering by school administrators, and pressure from local (white) parents.  Within this system, exclusively and predominantly African-American schools suffered disproportionately from overcrowding and large class size.

The problems facing African-American students in Chicago Public Schools were widely discussed in the pages of the Chicago Defender, but not in the period after the Brown victory.   Instead editors on the achievements of a school system that functioned successfully without racial segregation.  Reading 1954 editorials from the Chicago Defender in 2014 is bittersweet.  While the editors envisioned the hope, the promise, and the hard-won battle of Brown as part of a steady march toward racial equality in education, that vision would be challenged by powerful forces of white flight and residential resegregation in cities such as Chicago.

Preserving Black Press History During Natural Disasters




If you haven’t seen this video of a retaining wall collapsing in North Central Baltimore, watch to the end.  Significantly for us here at the BPRC, the collapse happened less than a block from the headquarters of the Afro-American Newspapers, a building that also house the archives of the Afro.  Thankfully no one was injured in the attack.  Although the workers in the Afro building felt a strong jolt, the building was not damaged.

Those of us who believe that the Afro’s modest building at 2519 North Charles Street houses an archival collection that is a national treasure, breathed a sigh of relief when we found out that the building was undamaged.

Much of the archival record of the Black Press has already been destroyed.  Some of this destruction has been due to the culture of newspapers.  Newspapermen and women often focused on today’s stories and tomorrow’s stories, not the stories and records of yesterday.  Some of the records that seem so precious today, were simply thrown away in the past.  Add to this perspective, the fact that newspaper collections are large and unwieldy and expensive to store and maintain.  And then there is nature, the enemy of archives everywhere: floods, fires, leaks, humidity, and heat can all degrade or destroy fragile paper and photographs.

The Afro-American Newspapers Archives holds more than 2,000 linear feet of archival materials, including over a million images-some of them never seen by the public.  This collection has been protected for more than a hundred years by the Murphy and Oliver families, longtime owners of the Afro.

Standing in the crowded rooms of the Afro Archives, it’s easy to be overcome by the knowledge that archives are meant to live longer than human beings.  Our job is to be the protectors of collections that will share their knowledge with our descendants long after we are gone.  May this be the Afro’s first century, but not its last.