Tag Archives: New York Amsterdam News

Celebrity Culture in the Early Twentieth Century Black Press

By Carrie Teresa

The development of entertainment journalism in the Black press was an important factor in bolstering the circulations of Black  newspapers during the first half of the twentieth century. Entertainment culture continues to be a driving force for many Black news institutions that are drawing upon a journalistic tradition that developed apart from, but contemporaneous with, trends in the mainstream press.

The Black press very much aligned with the mainstream sensational press in establishing coverage of entertainment culture as particularly newsworthy, even if the contextual elements of celebrity reporting differed substantively from that of mainstream journalists covering white celebrities. By 1922, the New York Amsterdam News had established an entertainment section. Three years later, both the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier followed suit. In 1929 and 1930, respectively, the Philadelphia Tribune and Baltimore Afro-American also began to dedicate a section of their newspaper to entertainment coverage so that by the early 1930s, entertainment sections were commonplace in Black press newspapers. Even the Philadelphia Tribune, a conservative newspaper that rarely devoted front-page column space to anything other than stories devoted to politics and education, began to cover entertainment more aggressively to compete with other Black newspapers in the northeast. It even began to run a column called the “Tribune Theatrical Night Life Page” which featured society news and “theatrical chit chat.” Often, in the Tribune and other Black-centered newspapers, this “chit chat” included celebrity gossip.

Celebrities came alive in the pages of these newspapers, whose writers did not shy away from sharing personal – and sometimes salacious – bits of gossip about their favorite entertainers. Journalists let readers know about Louis Armstrong’s failed diet plans and Roland Hayes’s affair with an Italian countess. They chided Josephine Baker’s fiancé as a “gigolo.” And they speculated about the likely unpleasant long-distance phone call Jesse Owens received from his childhood sweetheart – a phone call that encouraged him quickly thereafter to put a ring on it. Yet, it would be inadvisable to merely write off this coverage as a means to shift newspapers. Celebrity journalism, as in all other forms of news, contains important social and cultural cues, and for the writers of the Black press, the idea of “celebrity” was often imbued with issues of representation in public discourse. Fig 1_Matthews' weekly BAA column

The concept of “celebrity” is a journalistic invention developed in the early twentieth century by mainstream “yellow” newspapers hoping to bolster their circulation figures. Scholarship on American celebrity culture has suggested that celebrities, as early as 1900 when moving picture and recording technologies began to bolster an entertainment-based leisure market, operated as symbols of shared cultural values and beliefs. Journalists catapulted entertainers to god-like status, heralding their achievements as paragons of American self-determination. This concept emerged during a time when the racist ideologies of Jim Crowism became so deeply embedded in American values that Emancipation became an egregious misnomer of the condition of Black Americans. Accordingly, mainstream newspapers failed to cover Black entertainers, whose “inherent inferiority” forbade them from achieving such high cultural status. Black journalists paid attention to Black celebrities otherwise maligned or ignored in the mainstream press. Some of the most newsworthy celebrities to appear in the early twentieth century Black press have received little academic attention. To date, biographical information on entertainers such as Fredi Washington, James Reese Europe, Charles Gilpin, Harry Wills, Florence Mills, and Roland Hayes is sparse. Their important contributions have been overlooked – first in the mainstream press itself and later in scholarship relying on only those publications as their primary source material.

Yet, those entertainers came alive in the pages of newspapers and magazines written by and for the Black community. Journalists writing for the Black press during this period helped to establish the creative and aesthetic terms of Black American cultural expression. Their concept of celebrity differed from that of mainstream journalists covering white stars – Black celebrities, according to the journalists who covered them, often carried with them the obligation of representing the Black race (in all of its disparate social, geographical, and economic forms) as a collective entity battling for basic civil rights. CarrieTeresapostillustration

The insights provided by inquiry into Black press content challenge official histories that have notoriously overlooked and undervalued the contributions of Black Americans. The more that Black press scholars engage with this material, the better equipped they will be to train beginning journalists facing the task of making sense of celebrity culture in the context of enduring struggles against American racist ideologies.

 

 

The Price Is NOT Right: Selling Black Press Archives

In many ways Cornel University library’s purchase of the New York Amsterdam News’ archive is “old news.” Now over two years, since the sale, the guide for the collection was recently completed this past spring in April and can be found here.  However, like many other Black Press scholars and researchers of African American history, I was unaware of Cornell’s acquisition of this trove of images until I stumbled over the guide while conducting research on Amsterdam News’ society columnist, Gerri Majors (née Geraldyn Hodges-Dismond).  When I read the announcement I experienced the same emotions learning that Viacom had bought BETTime Inc. had purchased Essence Magazine  and  L’Oreal had acquired Carol’s Daughter’s.  The purchase of Black-owned businesses by white companies is, for me, always fraught with complexity.  While I am certainly in no position to judge any of these business decisions, it does give me pause to critically consider the implication of products, media and services produced for Black people that are now under the purview of white-dominated corporate interest.

In the case of the Amsterdam News, my feelings are even more mixed.  Black Press archives, as BPRC member, Moira Hinderer points out are vulnerable institutions.  Often underfunded and understaffed, Black newspapers have a difficult time preserving and curating archival records to tell their own histories.  In many cases, it’s up to concerned people and individual libraries to ensure that Black newspapers no longer being published are collected and preserved.  Sadly, the reality of staying afloat financially is the primary concern for most contemporary Black newspapers.  In this sense the Amsterdam News’ decision to sell their photo archive might be viewed as a practical one as the revenue garnered from the sale almost certainly provided financial relief for the company.

Yet, as a researcher I would be remiss in not expressing the sense of excitement I feel at having a guide to the archive and knowing that images from the Amsterdam News are readily available at an institution with the resources to preserve and maintain the collection.   I imagine that soon many of these photographs will be digitized and made available to the public.  Nonetheless, the acquisition of a Black newspaper archive does not always mean better public access.  We see this in the case of the Atlanta Daily World  archive which was purchased by Emory University in 2008.  According to the guide, the collection remains unprocessed and located at an off-site location, though the records appear to be available to researchers on request.

To be clear, Black newspapers are not the only papers choosing to sell their photo archives.  All contemporary newspapers live in tough times, where for many, each year they are able to stay alive is a gift.  Selling newspapers’ old photos can be quite lucrative.   Thus, I can certainly understand why newspapers sell their archives, though I wish that Black newspapers could find other ways to generate revenue.  In some cases, newspapers broker deals which allow them to retain copyright and the intellectual property of documents or photographs.  I can only hope this is true of the agreements the Amsterdam News and Daily World struck with Cornell and Emory.

Despite the financial benefits,  I can’t help but feel that a more appropriate place for the Amsterdam News and Daily World’s archival collections are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture or the  Black Press Archives at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University  and at the Woodruff (AUC) Library Archives for Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman Colleges.  Like the Black Press, the Schomburg, Moorland-Spingarn and Woodruff are venerable Black institutions which have been at the core of the African American and African Diapsoric experience in the United States.  Not only do these institutions possess a shared commitment to documenting and giving voice to the historical Black experience, they also continue to support contemporary Black newspapers and other Black organizations and businesses.

Ironically, the Black identity, which I argue makes these institutions ideal for African American newspaper archives, is what makes it difficult for them to obtain the records.    In short, the crux of the problem is that historically Black colleges and universities’ (HBCUs) libraries and research centers, relative to their white counter-parts, often lack the budgets necessary to first, acquire Black Press collections and second, to digitize and maintain them.  Thus, it is not a matter of lack of desire for these collections but rather fiscal capacity which prevents  Black institutions from acquiring them.  On the other hand, elite and predominantly white academic and public institutions, while to be congratulated for recognizing the significance of Black Press history, are further enriched by their procurement of Black Press collections.  Researchers’ use and grants from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize and preserve the archive enhance institutions already flush with wealth.

Black organizations, then, the very institutions that stand the most to gain by maintaining and holding on to Black Press collections are unable to acquire or preserve them.  For this reason efforts must be made to ensure that Black Press archival collections continue to be held by either the newspapers themselves or other Black-owned and Black-controlled institutions.   A model for this proposition is the archives of the AFRO American Newspapers in Baltimore.   John “Jake” Oliver great-grandson of founder, John H. Murphy, Sr., CEO and current publisher of the paper is to be commended for his commitment to retaining control over the newspaper’s archives.  Run by archivist,  JaZette Marshburn, the AFRO archives have partnered with a variety of institutions and organizations including Johns Hopkins University, Project Gado and Google to digitize and make their archival collections available to the public while finding innovative ways to generate income.

In spite of the short-term financial gain that Black newspapers achieve through the sale of their archives, the long-term consequence of not controlling their own history and the loss of potential revenue down the road may not make the transaction worth the figurative and literal price.  Consequently, Black Press archives are left all the more poor when they choose to sell their collections.

The Black Press Introduced the World to Maya Angelou

MayaAngelouarticleThe recent passing of Maya Angelou has offered many people the opportunity to reflect on her accomplished life. However, Angelou’s life also reminds us of the central role that the Black Press has played in recognizing the significance of African American artists and writers well before they are on the radar of many white publications.   Black newspapers’ earliest coverage of Angelou featured advertisements and announcements of her vocal performances and singing group, the Angelou trio in papers like the Chicago Defender. In 1969, the New York Amsterdam News featured a brief article describing Angelou’s accomplishments and announced her famous book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  According to the article, Angelou was  “black, intelligent and proud” and an advocate of African Americans recognizing their Africana heritage.  Soon after the publication of the Amsterdam News article Angelou would be featured in other papers, including white ones, as her literary and film work received critical acclaim.  By the time Angelou read her famous poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, the American public (indeed the world) had no doubt that Angelou was a gifted artist. Nonetheless, the Black Press informed us that Angelou was always, first and foremost, a daughter of Africa and the African disapora before she became the people’s poet.