Celebrating Black History Month

As we mark off the final days of Black History Month, this week’s blog post will focus on a related Wolfsonian event and new acquisitions dealing with African-American history.

On January 26, The Wolfsonian–FIU Library teamed up with Miami writer, bibliophile, and Bookleggers director Nathaniel Sandler for an all-new Into the Stacks program organized in conjunction with Sandler’s Knight Foundation-funded project, Crypt Cracking. To kick off the inaugural session, Nathaniel and I agreed to focus on the work of a single, lesser-known artist, Lynd Ward (1905–1985).

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Ward, who realized as a young boy that he was destined to be an artist because his last name spelled backwards reads “draw,” rose to prominence during the Great Depression as a pioneer of the American graphic novel. Having traveled to Germany in the aftermath of the First World War, Ward was influenced by German Expressionism, silent film, and woodcut printing. His own first wordless novel, a Faustian tale titled God’s Man, included 139 captionless woodblock prints, and was so popular that in spite of being released a week before the Stock Market Crash in October 1929, it was reprinted three times by January 1930, and sold more than 20,000 copies over the next four years.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

As a committed Socialist reformer, the five additional wordless novels he published during the dark years of the Depression all drew attention to issues of economic inequity and social injustice. Ward also illustrated hundreds of children’s books—many written by his wife, May McNeer, and other works written to call attention to racial prejudice and to promote civil rights.

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In 1933, for example, Lynd Ward provided the frontispiece and dust jacket illustration for Robert Gessner’s Upsurge, a collection of revolutionary and protest poetry focusing on African-Americans.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Lynd Ward also put his artistic talent to work in the service of progressive left causes such as the American League Against War and Fascism. His illustrations for that popular front organization’s annual artistic calendar depict blacks and whites united in the fight for economic and social equality.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Patricia Frisella

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of the August Mecklem Estate

Ward also provided all of the illustrations for Hildegarde Hoyt Swift’s North Star Shining, a book for young adults that sought to describe the “sometimes tragic, often heroic” role played by African-Americans too often omitted in the histories of this era.

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The book’s title pays tribute to a reference to Harriet Tubman and her efforts to lead hundreds of runaway slaves to freedom guided solely by the “North Star,” as well as to the title of Frederick Douglass’ anti-slavery newspaper.

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Ward’s dramatic paintings illustrate renown and anonymous African-American heroes on each page of verse.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift made by Francis Xavier Luca, in honor of Wolfsonian museum founder Micky Wolfson, Jr.’s birthday, September 30, 2011

To celebrate Black History Month, I found, purchased, and donated three rare books to The Wolfsonian’s library collection. The first item was a rare study titled The Negro Family in the United States, written by Edward Franklin Frazier, a professor of Sociology at Howard University, originally published by the University of Chicago Press in 1939.

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Frazier’s study is considered to be the first comprehensive sociological study of black family life beginning in the colonial era and ending in the Depression decade. In addition to an extensive appendix chock-full of statistical graphs, maps, and charts, the book includes several wonderful—though sadly unattributed—wood or linocut illustrations.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The second gift was a novel titled The Darker Brother, written by Bucklin Moon and published by Doubleday, Doran & Company in 1943. The author relates a fictional story of contemporary African-American struggles that touched on the Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities in their search for a better life during the Depression, and their continued encounters with segregation and racism.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Similar themes of migration and persistent racial discrimination abound in the third work, Chester B. Himes’ novel, The Third Generation, published more than a decade later.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

In the wake of serious race riots in Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, and Detroit, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a commission to determine the causes and to propose solutions. After seven months of investigation, a 426-page Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (or Kerner Report) was released on February 29, 1968, reaching the pessimistic conclusion that the country was “moving toward two societies, on black, one white—separate and unequal.” The report called for desegregation and serious efforts to address institutional racism as it contributed to poverty and unemployment. Amazingly, it became an instant bestseller, purchased by more than two million Americans. On the fiftieth anniversary of the report’s release, it is clear we have a long way to go towards truly solving the issues championed the Civil Rights movement’s pioneers.

~ by "The Chief" on February 28, 2018.

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