Before the Mayflower: A Tribute to Journalist Lerone Bennett, Jr.

“An educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary or an oppressor. ~ Lerone Bennett, Jr.

On February 14, 2018, Lerone Bennett, Jr. passed at age 89 at his home in Chicago, Illinois. Bennett was a journalist and social historian who focused on African-American life and racism in the United States. He is best known for the 1963 historical study, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619-1962, which examines the experiences of African Americans from their time in Africa to the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. Other works by Bennett include What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Power U.S.A., and Pioneers in Protest. Bennett has also won several awards for his writings, such as the Carter G. Woodson’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (2003), Literature Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters (1978), and Book of the Year from the Capital Press Club (1963).


Bennett was born on October 17, 1928 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. As a teen, he worked for the black owned weekly newspapers the Jackson Advocate and the Mississippi Enterprise as a reporter. After graduating from the segregated high school in 1945, Bennett enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He paid for his tution by playing alto saxophone for local jazz bands. After graduating from college, Bennett began working as a journalist in Atlanta before relocating to Chicago in 1953 to work for Jet Magazine. The following year, he started working for Ebony Magazine, as an associate editor. Bennett quickly rose to the position of executive editor and remained with the magazine for over fifty years.

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A Man of Many “Firsts”

   Today’s post was written by Daniella Furman, Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

     With both Black History month and the 50th anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fast approaching, I began looking back to the year of 1968 to try to get a small picture of the country and its’ people at that time. There were so many important milestones and events happening in 1968 that I quickly became overwhelmed by all of the social change and chaos.  But I also saw an immeasurable amount of courage, determination, strength and compassion during that year that led me to delve deeper.

     Two events that stood out in particular that I would like to highlight from that year are the first ever U.S. Amateur Tennis Competition and the first U.S. Tennis Open held that allowed amateur players to competeIn winning both of these competitions, Arthur Ashe became the first black male to win both the amateur and open competition in the same year. I decided to find out more about this man and his story. I was truly moved by his story and the example of someone using their talents, drive and accomplishments to pave a way forward for others.

     Arthur Ashe (1943-1993) was a three times Grand Slam Tennis champion. During his athletic career he received many awards and accolades including being ranked World No. 1 in 1968 and 1975. He achieved so many firsts and a wide variety of awards and titles that had never been held by an African American male before. He is also known for his charitable works and activism including founding the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. He was also posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. Ashe begun playing tennis by the age of 7 in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia and continued through high school. During this time he was trained and mentored by Ron Charity and Robert Walter Johnson. In 1958 he competed in his first integrated tennis competition and became the first African American to play in the Maryland Boys Championships. He later decided to move to St. Louis, Missouri where the competitions were more racially integrated than in Virginia at the time.

     He was ultimately awarded a tennis scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles in 1963 where he was coached by J.D. Morgan. Ashe was also active in the R.O.T.C in college which led him to join active military service after graduation. While in the Army he worked as a data processor at the United States Military Academy at West Point and remained in the army until 1969. His Army military personnel file is located in Record Group 319 Records of the Army Staff, Series “Official Military Personnel Files 1912-1998” (NAID 40922125). Arthur Ashe went on to become the first African American player ever selected for the United Stated Davis Cup team in 1965 where he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association singles title and doubles title.


Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981-1/20/1989 (NAID 75855229)

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“And They Thought We Couldn’t Fight:”* Remembering the Nine Soldiers in a World War I Photograph

Today’s Blog is written by Barbara Lewis Burger, a retired National Archives Still Picture Senior Archivist

369th all

New York’s Colored Regiment Returns Home on Stockholm. Some of the colored men on 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. Front row, left to right: Private Eagle Eye, Ed Williams; Lamp Light, Herbert Tayl; 12 Feb, 1919 (NAID 26431282detail of photo scan

The above photograph of nine World War I soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment is one of several iconic photographs in the National Archives and Records Administration that document African American soldiers during the war. This particular image has been widely reproduced in print and broadcast media, and on the internet. The photograph (Local ID 165-WW-127A-8/ NAID 26431282) is from the series, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918 (NAID 533461) in the Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165.

The image was taken on board the USAT Stockholm on February 12, 1919, as the soldiers of the 369th and other African American troops returning home following the Armistice, awaited disembarkation in New York City. The 369th’s service in the war began over one hundred years ago on April 2, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked a joint session of Congress to issue a declaration of war against the German Empire. In two days, both houses had voted to support the declaration. In the spring and summer, the nine men in the photograph, eager to join the war, volunteered with the 15th Regiment Infantry (Colored) of the New York National Guard. Later that winter, within days of the United States declaring war on December 7th against Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary, the troops of the 15th Infantry set sail on the USS Pocahontas. The ship was bound for the port city of Brest, France and the soldiers were destined for their place in history.  Two months later, on March 1, 1918, the regiment was reorganized and designated the 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division.

The history of the regiment is well researched and documented, including its ill treatment and under-utilization by American forces in France. At the time, many Americans, including military leaders, believed African Americans lacked the intelligence and courage to fight. In the summer of 1918 the regiment was integrated into French forces to help replenish its forces and soon faced combat. The 369th proved the skeptics wrong and went on to achieve a remarkable combat record: they served more time in continuous combat than any other American unit — the regiment fought for 191 days on the front, the longest of any unit; never lost a man captured; never lost a foot of ground to the Germans; and was the first Allied unit to cross the Rhine River during the Allied offensive. In recognition of its bravery under fire, the French government awarded the regiment with the country’s military decoration, the Croix de Guerre. In addition, 171 men of the regiment were also presented with an individual Croix de Guerre for their valor. Several soldiers were also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The 369th was not the only black World War I regiment, nor the only one to fight valiantly, but it is perhaps the most famous. Each soldier in this photograph, who is identified in an accompanying caption, is wearing the Croix de Guerre pinned to his garment. Also visible on the left sleeves of several are two War Service Chevrons signifying a year of service in the theater of operations.

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Living Testimony, Faithful to Cleo & Lifting the Race: Dr. Roland McConnell

                                                 Happy American Archives Month!

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Ida E. Jones, University Archivist at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland

Professor of history and author Dr. Roland Calhoun McConnell was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada on March 10, 1910. McConnell graduated from Dunbar High School in 1927, where he was a classmate of historian Sadie I. Daniels and Dr. Robert C. Weaver. McConnell earned his A.B. degree in 1931 and his M.A. degree in 1933 from Howard University, where Charles Wesley introduced him to Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now ASALH).

After graduating, McConnell taught at Elizabeth State Teachers College before joining the United States Army in 1942. In 1943, McConnell served as visiting lecturer at Howard University and archivist at the National Archives in the Army Branch of the War Records Office.

Dr. McConnell completed his doctorate in history with a minor in sociology. He taught on the college level during his doctoral program at Elizabeth City. His matriculation was interrupted by World War II where he served as a statistical clerk, CFA-4, a Second Lieutenant, as well as, a researcher in the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

In 1946 Colonel HP Hennessey penned a letter to Solon J. Buck, Archivist of the United States commending the War Department records staff where Dr. McConnell worked with Dr. Elisabeth B. Drewry and Mr. J.W. Crowder. Hennessey noted “members of the archives staff showed [us] every possible trouble to help him in his research. The staff were particularly helpful.”

Photograph of the Conference on Federal Archives as Sources for Afro-American Research [Roland McConnell] (NAID 35810342)

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Marshall film takes a look at Thurgood Marshall’s early career

Marshall tells the story of Thurgood Marshall’s early days as a young lawyer fighting alongside fellow lawyer, Sam Friedman, in the case of a black chauffeur Joseph Spell, accused by his white employer, Eleanor Stubing, of sexual assault and attempted murder. The film stars Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, and Kate Hudson.

Previous blog posts relating to Thurgood Marshall:

“The Long Siege”: Thurgood Marshall’s Other Court Nomination Battle

“When It Was So Rough that You Couldn’t Make It”: Voting Rights in the Early 1960s

The Prince Edward County Free School Association

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The Freedom Train and the Contagion of Liberty, 1947-1949

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park

Late in 1946, Attorney General Tom Clark, concerned about the direction American life was taking in the wake of World War II, decided something dramatic was needed to increase public awareness of their heritage of freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship.  What he had in mind was a plan to dramatize the American way of life through a traveling exhibition of the most important collection of original American documents and a related educational program.  With the help and financial assistance of many influential businesses, organizations, and individuals he helped create in early 1947 the American Heritage Foundation to have responsibility for the patriotic-educational program.

By the spring of 1947, the foundation decided it would sponsor a train tour of historically important American documents.  To ensure that the message of the documents would not be lost in the hoopla and ballyhoo of the tour, the foundation planned for a full week of organized meetings in each city visited, during which time America’s heritage and good citizenship would be discussed and promoted.  The foundation also at this time gave the name the Freedom Train to its train and the tour.


Official Freedom Train Postcard, 1948 (NAID 22123608)

To kick off the activities of the foundation and to make the nation aware of the forthcoming Freedom Train tour and program, a White House Conference was held on May 22, 1947.  Among the 175 prominent Americans present were two African Americans, Lester Granger, executive secretary of the Urban League and William White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as a trustee of the American Heritage Foundation.  At this Conference it was announced the train tour would begin at Philadelphia on September 17, 1947, the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

At the White House conference potential problems of segregation were first raised and concerns expressed about the contradictions between some of the documents the train would carry and the practice of segregation.  Walter White told the conferees that “merely causing people to look at and to touch the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence is not enough…We have got to plant it so deep in the hearts of all Americans that we can demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that democracy is the best way of life, but we have got to live it as well as talk about it.”  Concluding his remarks, White pledge the unqualified support of African Americans, “who desperately want to see democracy made a living reality in our country.”

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Let Freedom Ring!!! Honoring the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

This Week’s Special Blog Post is written by Tina L. Ligon, Textual Processing Archivist, and Christina Violeta Jones, Textual Reference Archivist.

Known as one of the largest political rallies for human rights in the United States’ history, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (MOW) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. This blog highlights the various civilian and military records housed at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that pertain to MOW and its significance in American history. For a visual overview, the series Miscellaneous Subjects, Staff and Stringer Photographs, 1961-1974 (National Archives Identifier 541992) has a good selection of photographs highlighting the organizers, civil rights leaders, entertainers, and the diverse crowd who attended the MOW. Most of these images are available in the online catalog.


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At NARA, there is an extensive amount of textual records, photographs, sound recordings, and moving images that depict the excitement surrounding the MOW. These archival materials showcased people from all backgrounds who gathered along the National Mall singing and marching for freedom, civil rights, and equality for all citizens. The select records bring to light the significance of this event on United States history and its impact on Civil Rights legislation. The sound recording March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 08/28/1963 (National Archives Identifier 2839413) is a comprehensive audio recording of the speakers by the Educational Radio Network (WGBH) and the film The March, 1963 (National Archives Identifier 47526) shows behind the scenes planning and organizing for the event. To view this film, click on the following links:

The March, Part 1 of 3 (1964)
The March, Part 2 of 3 (1964)
The March, Part 3 of 3 (1964)

[Added 8/23/13 – for additional information about the film visit the National Archives’ Media Matters’ Making the March blog]

MOW was initiated by several prominent civil rights leaders: A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality), John Lewis (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Martin Luther King, Jr. (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Roy Wilkins (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and Whitney Young (National Urban League). The Production Library Audio Recordings, compiled 1945-1993 (National Archives Identifier 118159) series contains sound recordings on the experiences of these leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. The items include Luncheon for A. Philip Randolph, 08/26/1963 (National Archives Identifier 123316), Interview with James Farmer, President, Congress of Racial Equality and Center for Community Action, 02/11/1966 (National Archives Identifier 126129), The Quiet Warrior Martin Luther King, 12/09/1964 (National Archives Identifier 124276), Distinguished American #6: Roy Wilkins (National Archives Identifier 128285), and Press Conference USA with Guest Whitney Young, 05/06/1967 (National Archives Identifier 128551).


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Activist Bayard Rustin was a key figure in planning the MOW. His organizational skills were instrumental in the coordination and implementation of the march. He was an advisor to Dr. King in the 1950s and 1960s, and actively involved with pacifist groups and early civil rights protests. NARA has several sound recordings of interviews with Rustin, including Focus on Bayard Rustin (National Archives Identifier 2812560), Bayard Rustin, 11/18/1967 (National Archives Identifier 129504), and Perspective #334: A Conversation with Bayard Rustin, 10/29/1969 (National Archives Identifier 132969).


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On August 28, 1963, 200,000 to 300,000 individuals convened in Washington D. C. to hear civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech that advocated and called for racial harmony in the United States. NARA has the sound recording for the “I Have a Dream Speech” in the John R. Hickman Audio Collection (National Archives Identifier 1436726). Additionally, there are the Universal Newsreel Volume 36, Release 71, 08/29/1963 (National Archives Identifier 2050667) that gives a pictorial perspective of the event and the Department of Justice’s Class 144 (Civil Rights) Litigation Case Files series (National Archives Identifier 603432) [case file #144-16-574] that provides background information into concerns surrounding the march.


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[Added August 28, 2013 – check out NDC Blog on “Martin Luther King, Integrationist”]

Often lost in the history of MOW are the contributions and organizational efforts of women. Entertainer Josephine Baker gave a speech during the preliminary offerings of the march and Dorothy I. Height stood among male leaders on stage when Dr. King made his “I Have a Dream” speech. Myrlie Evers was scheduled to give a tribute to “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” but was unable to attend. Bayard Rustin gave the tribute in Evers’ absence and introduced freedom fighters Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks, and Gloria Richardson to the marchers. NARA holdings have several photographs of women who participated in MOW.


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The success of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

*Researchers who want to find records on the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom should start with the National Archives’ Catalog database.


*Researchers should note that with DOJ and FBI case files, records must be screened for personal privacy and law enforcement information under 5 U.S.C. 552(b) prior to public release. Some documents remain classified in whole or in part. Access to some case file subjects requires a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FBI.

Additional Resources from the John F. Kennedy Library Archives:

Public Opinion in the JFK Library Archives: Civil Rights Protests and the 1963 March on Washington


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Institutional Racism in Woodrow Wilson’s America

This blog was written by Kierra Verdun, a rising senior at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan and is a summer intern in the Textual Processing Division at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

Civic engagement is vital to the success of a representative democracy. By voicing concerns to elected officials, constituents ensure that their voices are heard. Representative democracy only benefits constituents when their elected officials are responsive in meaningful ways. Historically, some elected officials were not responsive to concerns expressed by constituents who were part of minority groups. The Wilson administration’s relationship with Black Americans proves this disconnect between ideology and reality.

In the Wilson Administration, the State Department routinely ignored and dismissed Black citizens’ pleas to speak out against lynching and other forms of discrimination. In fact, the administration was proactive in perpetuating segregation. Wilson and his cabinet actively worked to re-segregate federal offices and limit opportunity for Black Americans. A Postmaster within the Wilson administration once told reporters “There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place in the corn field.” Documents in Record Group 59: General Records of the State Department at the National Archives provide proof of discrimination. The way in which the State Department responded to citizens concerned about racism is a clear indication of their attitudes. Continue reading

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Dick Gregory, Civil Rights Activist and Comedic Legend

Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory was born in St. Louis, Missouri on October 12, 1932. He attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale, until he was drafted into the United States Army. Gregory is notably recognized for his work during the 1960s where he became a forerunner in stand-up comedy and a political activist. He was the first African American comedian to do stand-up comedy to successfully cross-over to white audiences. Gregory paved the way for many black comedians to separate from the racially charged entertainment traditions. He became known as the “Black Mort Sahl,” because his style was ironic and satirical.


Dick Gregory, image from the New York Daily Times

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A Phenomenon Called “Roots,” 1977

Today’s blog was written by Alan Walker, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

From the moment our search room doors opened to the public in late 1936, family history was a big draw for the public. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1938, nearly one quarter of the admission cards issued went to “students of genealogy.”


64-NA-324+Silence+in+the+Search+Room+-+Philadelphia+Inquirer,+Publicity,+8-12-42.JPG                                     64-NA-324 (investigators in Central Search Room, ca. 1940)

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Posted in African-American Women, American Civil War, Diaspora, Emancipation & Reconstruction, Finding Aids, Genealogy, Slavery and the Slave Trade, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment