Posts Tagged ‘Harlem Renaissance’


advertisement in The Crisis Magazine, 1922

I didn’t know, not until I was combing through the Military Intelligence Division – Negro Subversion files. Documents in these files were collected by the U.S. government from 1917 – 1941. In these pages, I learned about Emmett J. Scott, the previous subject of my “do you know …” series, and his role as Special Assistant to the Secretary of War. Information collected focused on three areas – (1) radical black organizations and their activities, (2) discrimination against blacks and (3) performance by blacks in the military.


Secretary of War Baker

The files include press accounts, FBI investigative reports, commentary on the mood in black communities and correspondence from soldiers.  Any letter by a soldier of color about mistreatment eventually found its way to Scott’s desk, as did the following letter that caught my attention with its eloquence.


I am writing you this letter to protest my compulsory induction into the Military Service of the United States. I received my order of induction on July 30th, and when this letter reaches you I will be part of the Army and subject to its laws and discipline. 

“In a letter recently to my local board, I truthfully stated, under oath, what I know to be the cause of my improper classification in the draft but as this was wholly a personal matter is it not the basis of my protest.”


“Since the United States entered the war, scores of Negro men, women and children have been lynched, burned and mutilated … Since the war began I have on five or six different occasions applied for enlistment in the Army or Navy, and each time I have met the sting of race prejudice and discrimination.  And the same serpent lies in the path of hundreds of others who apply for enlistment daily.  If, as is often argued, that certain provisions of the Constitution of the United States are not upheld because of states’ rights, surely, the Government can prevent discrimination and segregation in the Army and Navy, the Commander-in-Chief of which is the President of the United States.

Therefore, it is with a thousand and one grievances against my country and an ever burning sympathy for the many injustices heaped upon Negroes, even today, in this the supposed land of freedom, champion of democracy and defender of the helpless peoples that I go forth to battle; not as a patriotic soldier eager to defend a flag that defends me and mine but as a prisoner of war, shackled to a gun that shall spit fire in defense of a humanity which does not include me and to uphold the neutrality of the only other country that has outdone my own in the oppression of the black races of the earth. These are the bases of my protest.

If the expression of what one holds to be true, right and just is a crime, I respectfully submit myself to you as a representative of my Government or to your agents to be used or abused in defense of them, as you see fit.”


My curiosity was sparked!

Who was this William M. Kelley who had dared to write such a letter to the Secretary of War?  He was a writer, that’s for sure. With a bit of online research I learned that he had also been editor, publisher and social activist.

Born in the 1890s in Chattanooga, TN, he would eventually make his way north to Chicago. There he was employed as a social worker by the Chicago League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (a branch of the organization now known as the Urban League). By the time he signed his draft papers he was living in New York.

As for what happened during the war, especially after he wrote that letter, that I don’t know. He did attain the rank of Sergeant First Class.  By 1920, he was back at work publishing and promoting black writers and artists.


ad in The Crisis Magazine, 1920


By 1922 he was hired as editor of the New York Amsterdam News, an important paper in the black community. Prior to that he’d worked as journalist and editor for other publications including the Champion Magazine in Chicago. In New York, he started his own magazine called Kelley’s Magazine. In its pages he published poets including Countee Cullen and Claude McKay as well as his own writing.


ad in The Crisis Magazine

Based on newspaper articles from the 1920s and 1930s, he was a vocal advocate of building strong black business and encouraged support of those businesses by the local community. “Give your own enterprises the chances the same chance you allow to others. Hasten the time when we shall take our places among the commercial races of the world. Whenever possible walk a block to the nearest colored store and spend your money. It will do you and your children good.

As managing editor of a major black publication based in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, he clearly knew the movers and shakers of the time.


greeting card to W. E. B. Du Bois, 1928

He was politically active, as evidenced by his decision in 1929 to manage the campaign of Hubert T. Delaney. In an interview, Kelley said, “It’s about time for the Negro voter to demonstrate to the Republican party that they are serious in their desire to see a Negro elected to Congress from New York.” 


Hubert T. Delany

When outlining his campaign plan, Kelley used the analogy of a military formation. Delany won the primary but lost the general election.


Upon Kelley’s departure from the New York Amsterdam in 1933, he co-founded and edited the Daily Citizen. It operated for less than a year. A 1940 census indicates he was employed by the Works Progress Administration. Then by the early 1940s, he was working as an editor with The Peoples’ Voice, a publication founded by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Eventually that paper folded as well.


Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

On a family website, it’s noted that Kelley in his later years spent less time on writing and trying to launch newspapers. He worked a series of civil service jobs that provided more stable income to support his family. He died in October 1958. His son, an award-winning novelist and essayist, William Melvin Kelley Jr, passed away earlier this month.

To see actual pictures of William M. Kelley, view his descendants’ tribute here: https://kelleysmagazine.com/2016/02/29/a-portrait-of-pop/


Sources & Additional Reading

Interview with William M. Kelley Jr


Hubert Thomas Delaney – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubert_Thomas_Delany

The Pittsburgh Courier, November 17, 1923, page 15.

New York Age, August 8, 1925, page 7.

New York Age, August 31, 1929, page 3 – Wm. E. Kelley to be Campaign Manager for Delany for Congress

Adam Clayton Powell Jr – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Clayton_Powell_Jr.


http://www.academia.edu/827791/Ready_to_Shoot_and_Do_Shoot_Black_Working-Class_Self – Defense_and_Community_Politics_in_Harlem_New_York_during_the_1920s by Shannon King

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“Out of little acorns, big oak trees grow.”

My day began with a simple task, to research the illustrator and several of the poets included in a book that I had picked up for nothing at a roadside restaurant.  By the time the day ended, I had learned amazing things about the people and practices of times long gone, and I know my research has yet to end.  Let me start by telling you about the book.

Golden Slippers An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers is a 1941 compilation of 100-plus poems arranged by Arna Bontemps with drawings by Henrietta Bruce Sharon. The first line of the first poem, “Dawn” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, drew me in: “An Angel, robed in spotless white, bent down and kissed the sleeping Night.” Of the many African American poets cited, Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen move me most. The poems of Langston Hughes are bright and full of whimsy, Cullen’s full of pain, and Dunbar somewhere in between.  Yet nearly all are as deep as the rivers about which Hughes has written so eloquently.

The black and white drawings I didn’t find particularly stirring with the exception of one or two, but I decided to research the artist anyway because you never know what you’ll find. First, I stumbled upon an exchange of letters between Langston Hughes and art critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten.

In letters exchanged in November 1941, through which the two men engage in a dialogue about all aspects of African American art, they revisit the race of the Golden Slippers illustrator. Van Vechten says, “I question the taste of the selection in many respects. WHY should young readers be invited to read Countee’s Incident: Baltimore, for instance?” The illustration to which he refers is of a little white boy sticking his tongue out at a little black boy.

Langston Hughes responds that he would ask his friend, Arna Bontemps, about the illustrator’s race, but he thought she was white, “she draws heads and feet as if she were.” Hughes goes on to discuss the illustrations for one of his upcoming books and makes note that the illustrator must get the hair right. “… I am sure the [E. McKnight] Kauffer drawings are charming. But still, if they come out with NO hair on their heads- … my Negro public–whom I respect and like–will not be appreciative. I wrote as much to Blanche [Knopf] when I first saw the samples. Harlem just isn’t nappy headed any more … And colored folks don’t want no stuff out of an illustrator on that score.” Later, in a December letter, Hughes tells Van Vechten, “I liked Kauffer’s pictures very much. And the hair is there …”

Regardless of how one interprets the complexities around representation of African American hair, there’s no doubt that Kauffer produced some powerful images as an illustrator.

Perhaps the power of Kauffer’s imagery stems from the fact that what he produced was not a strict visual recasting of the author’s words, but more an expression of what the author’s words generated in him , a point that Van Vecht makes to Hughes in one his letters.: “The whole significance of the illustrator’s art lies in its utter subjectivity; all that we ask of him is his own interpretation of a poem, story, or novel. An illustration should … light up the creation of the poet with the strictly personal illumination that emanates from the painter. The more startling that vision is, the more completely it expresses the personality of the painter, the greater will be its importance. In a word it is a matter of complete indifference that the poet shall be able to say, “Yes, that indeed is how I see it.” What really matters is his saying, “Ah, so that’s how you see it.””

But what about Henrietta Bruce Sharon? Van Vecht may have taken issue with her drawings in the Golden Slippers, but what she went on to do with her drawings would bring solace to those most in need.  More to follow …


Excerpt from Remember Me to Harlem


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