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Black Magazines Of 1953. The Magazines And I: Chapter Six, Part One

May 13, 2021

Black Magazines … is the sixth chapter from the serialized book I am writing on the magazines of 1953, specifically March 1953, the month I was born.  This is chapter six, part one.  Feel free to back track for chapters one, two, three, four and five in previous blogs.  Enjoy.

Changing the narrative. That’s what Black magazines did in March 1953. From Ebony to Jet, the African American community began to see themselves in the pages of magazines devoted to their culture and their lifestyle. It was an eye-opening time for Black publishing. And the major leader of the movement was the man who started Ebony and Jet, John H. Johnson. Johnson was a man born to a suppressive demographic, but rose above it to become a force to be reckoned with in the world of publishing. 

Along with Johnson, a Jewish-American man born in Michigan, who was a plumbing merchant in Fort Worth, came onto the scene in 1950, George Levitan. Levitan bought the magazines Sepia and The World’s Messenger from an African-American clothing merchant from Fort Worth, Horace J. Blackwell. The difference between Levitan and Blackwell? Levitan was white. But could a white man tell the black man’s story during a time of segregation in America? And truth be told, while Blackwell’s mother had been Black, his father was white. So two men on the same journey, but with very different perspectives on the subject matter.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded long before March 1953; February 12, 1909 to be exact, but the organization contributed greatly to the world of magazines. W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Crisis was the official magazine of the NAACP, still is as a matter of fact. The magazine has been in continuous print since its inception in 1910.

The publications highlighted display the importance and solidarity of Black magazines in the 1950s, March 1953 specifically. The magazines’ common interest was apparent, no matter what conversation they chose to engage in. From the positivity of a magazine like Ebony, to the call for action, social justice and an end to violence against Blacks as The Crisis often presented, Black magazines brought attention to the lives of African Americans.

Let’s delve into a few of the Black magazines that were in existence in 1953:

EBONY

John H. Johnson’s premier magazine that focused on news, culture, and entertainment for African Americans, Ebony was founded in 1945 in Chicago. The magazine showcased positive stories in a life-affirming manner. From celebrities to politicians to sports figures, the magazine’s format was patterned after Life and sought to show the accomplishments of African Americans more than anything negative going on in their lives at the time. 

The magazine flourished for many years, changing its direction during the 1960s to cover more and more of the Civil Rights Movement, even garnering Ebony photographer Moneta Sleet Jr. a Pulitzer with his photograph of Coretta Scott King and their daughter Bernice attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.

The magazine reached unprecedented levels of popularity, reaching over 40% of the African American adults in the United States during the 1980s. Unfortunately, the publication went bankrupt in July 2020, but was purchased for $14 million by Junior Bridgeman in December 2020. It was reborn digitally on March 1, 2021 with no plans to return in print. 

The March 1953 issue featured Nat King Cole and his second wife Maria on the cover asking the question: “Are Second Marriages Better?” The piece was written by Cole himself and had many personal at-home photographs that the singer provided for the story, enriching the piece tremendously for fans. 

Along with Cole on the cover, the stories ranged from “Negroes Taught Me To Sing” by Caucasian singer Johnnie Ray to an article about a Park Avenue doctor who was an African American psychoanalyst with some very swanky New York clientele. 

The March 1953 issue was epic in size and content and is definitely a collector’s dream. Showcasing these amazing Black achievers was something that Ebony reveled in and did extremely well throughout its long lifespan. It was a magazine that paved the way for many ethnic publications after it, including its sister publication Jet.

JET

Jet was a weekly magazine that was another John H. Johnson publication. It too focused on news, culture, and entertainment related to the African American community, just as Ebony did. The magazine was founded in November 1951 and was originally titled “The Weekly Negro News Magazine.”

The differences between Jet and Ebony, other than the frequency, was their size. While Ebony was a large, coffee table-sized magazine, Jet’s format was smaller and digest-sized and it was printed almost entirely in black and white except for its cover’s background. According to the magazine’s early history, John. H. Johnson called his magazine “Jet” because he wanted the name to symbolize “Black and speed.” Jet covered the Civil Rights movement extensively and gained national attention when it published photographs of Emmett Till’s body after his death in 1955.

Two March 1953 issues, March 5 and March 26 respectively, had singer Jean Parks and singer Dinah Washington on each of its covers. With cover lines such as “Does Liquor Stimulate Sex” and “Has Sugar Hill Gone To The Dogs?” the magazine showed a diversity in subject matter that always intrigued. 

In May 2014, the publication announced the print edition would be discontinued and transitioned into a digital format. But Jet and Ebony were sold in 2016, only to be bought again in the $14 million Junior Bridgeman deal with Ebony, with a promise to return digitally in June 2021.

OUR SPORTS

Edited by the great Jackie Robinson, Our Sports magazine was touted as “The Great New Negro Sports Magazine,” and was published in 1953. It ran for a total of five issues. It featured top African American sports stars on the cover, such as Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Minnie Minoso, Satchel Paige, and George Taliaferro, who was the first black football player drafted into the NFL. Jackie Robinson was proudly credited in large letters on the cover as the editor of the magazine. It was a publication totally devoted to the Black athletes of the time, who were becoming more crucially involved in all major sports. 

With stories such as “Will The Yankees Hire A Negro Player?” and “Why Are Negro Stars Still Buried in The Minors?” the magazine offered a different take on sports and athletes and just who made up these important teams.

To be continued…

*Please note that some of the background historical data about the magazines were taken from Wikipedia…

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