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British Association for American Studies


Archival Report from James West, Eccles Centre Postgraduate Award recipient


Archival Report from James West, Eccles Centre Postgraduate Award recipient

[vc_row margin_bottom=”15″][vc_column][dt_banner image_id=”11970″ min_height=”270″][/dt_banner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][dt_quote]The British Library’s rich collections helped me connect EBONY writer Lerone Bennett Jr to EBONY’s broader influence as a major source for and producer of black history, says James West, recipient of the Eccles Centre Postgraduate Award 2015.[/dt_quote][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Thanks to the generosity of BAAS and the Eccles Centre at the British Library, I was able to make a number of research trips to the British Library during the second and third years of my PhD (2014-2015). My thesis focused on the role and writing of Lerone Bennett, Jr. at EBONY magazine during the decades following World War II, and the magazine’s impact as a ‘history book’ for millions of readers. As one of the first researchers to access Bennett’s papers at Emory[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]University, and the first researcher to explore his archives at Chicago State University, my thesis helped to shed new light on Bennett’s influence as a journalist and historian who moved between ‘professional’ and ‘popular’ forms of black historiography. More broadly, it challenged scholars to reassess EBONY’s potential as a serious historiographical and intellectual outlet for writers and activists such as Bennett, David Llorens, Hoyt Fuller and Era Bell Thompson.

Access to the British Library’s rich collections proved vital to helping me connect an exploration of Bennett’s own role and writing to EBONY’s broader influence as a major source for and producer of black history. There were two main elements of the British Library’s collections which I took advantage of during my multiple research visits. Firstly, the Library holds a collection of Bennett’s book-length publications that is unrivalled in the UK. Between the early 1960s and the turn of the twenty-first century, Bennett authored or edited a broad range of texts which explored the black experience throughout American history. These included Before the Mayflower (1963), The Negro Mood and other Essays (1963), What Manner of Man: a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964), Confrontation: Black and White (1965), Black Power, USA: the Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877 (1967), Pioneers in Protest (1968), The EBONY Pictorial History of Black America (1971), The Challenge of Blackness, (1971), The Shaping of Black America (1975), and Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (1999). Crucially, all of these works were rooted in historical writing Bennett had originally published through EBONY magazine. By tracing the development of Bennett’s own black history philosophy through his published work, and connecting this to his contributions within EBONY, I was able to connect EBONY’s own turn towards black history during the post-war decades to a broader ‘Black History Revival’ identified by scholars such as Vincent Harding. This research was also supplemented by access to important historiographical texts from figures such as Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, August Meier, Elliott Rudwick and Manning Marable, which helped to contextualise the corporate, economic and ideological implications of this shift in black historical representation ‘from the margins to the centre of American politics and popular culture.’

Secondly, the Library’s fantastic Newsroom and its collections of microfilm, digital and print newspapers provided a veritable treasure trove of resources. Its rich American periodical collections allowed me to develop a far more comprehensive understanding of how EBONY’s developing historical coverage, and Bennett’s own influence as a prominent black historian and public intellectual, was documented and debated in the American media. Access to black newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Afro-American and the New York Amsterdam News helped me to connect Bennett’s writing within EBONY to his role within organisations such as the Institute of the Black World and Northwestern University. Similarly, many of Bennett’s most controversial articles in EBONY – such as his denouncement of Abraham Lincoln as a white supremacist in 1968 – drew reactions from major periodicals such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Assessing this coverage helped to further substantiate my call for a reassessment of Bennett’s impact and influence. These archival collections were vital to two chapters in particular – my third chapter which compared EBONY’s coverage of ‘Black Power’ during Reconstruction to the paralleling rise of the Black Power movement during the mid-1960s, and my final chapter which examined the magazine’s ambiguous relationship with the movement to establish a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1970s and 1980s.

As a doctoral student studying in Manchester and living in Liverpool, the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time at the British Library allowed me to discover a plethora of archival and secondary material which would have been otherwise off limits. Certainly, I would not have been able to successfully link a close examination of Bennett’s role to a broader analysis of EBONY’s impact without the quality and range of scholarship provided by the Library. The generosity of BAAS and the Eccles Centre, the resources of the British Library, and the support provided by figures such as Cara Rodway and Philip Davies all played a major role in allowing me to complete my thesis. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to immerse myself within the Library’s collections, and would strongly recommend more young Americanists to apply for this opportunity. And while you’re at it, join BAAS – they’re great and will give you money to do what you love!

James West has recently completed his PhD at the University of Manchester on “Ebony Magazine and the Making and Selling of Modern Black History”.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]