Dispatches from the 1954 Chicago Defender

Headline from the May 22, 1954 Chicago Defender reporting the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education

As part of my research for Lovecraft Country, I went through a year’s worth of back issues of The Chicago Defender, both to familiarize myself with the trending news topics of 1954 and to look for historical anecdotes that I could incorporate into the novel. I found a lot more material than I could possibly use; a few of the more interesting items from my notes are described below.

If you’d like to read the full articles in their original context, digitized copies of the Defender archives are available at many public libraries.

February 13, pg. 11 — In his “Adventures in Race Relations” column, executive editor Enoc P. Waters, Jr., tells a story about talent agent Dick Campbell, who was traveling with a troupe of black entertainers when they stopped for the night in Evansville, Indiana, a town where “the general practice of the hotels [is] not to accept Negroes.” Campbell, light-skinned enough to pass for white, went into a hotel alone and rented rooms for the entire group, paying in advance. He then went back outside and handed out keys, telling his charges to go straight upstairs to bed. When the desk clerk belatedly realized what was happening, Campbell was summoned to the manager’s office. “We don’t have colored people staying here,” he was told. “Our guests wouldn’t stand for it.” Campbell asked how the manager could be sure that the other guests minded: “Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll rouse my people, have them dress and come down to the lobby. Meanwhile you awaken all the rest of the people in the hotel. Have them come down and look my group over. If they vote to put them out we’ll leave peacefully…” Campbell dragged out the ensuing argument until five in the morning, while his clients got their night’s sleep.

February 20, page 1 headline — “BRIDE DEFIES SANITY TEST AFTER INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE” — When “former Missouri farm girl” Lillian Davis, 26, told her parents that she intended to marry a black man, Elgin Johnson, her father had her arrested for disorderly conduct and tried to force her to take a psychiatric exam. Davis refused the test; released on bond, she went ahead and married Johnson. Judge George B. Weiss then threw out the case, saying that while Mrs. Johnson ought to respect her parents’ wishes, it wasn’t the court’s business.

April 17, pg. 3 — “CANADA DEBATES ANTI–JIM CROW BILL” — A report on the debate in the Ontario Provincial Parliament over the Fair Accommodation Practices Act, which prohibited racial and religious discrimination in public accommodations. One member of parliament from Western Ontario blamed “agitators from Detroit” for stirring up Ontario’s blacks.

May 1, pg. 19 — In the course of a lengthy article about the Academy Awards and casting bias in Hollywood, the Defender lets drop an interesting tidbit about the 1946 Disney musical Song of the South. Although now considered so embarrassingly racist that the complete film has never been released on home video in the U.S., Song of the South was a milestone in its day. Its star James Baskett was given an honorary Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, making him only the second African American to win an Oscar. But it almost didn’t happen: According to the Defender, Walt Disney’s advisors urged him to cast a white man in the role.

May 8, pg. 19 — “Not A Commissioned Officer But An Important Person Around Camp Dix, N.J. Is PFC Roy Eaton” — A profile of musician Roy Eaton, then a 24-year-old Army Private 1st Class. Eaton, who had begun playing piano at age 6 and performed at Carnegie Hall at age 7, would go on to work for the ad agency Young & Rubicam, becoming the first black “Mad Man.”

May 15, pg. 11 — Langston Hughes describes his recent trip to Cairo, Illinois, which included a visit to the home of David Lansden. Lansden, a white lawyer for the NAACP, had become a target because of his involvement in a lawsuit that desegregated Cairo’s schools; Lansden’s next-door neighbor erected a flashing neon arrow on top of his garage so that vandals would know which house to throw stones at.

June 19, pg. 5 — “Supreme Court Agrees To Review Rape Case” — The Supreme Court agreed to review the conviction of Jeremiah Reeves, a black teenager sentenced to death for the rape of a white woman in Alabama. Among the grounds for appeal cited by Reeves’ lawyers was the fact that jurors had not been told how police obtained his confession: They had taken Reeves into the death chamber at Kilby Prison and made him sit in the electric chair. In December, the Supreme Court would grant Reeves’ appeal, but at his second trial he was again convicted and sentenced to death, and on March 28, 1958, he was executed in that same electric chair.

June 26, pg. 12 — “Mock A-Bomb Warning Fizzles In Chicago” — “At 10:50 Monday morning, June 14, at least 72 sirens sounded the warning. Chicagoans in the Loop began scurrying for shelter immediately… Had this been a real A-bomb raid, maybe they would have been safe. Further out on the Southside, however, about Forty-Seventh St., the sirens were so faint that few persons actually heard the warning. Most persons interviewed in the Southside’s ghetto said they knew the mock A-bomb raid was to take place but they heard no signal.”

July 3, pg. 11 — Langston Hughes shares his playlist.

July 10, pg. 4 — “Youth in 2029 Finds Lost Town” — A science-fiction short story in the form of a fake news report by “Enoc P. Waters the 5th,” who crashes his car in a “dense forest preserve” and stumbles upon a lost colony of white and black segregationists who withdrew from society in 1954 in order to preserve Jim Crow. Waters is perplexed by the sunburned skin of the whites and the unusually dark skin of the blacks, his own “olive complexion” being the norm in the 21st century. Nor is that the only thing that’s changed:  “One of the Negroes said that the Defender used to be a ‘Negro paper’ and carried only news about Negroes… I told them it’s just another daily now.”

August 14, pg. 12 — “One Year Later… TRUMBULL PARK FIASCO” — On July 30, 1953, Donald and Betty Howard and their two children became the first of 18 black families to move into the formerly all-white Trumbull Park Homes; their arrival triggered riots that were still going on a year later. Some 2,000 uniformed police and plainclothesmen assigned to the neighborhood had failed to restore orderin part, the Defender suggested, because many of the cops sympathized with the rioters. “Major arrests in the area, according to police records, have been made by Negro police. And in some instances Negro police have had to go beyond their immediate commanding officer to make arrests stick.” The Howards, who had suffered the brunt of the violence, moved out on May 3. That same month, Police Commissioner Timothy O’Connor vowed to “get tough” if the riots did not end soon. “[But] after 365 days and as many nights, police are still needed to protect Negroes even passing through the Trumbull Park area.”

September 18, page 1 — “Lawmakers Take First Step To Kill Miss. Public Schools” —  In one of the most extreme reactions to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, Governor Hugh White of Mississippi introduced a bill to amend the state constitution and empower the legislature to abolish the public school system. White blamed the drastic measure on “stubborn Negroes” who would not agree to voluntarily maintain segregated schools in the wake of the Brown ruling.

November 6, pg. 2 — “Divorcee on Sheppard Jury” — A brief article noting that Louella Williams, “a divorcee and mother of four children… has been selected as the sole Negro member of the jury” in the murder trial of Sam H. Sheppard. (Sheppard, a neurosurgeon accused of bludgeoning his wife to death, is widely believed to be the inspiration for the fictional Dr. Richard Kimble in the TV series The Fugitive, though the show’s creators denied that this was the case.)

November 13, pg. 1 — “Former Slave Dies at 114” — Mrs. Savannah Dunlap, born in Georgia in 1840, succumbed to pneumonia following a fall which broke her hip.

December 4, pg. 9 — “A SOUTHERN ADVENTURE” — This week’s Adventure in Race Relations column concerns “Jim Jones,” a light-skinned black man from Mississippi whose mother, a dressmaker, was “known to her neighbors as a widow.” Shortly after he finished school, Jones was approached by a group of wealthy white men, one of whom was his biological father. The men wanted Jones to go undercover, pass himself off as white, and join a newly formed Ku Klux Klan chapter that was said to be plotting a reign of terror. Jones agreed and succeeded in infiltrating the Klan. “Jones was able to prevent several lynchings… His work was so effective that internal bickering between members of the Klan broke out, each accusing the other of talking too much. The final blow was a staged raid on a stag party given for Klan members only that had been proposed by Jones. This broke up the Klan and Jones returned once again to being a Negro.”

December 25, pg. 3 — “Ala. May Strike White Supremacy Off Ballots” — “Gov. elect James E. ‘Big Jim’ Folsom has pledged to use his influence to have the words ‘white supremacy’ stricken from Alabama Democratic election ballots. Folsom made the promise after the Mobile NAACP strongly protested the use of ballots in the Nov. 2 general election which showed a line ‘white supremacy’ at the top of the column for Democratic candidates.”

January 1, 1955, pg. 1 — “Why Whites Pass For Negro!” — The new year begins with “An Exclusive Defender Feature” by Enoc P. Waters, Jr., about white people pretending to be black, a “practice not uncommon today.” “Why, you might ask, would a white person want to be a Negro?” One reason was to circumvent laws against interracial marriage: Waters tells the story of a white woman he knew whose black husband accepted a university position in the South; in order to continue living with him, she had to become black, too. Other motives included “the notion held by many whites that competition in some fields is not so keen in the colored world” and “the idea held by some white women that they can make a more profitable marriage to a Negro of prestige or wealth as a fair-skin Negro than as a white woman.” And some people did it purely for the adventure. “A magazine writer several years ago condemned the practice of Negroes passing for white because, he said, it gave whites a feeling of insecurity not knowing whether their companions are genuinely white or not. Well, pity the poor Negroes. They have no way of telling when they’re associating with a white person passing for Negro.”