We started with a story about a 1930s psychological study that examined the pernicious effects of segregation, specifically how it gave black children a fragile sense of inferiority.
We ended with a story about a black girl, with such a sense of self, that she challenged a sitting president to meet her about a public health crisis in her hometown – and he flew down to visit her.
Between the two, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution told the story of black America in AJC Sepia’s Fourth Annual Black History Month Series.
Nearly a century separates Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Doll Test from 11-year-old Mari Copeny’s activism in Flint, Mich., but the series revealed that while so much has changed in America, and while there have been so many triumphs, some of the pain of the past still offers lessons for today.
• Along with the Doll Test, the series tackled several psychological and philosophical questions, including W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of “double-consciousness,” where being black and American can in some cases still mean being constantly aware of white contempt for your black self.
• At 11, Mari Copeny was the youngest person the series wrote about and served as a representation of the future. But the series was full of young warriors, like Claudette Colvin, who at the age of 15 refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Nine months later, Rosa Parks did the same thing and launched a movement.
• Musically, women took center stage as the series explored the tragic life of jazz great Billie Holiday and sifted through the life of Georgia native and opera diva Jessye Norman. The series also looked at the life and times of Marian Anderson, who claimed fame in 1939 when she performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, after the color of her skin prevented her from singing at Constitution Hall. Who knew who Don Shirley was before “Green Book”? We tell his story. We also took a green book journey of sorts to look at the role that the Chitlin Circuit played in providing spaces for black people to gather to hear black musicians play black music. Richard Pryor might have played on the Chitlin Circuit. Big Boi, one half of the Atlanta-based Outkast, just played the Super Bowl.
• For the second year in a row, following a personal essay from the granddaughter of Eddie Robinson last year, a family member of a subject offered personal reflections. That is how we got the story of William Johnson Trent, the co-founder of the United Negro College Fund and builder of the Butler Street YMCA, from his granddaughter, Jeanne Johns Adkins.
• Respectability politics also played a key role in the series, particularly in the story of Lena Horne. The former Atlanta resident came of age during Hollywood’s golden age, but steadfastly refused any role that required her to play a servant. Her relationships outside of the Hollywood circle caused her to get swept up in the Red Scare of the 1950s, but until her death, she was considered a goddess in black America. Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel and Hollywood’s first black millionaire, Stepin Fetchit, were not so lucky. With few options, both spent much of their careers playing what could be considered stereotypical black roles – those of the slave, maid and coon. And in the end, it cost them.
• The series looked at the great Muhammad Ali, but less as a boxer, and more as an activist and Louisville icon. But speaking of sports icons, we talked to Georgia native, famed Tennessee State Tigerbelle and two-time Olympic gold medalist Wyomia Tyus. And because Atlanta is suddenly soccer mad, we kicked it around with the GOAT, Pele.
• Women, as usual, were prominently featured in the series, from the often-overlooked Sally Hemings, to the first women to attend and graduate from Morehouse College, to a group of washwomen in the 19th century who went on strike for better wages to finally, Dorothy Bolden, who empowered domestic workers in the 1960s.
• Pioneers like Charles Drew, who developed a method to store and preserve blood plasma, and Flip Wilson, who broke down television doors as a variety show host, are featured.
• The series looked at the real-life Greenwood Massacre, which left 300 dead in 1921, and the fictional one of “Do the Right Thing,” which is as relevant today as it was when it opened in 1989. We also revisited “The Weeping Time,” when more than 300 slaves were categorically auctioned away in Savannah, to help pay a man’s gambling debts.
In the end, more than 20 AJC reporters, two editors, a video producer, a digital specialist and a host of social media experts and producers helped put together the 28-part series.
They are already planning for 2020.
But in the meantime, beginning in March, we will keep the momentum going when we recognize Women’s History Month on ajc.com.
In the daily Living section on Mondays and Tuesdays, we will spotlight notable women with Georgia connections.
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