Celebrating Black History by Documenting the Black Present

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Dorothy R. Leavell

By Lolly Bowean 

In her more than 50 years of working at The Chicago Crusader newspaper, Dorothy Leavell can vividly remember the pulsating energy of the newsroom as reporters covered the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Marquette Park in 1966.

She can instantly recall the rush of excitement in the office from reporters writing about the 1963 March on Washington, and years later the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. She clearly remembers overseeing the coverage of the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington and his eventual election.

Leavell can even remember lesser known historical events the paper covered, like the electric chair execution of James Dukes, a Black man convicted of killing a police officer. The Crusader used Dukes’ legal case to push for abolishing the death penalty.

“I am walking history,” she said. “I can recall so many instances that went on to become big, big deals. We tried to give those events blanket coverage at a time when our resources were even more scarce than now. People volunteered and would call and give us on the scene accounts.

“Looking back, it’s history. At the time, we were doing our job of pushing for better conditions, better housing, better jobs for Blacks,” said Leavell.

Leavell was an administrator at The Crusader in the 1960s. She replaced her husband, Balm L. Leavell, as publisher in 1968 when he died.

As the country turns its attention toward the past to celebrate Black history this month, for many African American journalists and storytellers, honoring Black history has meant documenting the Black present and the Black presence.

For Leavell, that has meant covering the daily lives, the events, the issues and occurrences relevant to Black people, even as most of the community remained neglected and overlooked by other media outlets.

Similarly, the founders of The Chicago Defender didn’t create the paper to make history or even with a mission of recording history for Black people, said Marc Sengstacke, who is a grandnephew of the paper’s creator and longtime publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott. The Defender staff wanted to draw attention to Black life in the moment and push for justice and equality—a better future, he said.

“When my granduncle started The Chicago Defender, one reason he did it is because the mainstream media published so little about African Americans,” Sengstacke said. “Our people did more than commit crimes, live and die. Many African American newspapers were founded and flourished for that same reason: they gave us stories (about us), we couldn’t see anywhere else.”

Throughout the 1900s, The Defender wrote about job insecurity, unfair wages, rampant discrimination, and especially the violent racial terrorism enacted upon African Americans living in the South. The writers, editors and publisher used the news pages to advocate for a mass Black exodus from the South to Chicago.

The newspaper documented the experiences of African Americans who migrated here and is credited for spurring the Great Migration.

The paper’s coverage not only informed the community at the time, Sengstacke said, the coverage shapes what we now know about the period. That’s a role the Black press—and Black reporters, writers and storytellers—still play, he said.

“Even though the mainstream media is covering African American issues more, there are still stories and news and information in the African American community going uncovered,” he said. “The Black press fills that void.”

Sengstacke is no longer with The Defender newspaper staff. Instead he and his family run the organization’s foundation, The Chicago Defender Charities, which, among other things, helps train younger journalists to go into newsrooms and cover the Black community with authority, balance and nuance.

A major goal of Field’s Media and Storytelling portfolio is to support voices from Chicago’s communities that are too often overlooked. Field is especially focused on African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American voices that provide balanced perspectives and nuanced views from residents that don’t get their stories told.

For photojournalist and portrait photographer W.D. Floyd, the historical journey of Black people in Chicago informs all of his work, he said.

In many ways, it’s easier to look backward—history allows us to criticize without personally offending and to romanticize without accountability. But while the majority celebrate a Black past, Floyd says his mission is to photograph Black people in their everyday lives—without a catalyst news event as reason to snap images.

“For so long, Black people haven’t had the agency to control how we were viewed in front of the lens,” he said. “Photography was used as a propaganda tool—it was weaponized to hurt us. Then, when Black folks were able to photograph themselves, it came with the (baggage) of the politics of respectability because we felt we had to prove we could look and act like White people.”

So, for Floyd, he concentrates on taking street portraits—images of African Americans living in their everyday moments, which reflects the tradition of James Van Der Zee, Jamel Shabazz and Dawoud Bey. And when Floyd is teaching his younger charges at his West Side photojournalism camp for 360 Nation, he tells them to ask their subjects if they can take their photo before shooting. That way, the subjects can have authority in the process and help determine how they want to be documented.

“The question that gets raised is ‘what’s the point of photographing them?’,” he said, about outsiders who sometimes probe his work that doesn’t center celebrities, politicians or even the wealthy. “But I know we are worthy. I know that there are great historical implications in making images of Black people in our spaces that, one day, may not even still be here. I know the photographs we make today … there will be greater significance for them later.”

Likewise, Leavell said when helping to decide what her newsroom will focus on and where it will direct its attention, she thinks about the present moment and what it will mean for the future—as generations look back on the history being made today.

“If it ever gets to the point where our story is being told widely and accurately by the mainstream media, and that puts me out of business, I’m not going to be mad,” she said. “But I can’t see that happening soon. Only the Black press has been consistent in telling our stories. We need a Black voice to put word on paper about what’s happening in our community.”

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