I spent this past week working in Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library System, trying to find out what young Black Panthers read. This proved more difficult than I expected; while British supplementary schools kept neatly organized lists of books in their libraries, the liberation, Afro-centered, and Black independent schools of Harlem mostly seem to have kept copies of angry letters to council members, businesses, boards of education and politicians. However, I did find catalogs from two booksellers who catered particularly to Black schools, the Bopi Book Center (a division of the Our School Cooperative, according to the letter at the beginning of the catalog, located in Harlem, and Afram Associates, located about ten blocks away and also in Harlem. Both these booksellers focused on positive self-images for Black children; the Bopi catalog was a bit broader in scope, offering mainstream as well as independent publishers’ books (William Armstrong’s Sounder and Leo Lionni’s Swimmy are on their list, for example). But the Bopi Book center also included a set of comic books called The Golden Legacy series, Black biographies for 8-14 year olds, from the Black comic book publisher and writer Bertram Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, also a Harlem native, began publishing The Golden Legacy series in 1966; he later said that, “Golden Legacy was designed to create greater pride and self-esteem in African-American families and to dispel myths. (It) replaces feelings of hopelessness and unworthiness in black Americans …with a sense of pride and self-esteem” (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?pid=183577562).
Fitzgerald gathered quite a staff around him to help him with his comics. The artists and writers included many Brooklyn- and Harlem-born people who had made or went on to make history of their own. These included Tony Tallarico, who in 1965 had done artwork for the first issue of Lobo, the first mainstream comic (it was published by Dell) to feature an African-American main character. Joan Bacchus, who both wrote and illustrated for Golden Legacy, led preservation efforts for Weeksville, a 19th century community of free Blacks that included the first African-American female doctor. Leo Carty went on to be a full-time artist who painted Caribbean landscapes and illustrated children’s book covers. Perhaps the most subsequently famous person to work for Golden Legacy was the children’s book illustrator Tom Feelings, twice winner of the Caldecott and three-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.
Feelings drew for the only Golden Legacy to feature a woman. Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her People, written by Joan Bacchus and published in 1967, does not shy away from the brutality of slavery. In the opening spread, two different white men are shown with whips, beating African-Americans. Young Harriet Tubman is defiant against their cruelty, and puts herself, even as a child, between other enslaved people and the brutality of the overseer.
The Tubman story as written does not differ greatly from children’s books produced since, except perhaps in its willingness to show violence. However, other of the Golden Legacy series are more groundbreaking. Volume 5, The Life of Matthew Henson (1969) shows the microaggressions of white people. When Henson is asked by Peary to go to Greenland, a white lieutenant jokes, “Ha, ha, ha! Say, Henson, I hear you’re going to Greenland . . . you’re a Negro, that cold climate will kill you!” He bets Henson $100 that he won’t come back with “all your fingers and toes”—a bet that Henson, of course, wins.
“Fred” Douglass is shown as an action-packed hero who dispatches overseers with his fists. And volume 9, The Life of Robert Smalls (1970), even dares to show Abraham Lincoln as a president conflicted over whether or not to free the slaves. This contrasts with many depictions of Lincoln as unquestionably abolitionist in children’s books, including the Caldecott-winning Abraham Lincoln (1940) by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire.
One thing that the Golden Legacy series shies away from depicting is mixed-race sexual unions. This is common in children’s literature when depicting children of an enslaved woman and her white slave-owner, but Golden Legacy also does not depict the marriages, common in the 18th and 19th centuries, of working-class white women and Black men. Alexander Dumas is shown several times with his child, Alexander Dumas fils (the writer), but the boy’s mother is never shown. This could have been because Dumas’ wife was not the boy’s mother—but both Ida Ferrier, an actress who married Dumas, and Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay, a dressmaker who had an affair with him, were white (as were most of the more than 40 mistresses that Dumas had over the course of his lifetime . . .). Intriguingly, the Golden Legacy series even depicts the family of Walter F. White, who “could have lived an easier life as a white man, but instead, he chose to live proudly as a Black man” as appearing all white (which in real life they did, though they identified with their African-American heritage), but the story does not mention White’s second marriage to a white South African woman and how his children from his first marriage subsequently disowned him because of it. Instead, it focuses on how White used his ability to pass as white to report on lynchings and other crimes against Black people in the south.
The series’ oddest volume in terms of its mission to dispel myths and increase pride and self-esteem in Black child readers is perhaps volume 12, Black Cowboys. This volume seems to revel in the cowboy villain—Cherokee Bill, for example, is shown, gun drawn, cigarette in his mouth and with the words “Reward, Dead or Alive, Wanted” in the background. His story ends in a noose. This comic also, disappointingly, includes stereotypical “savage” Indians and scheming Mexicans. More peaceful Black cowboys, such as the mustanger Bob Lemmons, get only a page compared to the violent cowboys’ (such as Cherokee Bill) several page spreads.
The Golden Legacy series continued to be published into the 1980s, when a court dispute with Bob Baylor, a rival publisher who tried to steal the original plates of the comics, nearly bankrupted Bertram Fitzgerald. However, the series is still available (to my surprise) in a single volume from the publishing company (http://golden-legacy.com/shop/), and there’s even a teacher’s guide. So your young readers too can be inspired by a Golden Legacy—if not by Fred Douglass’s fashion sense.