By Dana Canedy
By Darcy Eveleigh
By Damien Cave
By Rachel L. Swarns
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New York Times photo editor Darcy Eveleigh made an unwitting discovery when she found dozens of never-before-published photographs from Black history in the crowded bins of the Times archives in 2016. She and three colleagues, Dana Canedy, Damien Cave, and Rachel L. Swarns, began exploring the often untold stories behind the images and chronicling them in a series entitled “Unpublished Black History” that was later published by the newspaper.
Unseen showcases those photographs and digs even deeper into the Times’s archives to include 175 photographs and the stories behind them in this extraordinary collection. Among the entries is a 27-year-old Jesse Jackson leading an anti-discrimination rally in Chicago; Rosa Parks arriving at a Montgomery courthouse in Alabama; a candid shot of Aretha Franklin backstage at the Apollo Theater; Ralph Ellison on the streets of his Manhattan neighborhood; the firebombed home of Malcolm X; and a series by Don Hogan Charles, the first black photographer hired by the Times, capturing life in Harlem in the 1960s.
Why were these striking photographs not published? Did the images not arrive in time to make the deadline? Were they pushed aside by the biases of editors, whether intentional or unintentional? Unseen dives deep into the Times’s archives to showcase this rare collection of photographs and stories for the very first time.
BY RACHEL L. SWARNS
Each photograph on these pages will take you back: To the charred wreckage of Malcolm X’s house in Queens, just hours after it was bombed. To a packed church in Greenwood, Mississippi, where Medgar Evers inspired African-Americans to dream of a day when their votes would count. To Lena Horne’s elegant penthouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. To a city sidewalk where schoolgirls jumped rope, while the writer Zora Neale Hurston cheered them on, behind the scenes.
These stunning images from black history, drawn from old negatives, have long been buried in the musty envelopes and crowded bins of The New York Times archives. Unseen and unpublished for decades, they are gathered together in this rare collection for the very first time.
Our photographers for The Times captured these scenes, and many, many more. They snapped pictures of pioneers in Hollywood and hip-hop and sports; prominent figures, such as James Baldwin, Thurgood Marshall and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and ordinary people, savoring the joys of everyday life.
They illuminate stories that were never told in the newspaper and others that have been mostly forgotten. Yet as you look at these images and read the stories behind them, you may find yourself wondering, as we did: How did they languish unseen for so long?
Were the photographs—or the people in them—not deemed newsworthy enough? Did they not arrive in time for publication? Were they pushed aside by words at an institution long known as the Gray Lady, or by the biases of editors, whether intentional or unintentional?
The reality is that all these factors probably contributed.
As journalists, we strive for objectivity and impartiality as we question and portray the world around us. Yet we rarely turn the lens on ourselves. At a time when concerns about the persistence of the racial divide simmer across the country, it is worth considering how we as an institution have depicted African-Americans in our pages and, at times, erased them from view.
The New York Times is known today as a leader in photography, with a team of staffers and freelancers who bring vivid pictures to our readers from war zones in Afghanistan and the Middle East, elementary schools in Harlem and county fairs during hotly contested presidential campaigns. The newspaper has won nine Pulitzer Prizes for photography, seven of them in the 2000s.
But we have not always valued images so highly.
For most of the twentieth century, The Times had only a small staff of photographers—the first was hired sometime after 1910—and nearly all of them were based in New York City. As a result, most staff photographs depicted local events, though The Times also bought pictures from freelancers and studios in other parts of the country and overseas. (The Times’s picture agency, Wide World News Photo Service, which had staff members in London, Berlin and elsewhere, was sold to The Associated Press in 1941.)
In those early days, we put a premium on words, not pictures, which meant that many photographs that were taken were never published.
It’s likely, however, that some holes in coverage reflected the biases of some editors at The Times, which has long been known as the newspaper of record, who determined what was newsworthy and what was not, at a time when black people were marginalized in society and in the media.
HOW DID THESE PHOTOGRAPHS LANGUISH UNSEEN FOR SO LONG?
After months of searching through our archives, we could not find a single staff photograph of the scholar W.E.B. Du Bois or Romare Bearden, one of the country’s pre-eminent artists, or of Richard Wright, the influential author of Native Son and Black Boy. (The Times did publish a handful of photographs of these men taken by freelancers, friends or private studios.)
Sarah Lewis, an assistant professor of History of Art, Architecture and African-American studies at Harvard University, said this is no surprise, given the nation’s long history of demeaning and ignoring the visual narratives of black people.
In the nineteenth century, when photography was born, scientists used photographs to support racist theories of white superiority. The camera became “an instrument of denigration,” Lewis said, as pictures of slaves were taken to try to prove that blacks were a separate and subhuman species.
At the same time, though, black photographers were using their cameras to depict what the white world so often failed to see: the beauty in their communities. Frederick Douglass and Du Bois believed that African-Americans could harness the power of the new technology to capture the dignity and accomplishments of black people and document events that would otherwise go unrecorded.
Douglass, the runaway slave, abolitionist and statesman, argued that “the moral and social influence of pictures” was even more important in shaping national culture than “the making of its laws.”
Pointedly challenging the notion of black inferiority, Du Bois displayed photographs of black businessmen, craftsmen, homeowners, clergymen, university students, musicians, laborers and well-dressed men, women and children of all hues at the Paris Exposition in 1900. He noted that the “Negro faces” he presented at that world fair “hardly square with conventional American ideas.”
“It was important to create a new vision,” said Deborah Willis, who chairs the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, of Du Bois’s efforts.
“It was about power,” said Willis, who has written about Du Bois and the Paris Exposition. “Images are both empowering and disempowering.”
That holds true, even in modern times, as concerns remain about media outlets that continue to view communities of color primarily through the lens of criminality and social dysfunction. One photograph in this book brings that point home: It depicts black demonstrators protesting outside The New York Times in 1971, complaining that the newspaper was more interested in reporting on “black violence” than on “black productivity.”
But this extraordinary trove of rediscovered images reveals that our photographers captured far more than that.
They were witnesses to history, capturing the bullet holes in the Chicago apartment where Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader, was killed by the police; the hopeful faces of two children—one black and one white—in an integrated classroom in New Jersey; and a rare image of Martin Luther King Jr. during a visit to New York City.
Consider the close-up of King and what it reveals about what we know and think we know about how images are made and edited. The photograph has appeared many times over the past fifty years, as date-stamps on the back of the print clearly show, and it looks as if it might have been taken during a formal sitting.
That was not the case. It was instead taken on June 30, 1963, as King participated in a roundtable that was broadcast on NBC, a period of relative calm in an otherwise tumultuous day when black protesters hurled eggs at King as he arrived at a church in Harlem. Earlier, he had criticized black nationalists, saying that those who called for a separate black state were “wrong.” Some believed that those remarks inspired the attack that night.
Our photographer, who went uncredited, captured images of the NBC discussion, and an editor later cropped one of them to create the close-up of King that is now so familiar—and so disconnected from the turbulent events of that day.
Many of the other photographs, and their stories, are equally intriguing. But the collection, featuring both photographs and stories that were part of an online Black History Month project at The Times in 2016, and dozens of new images never published until now, is far from comprehensive.
Our archive is vast. It contains ten million prints—roughly half of which are believed to have been taken by staff photographers—and more than 300,000 sacks of negatives. The filing was sometimes idiosyncratic, so additional images may still be unearthed.
The photographs that have already emerged offer revealing glimpses of historic moments and a glorious array of people who are at times joyful, heartbroken, outraged, purposeful and, finally, visible.
Sarah Lewis says there is “an aspect of redemption” to this kind of work. As journalists, we view it as simply doing what we should always strive to do: bringing diverse faces, voices and stories to our readers, in all of their fullness and complexity.
PROTESTERS AT THE TIMES
One would have to look closely at the protest photographs to tell that the scenes were from another era. There were no selfies or videos being shot, of course. And perhaps the hairstyles and dated eyeglasses might give away the time period. Yet the photographs of protesters taking their outrage to The Times (and to the streets, in 1971) are eerily familiar.
It was early May that year when The New York Times became a part of the protest story. Dozens of supporters of a group called the National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization (NEGRO) demonstrated outside the paper’s headquarters to oppose the lack of coverage that week of a fire department order to close a factory and job-training center in Harlem operated by NEGRO.
The Times published a story on the demonstration without running a photograph, though Ernie Sisto shot a number of dramatic ones, shown here.
The fire department had ordered the factory vacated due to what it described as “extremely hazardous conditions” due to the lack of an adequate stairway for the 250 people working in there, the story of the protest said. In response, the organization temporarily installed a mobile staircase such as was used to board an airplane and the order was rescinded.
The organization was given three weeks to build a permanent staircase.
On the day of the protest, the organization’s president, Thomas W. Matthew, a neurosurgeon, stood atop a car in front of The Times building and criticized its coverage of NEGRO. He told the assembled supporters that the newspaper was more interested in reporting on black violence than on black productivity.
Matthew had founded the group to support black empowerment programs. He had gained notoriety the previous year when he and members of his organization were given authority to take over Ellis Island for two weeks to set up a drug rehabilitation facility.
Regarding the group’s complaints against The Times, Matthew eventually met with officials from the newspaper and recounted to his group that the meeting had been productive and that the editors had agreed to do more positive reporting on black accomplishments. The newspaper had also agreed to take part in a media study of self-help efforts in the black community.
A Times spokesman said at the time that Matthew was told that the news department believed that its coverage of NEGRO had been fair but that the paper would take his concerns under consideration. The Times stressed that it would not be intimidated—but added that it would, however, be responsive to legitimate complaints.
BURNING A SYMBOL, ARRESTED ON A TECHNICALITY
Racial tensions sometimes explode into view—in Harlem in 1964, in Newark in 1967, with the Black Lives Matter movement in our own era. But there are also smaller moments that are often overlooked and then forgotten, even when they reveal the double standards of justice.
On May 16, 1967, the Reverend A. Kendall Smith was arrested for burning an object in City Hall Park in Manhattan—a Confederate flag. At the time, white protesters rallying against the Vietnam War could often be seen torching the American flag, in many cases, without facing arrest or other legal consequences. In Central Park just a few weeks earlier, thousands of protesters gathered for a demonstration that included setting Old Glory ablaze.
Smith, however, was arrested for burning a different flag, one long associated with white supremacy, even though there was no law prohibiting it, and, as the photo shows, little danger, leading to the odd technicality of an arrest for unpermitted burning of an object.
The Times’s John Orris was there, along with a small crowd that included the police, but the small story the paper published did not include a photograph.
It was a confusing scene. Smith, a minister from Harlem who was the chairman of a group called Harlem Citizens for Community Action, was wearing a white sheet cut like a poncho, his version of a Ku Klux Klan uniform, according to Orris’s notes, which are still in The Times’s archives. His notes also said the sheet was commandeered from a nearby hotel.
SMITH, HOWEVER, WAS ARRESTED FOR BURNING A DIFFERENT FLAG, ONE LONG ASSOCIATED WITH WHITE SUPREMACY
The cause for outrage, however, was clear. Reverend Smith said he had burned the flag to protest the “Southern” treatment of black residents in New York City. Noting the thirteenth anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s decision on school desegregation, he said he wanted to protest New York’s lack of compliance with it—an issue that still resonates today as the city continues to struggle with a lack of diversity in many of its public schools.
CLAUDE SITTON, REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
The copper-jacketed bullet tore through a civil rights worker’s shoulder, stopping within an inch of his spine. The shotgun blast shattered the car windows of four voting rights activists and gouged the wall of a nearby home.
And a fire destroyed voter registration equipment and materials outside the city’s voter registration headquarters, leaving the street strewn with rubble.
It was 1963 in Greenwood, Mississippi, a major battleground in the fight for civil rights, and white officials were playing down and ignoring a series of attacks intended to discourage thousands of African-Americans from registering to vote.
Claude Sitton, the renowned New York Times correspondent, shot photos and took meticulous notes, exposing the racial violence with his pen and with his lens.
Sitton is best known for his words. But the typewritten letters that he sent, along with his film, to John Dugan, a Times photo editor, reveal that he was also determined to capture history with his camera.
He carried a Leica, according to one of his sons, and wrote about light and shadows and underexposed frames. He lamented the gloom inside a crowded black church and the time constraints he faced as he scrambled to report the news and illustrate it at the same time.
“I didn’t have very much time,” Sitton wrote apologetically, “and will try to give you a better selection the next time I offer something.”
Yet there is power in Sitton’s plain-spoken letters and in the black-and-white images he captured on Tri-X film in March 1963. Shown together here, they offer a firsthand look at life on the front lines of the civil rights movement.
In one frame, Robert P. Moses, the field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, clipboard in hand, pointed to the holes left by the shotgun blast in the wall of a weathered home. In another, the charred detritus of the fire—set by a person or persons unknown—littered the street outside the old voting headquarters.
WHAT MAY BE THE ONLY TIMES PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN OF MEDGAR EVERS
Medgar Evers, the state field secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., addressed a packed voter registration rally at the local African Methodist Episcopal Church in what may well be the only Times photograph taken of Evers.
In another series of images, black women took their seats in a citizenship training school intended to train volunteers to help register black voters, and another woman stacked cans of food in the Sunday school room of a local church. The food was collected in Chicago for hungry black farm workers in Greenwood, who had been denied federal food assistance by white county officials in retaliation for their voter registration efforts.
African-Americans accounted for sixty-one percent of the county’s population. Yet only 1.9 percent of blacks of voting age were registered, compared with 95.5 percent of whites. The Justice Department, contending that whites were disenfranchising blacks with discriminatory voting laws, filed suit.
Justice Department officials also sought a federal court order to prevent the city and county from denying blacks the right to protest, after the police unleashed a German shepherd dog on peaceful marchers and jailed voting rights activists.
It was the first time that federal officials had taken such a step, Sitton noted in his article about Greenwood, which was published in April 1963. (Only three of the many photographs that he took during his time there were published.)
But with every step forward, it seemed, there were several steps back. Two months later, on June 12, 1963, an assassin shot and killed Evers in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
That afternoon, hundreds of African-Americans took to the streets in protest. And Claude Sitton was there with his pen, his notebook and his camera.
—RACHEL L. SWARNS
KING OF THE RING: LARRY HOLMES IN A DIFFERENT ROLE
During his seven-year reign as a heavyweight boxing champion, Larry Holmes often put on a show, defeating the likes of Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton—for the World Boxing Council title in September 1978—and the ultimate showman, Muhammad Ali.
In June 1979, Holmes took his talents to Broadway, joining the actor Danny Aiello for a once-in-a-lifetime sparring session inside a small ring atop the stage of the Helen Hayes Theatre, where Aiello was starring in a play entitled Knockout.
Holmes, then preparing for his W.B.C. title defense against the unheralded Mike Weaver, was making his Broadway debut as a way of helping to promote the fight, which was drawing little interest from television networks.
Aiello also welcomed the publicity stunt as a way to boost ticket sales for Knockout, which had been sagging since it opened two months earlier.
During the sparring session, Aiello pretended that a hard right hand from Holmes had caught him squarely on his chin and went crashing to the canvas. Many in the audience gasped until Aiello hopped back on his feet, assuring everyone that he was never really hurt.
“I look back at that day as one of the top highlights of my career,” said Holmes, who retained the W.B.C. title until 1983, when he relinquished it to become champion of the newly formed International Boxing Federation.
“In fact, I would place that day third on my list of greatest career moments,” he added. “I rank it right behind beating Ken Norton for the title and defeating Gerry Cooney a few years later.”
When his sparring with Aiello was done, Holmes draped a white towel around his neck and began talking to audience members. That photograph—taken by Marilynn K. Yee of The Times—was never published, though Holmes wished it had been.
“A lot of people, especially some New York sportswriters, didn’t like me, even though they really didn’t know me,” he said. “Maybe if they had seen that photo of me having a pleasant talk with the audience about the kind of discipline it takes to become a champion, then maybe those writers, and their readers, would have looked at me in a more friendly and positive light.”
Aiello, who said that Holmes’s appearance that day “gave ten more months of life to our struggling production before it was finally canceled,” agreed that the photo of Holmes might have enhanced his public persona.
“Larry put on such a great performance that day,” the actor recalled. “His wonderful personality was on full display, and so was his generosity, as he took the time not just to talk to the audience, but to promote both his fight and our theatrical production, and it would have been nice for people to see some of that interaction.”
DON KING GOES QUIET
The boxing promoter Don King was never at a loss for words. Presiding over press conferences the way a ringmaster presides over a circus, he fueled controversy—and ticket sales—while putting together multimillion-dollar bouts for a stable of marquee heavyweights that he promoted, including Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson.
But in this photo from June 7, 1979, which was taken by Marilynn K. Yee of The Times on the very same day she captured Holmes sparring with the actor Danny Aiello and later chatting with their audience at the Helen Hayes Theatre, King appears to have nary a thing to discuss. Dressed in a gray suit, his trademark hairstyle standing at attention, he leans quietly against the ropes in a corner of a small ring that was part of the set used in the play Knockout, which starred Aiello.
“What’s great about that picture is that it might be the only one ever taken of Don with his mouth shut,” Holmes said, laughing.
Indeed, it was a rare subdued look for King, who by then had already orchestrated boxing’s two most historic events. “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, 1974, pitted Foreman, the undefeated world heavyweight champion, against Ali, the former champion who was now challenging for the title. And “The Thrilla in Manila,” the third and final match between Ali and Frazier, in Cubao, Quezon, the Philippines, was fought in 1975 for the heavyweight championship of the world.
HE WAS THE PROMOTER EVERYONE WANTED TO DO BUSINESS WITH
Ali won both fights, beating Foreman by knockout just before the end of the eighth round to regain the heavyweight title, and Frazier the following year by technical knockout just before the start of the fifteenth round.
In 2006, Forbes estimated that King had promoted some 600 title fights and generated a net worth of $350 million over his storied career.
“In my book, Don King is the greatest promoter that ever lived,” Holmes said. “He brought big money into the game of boxing, and set up so many must-see fights with all of the big-bangers he represented.”
King, now in his mid-eighties, is a controversial figure who has been sued by a number of fighters. “I had a few problems with him myself,” said Holmes.
But, he added, “No matter what anyone said about him, he was the promoter everyone wanted to do business with, because everyone knew he was going to get them the biggest payday.”
- "Maya Angelou said that 'there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. Indeed, there is an agony in our nation that the stories, the voices, and the images of Black Americans are so unknown, untold, and unseen in our wider understanding of history. This bountiful collection of once-unpublished photographs both gives expressive voice to their subjects and helps to relieve this agony, bringing to life a more complete picture of the compelling, complex, and beautiful story that is America."—Cory Booker, U.S. senator and bestselling author of United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.
- "Unseen reminds me of a lost black history version of 'You Are There,' told through photographs that The Times commissioned but chose not to print. This book is a vivid account of race relations in America, narrated through images that survived between the spaces of stories, in the gaps, silences, and lacuna buried in the paper's archives. They constitute a remarkably vivid parallel text to the last half century of American history, creating an extraordinarily moving visual narrative of the feelings and actions of black Americans in the striking particularity of black-and-white photography. The book simulates what it would have been like to read The Times each day for the last half century, if the full picture of the African American experience had made the cut. If any book proves that it is never too late to publish 'all the news'--and images--'fit to print,' this is it.—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of Harvard's Hutchins Center for African American Research and an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker
- "By unearthing these fascinating photographs and sharing the stories behind them, the contributors to this extraordinary project have created a treasure."—Marian Wright Edelman, president, Children's Defense Fund
- "This book brings the excitement of opening a time capsule, with powerful photographs and searching commentary by an all-star cast that gives us new and original insights into modern African American history."—Michael Beschloss, historian and bestselling author of Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989
- "The power of images is undeniable; so, for many years, has been the power of the TheNew York Times. This new volume, by a team headed by a Times photo editor, contains 175 remarkable (and hitherto-unpublished) photos of significant moments in African-American life and culture."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- On Sale
- Oct 17, 2017
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal