Blues in the News

By | Wednesday, April 26, 2023 1 comment
Oliver Harrington was a Black cartoonist that started work in the 1930s and is probably best known for his character Bootsie that ran in strip of the same name (originally titled Dark Laughter). He also created strips called Jive Gray, The Lighter Side, Pages from Negro History, Peewee's Off Jive, and Scoop. Most only lasted a couple of years and all of them seem to have been limited to African-American papers. But he's often cited as one of the premier Black cartoonists in America, largely because of his pioneering work on Dark Laughter.

Harrington's first full-time job was as art director for The People's Voice, a weekly African-American newspaper that began in early 1942. I can find little that Harrington himself said of the paper, but he does relay this anecdote in an essay called "Our Beloved Pauli"...
My first real job was as art editor at the People's Voice. Adam Powell, Charlie Buchanan and Ben Davis published that great sheet and one day Adam called me into his office. "Ollie," he said, "there's someone I want you to meet." A beaming giant of a man left his chair, thumped me on the back with a hand as powerful as John Henry's sledgehammer and boomed, "Feller, I just wanted you to know that those cartoons of yours are great." Of course it was Paul Robeson.
In his introduction to the book containing the above essay, M. Thomas Inge elaborates very slightly on the work Harrington did for People's Voice...
In addition to the Dark Laughter panel featuring Bootsie, he contributed powerful editorial cartoons, illustrations, humorous panels and features, and, for a short while, even a comic strip.
Allan Holtz's American Newspaper Comics, An Encyclopedic Reference Guide -- while by no means an infallible source, it's the most comprehensive one I have easy access to -- seems to have nothing on what this mysterious unnamed strip might be. But a few years ago, Carol Tilley came across them in her research. She found a few dozen strips called Blues in the News; an insanely topical version of which is included with this post was actually in reaction to the riots in Detroit in 1943.

Beyond the couple scant notes I mentioned above, I have no other information I can find about the strip. I can find no reference to it in Pioneering Cartoonists of Color by Tim Jackson, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation edited by Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II, or The Blacker the Ink edited by Frances Gateward and John Jennings, although all discuss Harrington and his other work to at least a fair degree. Tilly also noted that she could not find anyone who discussed Harrington's comics in People's Voice. Now admittedly, between myself and Tilly, that's only two people, but I'd like to think that we have access to a pretty wide range of resources between us and those resources include a lot of in-depth, first-hand research. So it would appear what she's come across here is a long-forgotten strip that is almost entirely unknown today, even to comics scholars.

And given the issues Harrington seemed to tackle in those strips, maybe it's time we make those strips known again.
Newer Post Older Post Home


Ted Dawson said...

This is a great read! I knew about Bootsie, but none of the other work, and nothing about Harrington. What a story about meeting Paul Robeson, one of my heroes.

I started checking historical black newspapers but it seems like they’re mostly behind paywalls or for government employees only. I know I’ve seen some at… I might try a little digging.