Harlem: People, Power and Politics, 1900-1950 by Roi Ottley

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Editorial reviews of the book at its original publication in 1943 with the original title of ‘New World A-Coming’ Inside Black America.

“Vigorous prose…his book should be read as widely as possible.” —The New York Times.
“A fine book, searching, temperate, and wise.” —The New Yorker.
“A truly remarkable book, rich in scholarship and human sympathy…One of the most important books of our time.” —Chicago News.
“A shrewd, lively and often surprising interpretation of the present state of mind of Negro America.” —Lewis Gannett, New York Herald Tribune.

An Excerpt from the 1943 review of the book with its original title “New World A-Coming: Inside Black America,” in the New York Times, August 10, 1943
From Books of the Times
by John Chamberlain
THIS is a war for democracy,” says the anti-Hitler white American. “Brother,” said the Negro, “I’m going to hold you to that.”
The Negro’s tone is polite. But it is firm. Both the firmness and the politeness are in Roi Ottley’s “New “World A-Coming: Inside Black America,” which started out to be a book about Harlem and ended up by becoming a book about the Negro’s position in wartime America. Mr. Ottley, who spent seven years covering Harlem as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Amsterdam Star News, knows both his home locale and the wider impli­cations of his subject. He writes a vigorous prose, mingling his­tory, humor, irony, drama and sober re­flection in a work that explains the cur­rent status and the wholly reasonable demands of the Negro as no other book does.
In 1900 Harlem was a cheerful neighborhood of broad drives, brownstone fronts and quiet, almost suburban aloofness. Its small Negro population consisted of the black aristocracy, in­cluding Bert Williams, the actor, and Harry T. Burleigh, the composer. As the little Negro com­munity expanded, racial warfare broke out, a war that the white real estate men were winning up to the time when the Pennsylvania Railroad, seeking a site for a new central terminal, paid $510,000 in cash for a Negro church in the Thirty-third Street district With this money Negroes bought thirteen large apartment houses on 135th Street near Lenox Avenue, and the modern his­tory of Harlem had begun.
Mr. Ottley traces that history in all its tumultuous ramifications. Harlem is colored. But color in Harlem is infinitely subdivided, with African, Mongolian, European, Indian and Latin-American mixtures making the place an anthropologist’s despair—or paradise. Since the purchase of the thirteen apartment houses on 135th Street black Harlem has become a by-word for overcrowding. In the Twenties Harlem had its brief springtime. “Keed” Chocolate, Tiger Flowers and Battling Siki paraded its streets; Marcus Garvey preached his back-to-Africa doctrine and sold stock in his Black Star steamship line, which ultimately failed for thousands of dollars. The Negro renaissance was under way, with Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes and Charles Gilpin becoming big-time names. But the Twenties faded swiftly into the depression years—the era of Father Divine and his comforting Heavens, and of Joe Louis who did more than anyone else to save the self-respect of a race. …
With his chapter on Joe Louis Roi Ottley moves out of Harlem into the broad currents of Negro life in America. He writes vividly of the newest Negro leaders—Adam Clayton Powell, the cru­sading preacher; A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women; Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, who refuse to sing for segre­gated audiences; Ted Poston, racial adviser to-Elmer Davis; Dr. Robert C. Weaver, the first Negro ever to earn a Ph. D. in economics from Harvard University, and Chrystal Bird Fauset, adviser to Dean Landis, head of the Office of Civilian Defense. Added to the names of older Negro leaders such as Walter White, these make an imposing list.
The Axis, says Mr. Ottley in his concluding chapters, can be decisively beaten only by men who are committed to an extension of democracy to the black world. For if the war turns out to be anything less than a fight to make the princi­ples of the Bill of Rights a reality in this country, the kick-back is apt to be disastrous. Mr. Ottley says the Asiatic world is watching America, quite aware of the fact that a nation which is unable to solve its color problems at home will never be able to take the lead in creating a free world every­where. Since Mr. Ottley speaks for a people that has determinedly clenched its jaws, his book should have the widest possible reading. The Negro today is on march. Mr. Ottley tells us both how and why.

 

Book Cover with image of John Brown

The Legend of John Brown: A Biography and a History by Richard Owen Boyer

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From The New York Times:
“Boyer’s book is more than a life of John Brown. It is a tapestry of the whole of American life in the generation that slid into civil war. It is a rich weave. Here is old John Quincy Adams, in his seventies, cured of his psychosomatic carbuncles by the sheer exhilaration of the struggle against the slaveowners in Congress. Here is the pro-slavery mob at Alton on the Mississippi, weeping at the sheer eloquence of the abolitionist editor, Elijah Lovejoy, but shooting him down just the same. Here is the slave rebel, Nat Turner, taunted by a Tidewater planter about his approaching execution, and answering, as John Brown himself would have answered, “Was not Christ crucified?”

More from the New York Times:
The Legend of John Brown
by Godfrey Hodgson
January 21, 1973
The accepted view of historians has dismissed Brown as a violent and unstable fanatic, thrust into symbolic prominence by the accident of approaching civil war. Richard Boyer, who has been a New Yorker writer and co-author of Labor’s Untold Story (1955), has foraged in the sources as diligently as any professional historian. But the great merit of this first volume of his biography is that it restores Brown as what he was: an archetypal hero of the epic of 19th-century America, which was both pilgrimage and enterprise….
Boyer’s first volume leaves Brown, four years from Harper’s Ferry, arriving in Kansas resolved “not to die alone.” He did not. He took with half million Union and Confederate dead, and the “accursed thing,” slavery, as well. It is one of the great stories…I look forward to its climax in his second volume.

 

The Washington Post:
“In Boyer’s words, written with a brilliant blend of passion and objectivity, a vanished America comes alive again, the passions of the day boil anew, and we are made to understand how it was that a failed tanner, sheep raiser and wool dealer named John Brown became a man possessed.”

More from the Washington Post:
His Truth Goes Marching On
By Jonathan Yardley
January 28, 1973

HERE IS A book of surprising breadth, insight, compassion and historical vision—the first of what is to be a two-volume study of John Brown and his times. It recreates the whole fabric of our period of greatest national crisis, and it persuasively argues that the much maligned and misunderstood John Brown was the “central figure” of his age—the man who is “transformed and shaped by the experiences of his generation and in turn transforms it.”
That is a considerable assertion, and Richard O. Boyer has written a considerable book to investigate it. The Legend of John Brown is not merely the story of the first 55 years of its subject’s life—though merely as that it is excellent—but a panoramic view of the nation as it plunged toward civil war, and a series of incisive sketches of men and women on both sides of the conflict who at one time or another touched the life of John Brown.

Up to now, Boyer contends, Brown’s biographers have found it “enough to tell of Kansas and Harper’s Ferry.” Boyer’s purpose is to locate the “genesis” of those traumatic events, the tangled process by which Brown resolved the conflict between his business ambitions and his opposition to slavery, and be- came the fiery-eyed zealot who lives now in American legend.

John Brown—the very name was made for legend—has usually been portrayed in stark, absolute terms: he is seen either as a devil, a psychotic whose mad vision led himself, his sons and other men to death in the bizarre folly of Harper’s Ferry; or as a saint, an angel of God whose divinely ordained mission touched the conscience of the nation. Boyer sees him differently: as a human being. In Boyer’s masterly portrait, Brown emerges as a troubled, indecisive man who was at last touched by the greatest moral issue in our history.

As we see him through Boyer’s eyes, he is in many respects an archetypal American, a man of the land:
“This land, to the discerning, accounts for much of John Brown, his urge for wealth, his hymn-singing, and his praying, his homely understated attitude with its echoes of defiance and boasting, his restlessness, the covered wagon that he knew, the posture which combined distinction with rusticity and both with an everlasting search for something perhaps finally found. But so complete was his identification with the large and violent land, so thoroughly was he its product, that the Ohio farmer who was John Brown found no difficulty in communicating with Parker or Higginson, Emerson, Thoreau, or the black man fighting slavery, all of whom were as American and perhaps as permanent, while there is an American consciousness, as the land itself.”

….We encounter other men—Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Frederick Douglass, among the abolitionists; William Walker, Henry Wise, Edmund Ruffin, among the Southerners—who were likewise seized and transformed by the historical moment, and the story of their metamorphosis makes Brown’s more understandable. We encounter, too, the great events that built inexorably toward the shuddering climax of national cataclysm: the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Underground Railroad, the harsh debates on the floors of Congress, the murderous violence that accompanied the settlement of Kansas. In Boyer’s words, written with a brilliant blend of passion and objectivity, a vanished America comes alive again, the passions of the day boil anew, and we are made to understand how it was that a failed tanner, sheep raiser and wool dealer named John Brown became a man possessed.

Legend, Boyer reminds us as the book begins, is “often defined as the popular if unverifiable story of a hero coming down from the past.” In this book, however, we are given legend as it was envisioned by John Jay Chapman, the estimable 19th-century journalist who wrote with much feeling and perception about John Brown’s life. Brown’s life, Chapman said, is an example of “an immortal legend—perhaps the only one in our history.”
Richard O. Boyer has taken Chapman’s words and built an extraordinary book around them, one that affirms and enlarges them…

 

Mississippi Notebook: Freedom Summer June-August 1964 by Nicholas Von Hoffman

One of those who watched and was watched in the turbulent summer of 1964 was Chicago Daily News reporter Nicholas von Hoffman.
Through ten tense weeks and over 6000 miles of dusty roads and highways, from the Delta to the piney hills to the Gulf, von Hoffman studied the state of mind of the State of Mississippi.
Mississippi Notebook is his vivid and entirely honest record of that summer, a summer that was marked by murder, violence, and intimidation on a scale that is difficult to grasp for any but those who witnessed it, or—and worse—for those who were made to suffer it.
Sometimes it is the way people talk, how they look, the small but illuminating incident overlooked in the broad sweep of the news that really tells the story and makes a complex social crisis understandable.
Such is the case with Mississippi Notebook. It is a finely detailed and deeply disturbing report on a state and its people, white and black, who are playing a major role in the greatest domestic crisis now facing the nation.