Politics Drawn in Black and White: Henry J. Lewis's Visual Rhetoric in Late-1800s Black Editorial Cartoons

By Lawrence, Windy Y.; Bates, Benjamin et al. | Journalism History, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Politics Drawn in Black and White: Henry J. Lewis's Visual Rhetoric in Late-1800s Black Editorial Cartoons


Lawrence, Windy Y., Bates, Benjamin, Cervenka, Mark, Journalism History


When Freedoms Journal debuted in New York on March 16, 1827, as the first newspaper owned and operated by Blacks1 the printed voice that had been conscripted by two hundred years of slavery emerged. After the U.S. Civil War, in the years between 1880 and 1914, hundreds of newspapers owned and operated by Blacks were founded.2 The emergence of a Black newspaper voice was essential to seeking equality in the United States. Communities with newspapers gained access to the public sphere because their papers would be available at newsstands alongside White newspapers.3 Communities with newspapers were also perceived to be fuller citizens because news publishing was an exercise of First Amendment rights,' and they were seen as making more informed political decisions.3 Finally, news publishing was seen as evidence that a group was a full economic participant in the American social order/'

Alongside other newspapers such as the Washington Bee, the Richmond Planet, and the New York Age, one significant newspaper that emerged in mid-1888, often neglected by historical scholars, was the Indianapolis-based weekly newspaper, the Freeman. With an estimated circulation of 7,000 to 12,000 readers, the Indianapolis Freeman exceeded circulation rates of better-known newspapers such as the Washington Bee (circulation 1,000 - 4,000) and the Richmond Planet (circulation 5,000)." Not only did it have the highest circulation of any Black newspaper during these years, its readership was expanded when smaller Black papers regularly reprinted its articles and editorials. The exact number of subscribers is unknown as its editor was accused by the Indianapolis World of inflating his numbers.'1 During the emergence of the Freeman, several other newspapers were started in Indianapolis, including the Indianapolis Recorder, the Indianapolis Leader, and the Indianapolis World, but the Freeman pioneered illustration in the Black press.10 A Black artist, Henry Jackson Lewis, was soon hired at this newspaper, helping to create the first illustrated paper." After this weekly began publishing political cartoons, more Black newspapers followed suit. Although illustrations added substantially to the cost of publishing, they allowed a broader means of communication, and thereby are significant rhetorical acts in history.

Indeed, political cartoons during this significant era offer important insights into the history of U.S. civil rights arguments. To clarify the rhetorical functions of editorial cartoons, for instance, Martin J. Medhurst and Michael A. DeSousa's scholarship legitimates political cartooning as a significant rhetorical act.12 A robust literature around political cartoons has emerged, treating topics as diverse as wartime editorial cartoons,1' the historical role of editorial cartoonists attacking politicians,14 the influence of German-immigrant cartoonists Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler during 1875-1896," and editorial cartoons drawn by George H. Ben Johnson, a Black editorial cartoonist, during the period of 1917 to 1920."' However, very little scholarship has looked at post-Civil War cartoons found in newspapers operated, owned, and illustrated by Blacks. Indeed, Mark Cervenka and Marvin D. Jeter's biography of Henry J. Lewis is one essay that treats Ixwis with some depth. Although this biography is informative regarding Lewis's background and politics, Cervenka and Lewis use Lewis's cartoons primarily as illustrations, providing little analysis of the visual arguments presented in these cartoons.

Beginning with Reconstruction, Blacks began to transform their identity from slave to citizen and to create a space to fight oppression. One of the means in which Blacks transformed their identity was through the use of editorial cartoons in the Black press. In the late nineteenth century, Blacks began to use the style and form of the dominant voice in the U.S. to argue for equal citizenship.1" In doing so, Blacks made space for their voices to offer public arguments different from White voices by using the strategies of White rhetors. …

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