THE NEED FOR HEROES

In a June 1941 essay in The Crisis, "The Need for Heroes," Langston Hughes called for a moratorium on negative imagery in the black cultural world. Instead, the writer asked his colleagues to lead the way by turning to positive representations of black achievers and historical figures—"heroes" who would set an example for African Americans, spurring pride and self-esteem, while altering white people’s habitually negative view of the race.

This section explores the celebration of black achievement and accomplishment through visual images—distributed locally and nationally, by producers black and white, and in differing locations and contexts.

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Booker T. Washington Fan, ca. 1945
Booker T. Washington Fan, ca. 1945
Booker T. Washington Fan, ca. 1945
Booker T. Washington MNH Plate Block, 1940
U.S. Commemorative Half Dollar―Booker T. Washington, 1946 (obverse)
U.S. Commemorative Half Dollar—Booker T. Washington, 1946 (reverse)
Coins: 1 3/16 in. diameter
Stamps: 3 5/16 x 2 1/4 in.
Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005.1, 2005.54, 2005.27
In the early 1940s, the U.S. Congress chose Booker T. Washington, the acclaimed author and educator, as the first black person to be depicted on an American postage stamp, and coin, a “commemorative,” noncirculating silver half-dollar. While acknowledging the need to cast African American accomplishment in a positive light, Congress chose a relatively conservative leader, known as much for appeasing white power as for resisting it; Washington called for compromise rather than protest, rejecting the forceful activism of such early civil rights leaders as the abolitionist orator and statesman Frederick Douglass.

While Congress authorized a stamp in 1948 to honor the botanist George Washington Carver, Washington’s loyal colleague at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, it would take it decades to honor less conciliatory figures: Douglass (1967), Harriet Tubman (1978), the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1979), Whitney M. Young, Jr. (1981), Du Bois (1992), and Malcolm X (1999). To date, no African American has appeared on U.S. circulating legal tender, either on printed currency or coins.
Golden Legacy Comics #2: The Saga of Harriet Tubman “The Moses of Her People,” 1967
Golden Legacy Comics #2: The Saga of Harriet Tubman “The Moses of Her People,” 1967
Golden Legacy Comics #2: The Saga of Harriet Tubman "The Moses of Her People," 1967
10 3/8 x 6 3/4 in.
Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005.65
Golden Legacy comic books were a series of graphic biographies of African Americans meant to introduce children to historical figures long ignored in mainstream culture. Corporations such as Coca-Cola, Columbia Pictures, and McDonald’s advertised in and helped distribute the free publications to schools, libraries, and civil rights organizations. In addition to teaching history through a dynamic visual format, the books performed a valuable social function, helping to instill pride and self-esteem in black children through the commemoration of black heroes.
North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro, 1947
North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro, 1947
Hildegarde Hoyt Swift (author)
Lynd Ward (illustrator)
North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro, 1947
10 1/2 x 7 x 7/16 in.
Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005.201
Birthday Card, c. 1973
Birthday Card, c. 1973
Birthday Card, c. 1973
Offset lithograph on paper
7 x 4 1/2 in.
Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005.165
Norbert Rilleux, 1967
Norbert Rilleux, 1967
Inge Hardison
Norbert Rillieux, 1967
Negro Giants in History sculpture series, issued by Old Taylor Distillery Company
Cast plaster
8 1/2 x 5 1/4 x 5 3/4 in.
Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005.268
This portrait of the inventor Norbert Rillieux was one of a series of busts created by the African American sculptor and photographer Inge Hardison and issued by the Old Taylor company as part of a promotional campaign commemorating black innovators.
Take This Hammer, 1963
Take This Hammer, 1963
KQED News
Take This Hammer, 1963
In this extraordinary documentary, James Baldwin explores prejudice in the so-called liberal cities of the North. In one poignant scene, Baldwin responds to a young African American student who maintains that there will never be a black president. The writer replies that "there will be a Negro president," but only when African Americans embrace their power by refusing to internalize the negative stereotypes through which society sees them.

>Watch the Documentary Online