Lerone Bennett, Jr., social historian, Black Studies architect, and intellectual activist spent over four decades at Ebony magazine, arguably the premier African American lifestyle magazine of the 20th century, founded by John H. Johnson in 1945. This essay seeks a reappraisal of his role as contributing editor, which brought to the magazine a sense of the importance of recovering and celebrating African American history and contributions to American society and the world. However, this author argues against the view that Bennett's work was purely celebratory, preferring instead to interpret Bennett's contributions as forms of critical popular education that cut across an increasingly volatile publishing industry and an aspirant black middle class. Additionally, the author credits Bennett with influencing the magazine's attention to issues including African Americans' relationship to and embrace of African independence and Afro-diasporic culture that embraced a wide range of trans-Atlantic intellectual and political concerns. Though such issues were taken up with force in the pages of another Johnson Publications outlet, Negro Digest/Black World, Bennett nonetheless was able to pique the interest of a more mainstream black reading public on a range of critical socio-political registers in the pages of Ebony, as well as in several other widely circulated published works. Lastly, this essay places Bennett's oeuvre and contributions alongside scholars, bibliophiles, and lay historians such as Arthur A. Schomburg, Dorothy Porter, John Henrik Clarke, Hubert Harrison and others who made their careers outside the walls of the academy, yet whose contributions to the study of history remains foundational to African American Studies and the historical profession.
Christopher Tinson is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Saint Louis University. His interdisciplinary research and teaching focuses on the intersections between Africana radical traditions, Ethnic Studies, critical media studies, incarceration, and community-based education models. His writings have been published in The Black Scholar, The Journal of African American History, The Nation, The Feminist Wire, Counterpunch, Radical Teacher, and Black Perspectives, a blog of the African American Intellectual History Society. His first book, Radical Intellect: Liberator Magazine and Black Activism in the 1960s is published on UNC Press.
On the morning of December 11, 2016 a notice in the Chicago area news read as follows: "Author Lerone Bennett Found Safe After Being Reported Missing." As it turned out, the 88-year old Bennett decided to go for an early morning walk, without telling anyone. The notice continued,
"Author Lerone Bennett, who was missing Saturday morning from the Kenwood neighborhood on the South Side, has been located. The 88-year-old scholar, journalist and historian was reported missing after he was last seen at 5:05 a.m. near the 4800 block of South Lake Shore Drive, according to a missing person alert from Chicago Police. Police said Bennett was located and safe Saturday afternoon, but did not provide additional information.Bennett is the author of multiple books, including "Before the Mayflower" and "Forced into Glory." He previously worked as an editor at JET and Ebony magazines." (1) The brevity of this note calls attention to the fact that Bennett, recently passed, is still known mostly for his work at Ebony and for the publication of two critically acclaimed texts, though he wrote over ten.
This essay seeks to look closer and more broadly at Bennett's intellectual life, though certainly much of that was spent at the offices of Ebony. In addition to Ebony, Bennett maintained a rather full organizational life as well, holding memberships and associations in such organizations as the short-lived Black Academy of Arts and Letters, the Race Relations Information Center, the Institute of the Black World, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and the MLK Memorial Center to name a few. Renewing the interest in Bennett's life opens us to several objectives: to give a sense of African American historical expertise and craftsmanship, to gain an expansive definition of intellectual history and the social function of the historian, to contextualize Bennett's productivity, motivations, and range as a thinker, to achieve a view into his philosophy of life, and lastly to hopefully arrive at the disruptive and reparative dimensions of history, which we can discern in Bennett's robust body of work.
Though his career was built on the work he produced in from the early 1960s through the 1980s, his work experienced a renaissance within Black Studies in the 1990s as Before the Mayflower returned to high school history courses and became a fixture of the Black Studies curriculum across the country. By that time, the book was in its 6th edition. As the heated debate surrounding Afrocentricity peaked, scholars and students alike looked to Bennett's work of history first published in 1962 for its accuracy, sophistication, and widespread accessibility.
The mainstream press took note. In 1993, the Washington Post Style section featured Bennett under the heading "Against the Drift of History: Lerone Bennett's passionate investigation of Black America's past." Years later, in an interview for the Morehouse College Alumnus Magazine, Bennett seemed to underscore the standard he set to achieve, when he told the interviewer: "I don't think you can separate the demand for excellence [from] the demand for freedom."
Bennett's work has garnered the attention of at least a few historians in the 1960s John Henrik Clarke was the first to call Bennett a "social historian" in an article in the journal Freedomways, and in the 2000s the historian Pero Dagbovie sought to resurrect Bennett's impact on the discipline of Africana Studies. (2) In 2012, the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University acquired a large chunk of Bennett's papers. This acquisition has thus inspired renewed interest in Bennett.
The questions that animate the essay include: What was Bennett's life up to his time at Ebony? What sorts of training and exposure did he have that ignited his interest in history? How did his early life as a journalist at the Atlanta Daily World shape his approach to African American history? How did Bennett see himself, that is, who are the scholars that impacted and inspired him? How might we describe his philosophy of history, education, and knowledge production? What work was he part of outside of the Johnson Empire and off the pages of Ebony?
Family History as Black History
Anyone remotely familiar with Bennett's writing will observe that themes of "endurance" and "triumph" ran through all of his work. This included the recording of his family history. Bennett located his family in relation to history in this way: "The first Johnson and the first Reed were born in Africa, a continent of great kingdoms and cultures and the birthplace of humanity. The first Reed and the first Johnson were citizens of countries and principalities on the west coast of Africa, and they were descendants of a great people who gave the world fire, tools, and cultivated grain." The branches of his family tree record that, "The founders of the Reed/Johnson family were among the Africans defeated--primarily because they lacked gun powder--during the 400 years Slave Trade war. Transported to America, they not only endured--they prevailed. In one of the greatest flights of the human spirit in recorded history, X Johnson and X Reed and millions of other X's transcended the cruelties of the Slave Trade and created the foundation of American wealth and culture." The document goes on to trace his recorded family history in the U.S. south from c. 1838--late 1920s. Bennett seemed to be tracking his family history as far back as possible. He was fully aware and certain of his and his family as part of the living history of the African American experience.
Bennett's speech at a University of Mississippi event in 1997 honoring him was tailored from his family history written in 1991 for the Reed/Johnson family reunion testifies to this facet of his approach. He entitled the speech "Lucy Reed's Award" in honor of his grandmother. Indeed, his first book, Before the Mayflower would be dedicated to his grandmother, his mother Alma Love, and his wife Gloria S. Bennett: "For the Black Woman."
At the time of this writing, little is known of the Bennett side of Lerone Bennett's family tree, that being his father's side. He traced his personal narrative through his mother's lineage, the Reed/Johnson family. A family chronology dates the earliest members of his mother's family back to 1838 in rural Alabama and Virginia. In the mid-1850s his great grandparents relocated to Mississippi, where his grandmother, the aforementioned Lucy Johnson, was born in 1874 or 1875. She was married to George Reed in Fannin County, Mississippi, by a "minister of Gospel" on December 14, 1892. His mother Alma, was born in 1906. She appears as "Alma D." on the 1910 U.S. Census at age 4, along with eight other siblings. The family relocated to Jackson, Mississippi in 1912. Bennett was born in 1928 in Clarksdale. His grandmother Lucy Reed died in April, 1943; Bennett was 15 years old. He went on to dedicate his life's work to honoring her legacy. (3)
In terms of living black history, he perhaps adopted a style of history pioneered by Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk. Throughout the Family history Bennett crafted were references to key historical events--the attack on Fort Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, Union Army's capturing of Vicksburg, Yazoo City, and Jackson, the First Reconstruction governments, the emergence of Jim Crow--and were placed alongside the births and movements of individual family members. Family history and personal history were part and...