Here at the University Press of Kentucky, we’re in the middle of a program to digitize all of the books that we’ve published since our founding in 1943. It’s a lot of work going through over 1300 books, but it’s been a process full of fun surprises and astounding discoveries. Best of all, every now and then, there’s a book that we just can’t put down—a book so good we just can’t resist sharing it with you again:
Imagine my delight when I picked up Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith. Born and raised in Nicholasville, Kentucky, twins Morgan and Marvin Smith knew that they would not become sharecroppers like their parents. They yearned for the opportunity to pursue art, and that passion led them to New York City at the very height of the Great Depression. Despite the dire economic times, the pair found work with the WPA and soon opened their own portrait studio in Harlem.
Rejecting the focus on misery and hopelessness common to photographers of the time, the Smiths documented important “firsts” for the city’s African American community (the first black policeman, the first black woman juror), the significant social movements of their day (anti-lynching protests, rent strikes, and early civil rights rallies), as well as the everyday life of Harlem, from churchgoers dressed for Easter to children playing in the street. The Smiths’ photography and art studio was next to the famed Apollo Theatre, and it became a required stop for anyone making a pilgrimage to the community.
This beautiful book features nearly 150 photographs drawn from the collection of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Smith family archives, and they depict amazing American scenes: Maya Angelou early in her career as a Primus dancer, W.E.B. DuBois recording a speech in their sound studio, Joe Louis at his training camp, Jackie Robinson teaching his young son to hold a baseball bat, Nat King Cole dancing at his wedding, Billie Holiday singing for friends, Josephine Baker distributing candy to children, and many other prominent figures at significant and ordinary moments of their lives. Here’s a little peek into the pages of Harlem:
Morgan and Marvin are shown here with their identical twin uncles, two years older. Left to right: Amanda Hutchinson (aunt), Booker T. Smith and Walter B. Smith (uncles), Allena Smith (mother), Morgan and Marvin Smith, and Maggie Smith (grandmother).
Shortly after their arrival in the city, the Smiths found jobs with the New York Parks Department. They were part of the team that constructed the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park.
The Smiths’ decision to pursue the fine arts in the midst of the Great Depression established a trajectory for their lives and work that would take them far from Nicholasville and Lexington, even though they maintained strong ties to their Kentucky origins throughout their lives.
Named for aviator Charles Lindbergh, the Lindy hop originated in Harlem during the 1920s and was a popular dance at nightclubs through the 1930s and early ’40s. This photograph, taken at Big George’s Bar and Grill in Corona, Long Island, shows dancer Ann Johnson soaring as if in flight above her partner, Frank Manning. The image first appeared on the cover of the “Tattler,” a Harlem cultural magazine.
Sgt. Peter Biggins Sr. says goodbye to Peter Jr., Mrs. Biggins, and daughter Thelma before leaving with the 369th National Guard for Fort Smith, Arkansas. This was the first black National Guard division to receive anti-aircraft training.
Discovered in 1933 by record producer and critic John Hammond, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) recorded her first sides with Benny Goodman that same year. From 1935 to 1939 she recorded with Teddy Wilson and also sang with the Count Basie and Artie Shaw bands. A member of Basie’s band, Lester Young, gave her the nickname “Lady Day.” Known for her expressiveness and rhythmic flexibility, Holiday became one of the greatest of jazz singers. Her autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” which was written three years before her death in 1959, gives voice to her struggles against drug addiction, racism, and hypocrisy.
Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), shown here with his young son, was the first black player in major league baseball. He first played professional baseball with the Negro American League’s Kansas City Monarchs. In 1947 he became a Brooklyn Dodger and was named Rookie of the Year. In his ten years with the Dodgers, he played on six pennant-winning teams and the 1955 world championship team and was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player of 1949. His lifetime batting average was .311. In 1956 he retired from baseball to enter business, and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility. Robinson’s achievements helped pave the way for integration in all sports.