Gems of the Backlist: HARLEM by Morgan Smith and Marvin Smith

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:

HarlemImagine 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:

 

 

 

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