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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

After Paris? Enter: W.E.B. DuBois and The Crisis


photo portrait of DuBois
W.E.B. DuBois, Editor, The Crisis magazine

By September 1917, The Crisis—the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—had been publishing for 10 years. The magazine was so named because the NAACP’s leadership and others considered racial prejudice or “the color line”  to be the crisis of American society in the 20th century.

W.E.B. DuBois, although busy with his own writing and numerous speaking engagements, and despite frequent personal and ideological skirmishes with the NAACP’s predominantly white and wealthy board of trustees, was doing a yeoman’s job of running the editorial and marketing aspects of the publication from its offices at 70 Fifth Avenue in New York. 


After The Crisis published Laura Wheeler’s cover illustration in January 1913, her name was regularly part of any mention of emerging Negro artists in the publication, including her early 1917 showing with the New York Water Color Club.  Aside from her work as an artist, DuBois was familiar with Laura as an instructor and choir director at Cheyney Training School for Teachers, as he was great friends with its principal, Dr. Leslie Pinckney Hill, and a frequent guest speaker at the school.


photo portrait of Jessie Fauset
Jessie R. Fauset, Literary Editor, The Crisis

And then, there was Laura’s growing association with Jessie Redmon Fauset, who was in regular correspondence with DuBois and considered him her most esteemed friend and advocate.  Jessie’s poems and short stories had been published in The Crisis for a number of years by 1917 and in two years she would be hired by DuBois as the magazine’s literary editor.


Thanks to her relationship with Jessie Fauset, her affiliation with Leslie P. Hill and Cheyney Normal School—which advertised regularly in The Crisis—and the publication’s ongoing need for art, the door opened for Laura to use the more practical skills she had honed at the Academy to do her bit for racial uplift as a professional illustrator.


image of 1910 masthead, The Crisis
early masthead

The Crisis reached a mostly middle-class African American audience that would ultimately grow to 50,000. The magazine’s primary focus, from its founding in 1910 through the 1940s, was to shed light on the issues of racism and violence—most notably, lynching—impacting black people in the U.S. While black American soldiers were fighting in Europe to make the world safe for democracy, justice was systematically and brutally denied Negroes at home.


Lynchings and mob violence went unpunished, Jim Crow segregation ruled the transportation systems, and race discrimination was rampant in civil service jobs, trade unions, and in public accommodations and schools. 


Nearly 3,000 black men and women had been lynched within the last 30 years – the course of Laura Wheeler’s lifetime—and these were only the documented cases.  More recently, by 1917, scores of blacks had been murdered and thousands of dollars in property destroyed in bloody race riots in Waco, Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; Chester, Pennsylvania; and East St. Louis, Illinois.


As a counterbalance, The Crisis published articles, editorials, and pictorials that highlighted the academic, professional, and property-owning accomplishments of upwardly mobile and successful individuals, organizations and communities. The magazine also informed its audience of the Negro’s involvement in regional and world events.   


Further, DuBois, who was not only a social scientist but a novelist as well, took it as a personal mission to acknowledge the literary talents of the race. He proudly claimed to have published the work of more unknown black writers than any periodical in the world. He was equally as pleased to tout the creative accomplishments of Negroes in music and art. Music because it indicated the cultural sophistication of black people, in their appreciation for classical music as well as the folk culture of spirituals and plantation songs. Art because it conveyed to the viewer how blacks saw themselves, the world, and how they wished to be recognized and presented.


cover image of The Crisis, 1914
Cover illustration by John Henry Adams

Visual art brought the editorial message home, and The Crisis could always use good illustrators, though it could not always afford to pay them. In the early days, most artists did not expect to be paid for their submissions to The Crisis

John Henry Adams, an illustrator based in Atlanta, was a great admirer of DuBois and frequently donated his illustrations of polished, well-coiffed and lovely “Crisis maids” whose urbane image became an integral part of The Crisis brand.




collage of Laura Wheeler Waring and her illustration for 1919 Crisis cover
Laura Wheeler and 1919 Crisis Cover

Laura Wheeler, too, would have to give up any notion of supplementing her income from publishing her drawings in The Crisis, at least in the beginning. Rather, DuBois rendered payment by giving contributing artists mention in the magazine, bringing them to the attention of a wider, national audience, and dutifully using his credibility and contacts to support them in any other way that he could.

 




 

© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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