Babies, Beauty, and Bravery
The editors of The Crisis used images of darling children, beautiful women, and strapping soldiers on their issue covers as symbols of Black excellence in order to discredit the idea that Black people were naturally inferior as a race. These covers reflect the many ways that African Americans maintained racial pride in the face of oppression.
The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races is the official monthly publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The name of the magazine came from Joseph Russell Lowell’s 1845 poem “The Present Crisis,” which was an anthem during the 19th century antislavery movement. The magazine was founded in 1910 by W.E.B. Du Bois, who served as editor from 1910 to 1934, Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villard, Mary Dunlop Maclean, and others. Although it is one of the most well-known, publications to focus on racial injustice and empowerment, it was not the first. Publications such as Frederick Douglass’ North Star and William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator came before it. While there were doubts that The Crisis would gather enough readers, it quickly became popular after its first issue in November 1910 and continued to receive commercial success.
Issues of The Crisis were often released monthly under themes called “Numbers.” Usually, these Numbers revolved around broad topics, such as Education, Children, Soldiers, Vacations, Easter, Christmas, and others. The covers featured a variety of images. Sometimes the covers related to the “Number” or theme of the issue, and other times they didn’t. However, there was always a common theme of highlighting Black achievements.
Buildings important to the Black community were featured, such as the Mechanics Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia. Additionally, the magazine included pictures of prominent Black individuals, such as Richard T. Greener, the first Black person to graduate from Harvard. Many Black artists’ works were shown as well, including artists John Henry Adams, Frank Walts, and William Edward Scott. Adams and Walts often drew portraits of both fictional and existing women, looking off into the distance or smiling coyly. Scott was commissioned for inspirational images of enslaved people escaping from bondage, their facial expressions solemn. Covers, whether buildings or people, set the stage for readers and their expectations of what lied between the pages.
A selection of covers of The Crisis in the NMAAHC’s collection reveal the goals the NAACP had for the magazine. Three major themes stand out: babies and children, young women, and young men. As is the case with products, the covers aimed to draw the potential reader in even before a purchase was made. However, they also needed to show the purpose of The Crisis and its values.
In the quest for equal rights, some Black Americans were left behind. At the time, the New Negro movement sought to eliminate the idea that Black Americans were inferior to white Americans. Instead, the “New Negro” wanted to create an identity for himself, where he was respected as a person, deserved equal rights, and challenged the status quo that America imposed on him.
The images presented on many of the covers of the magazine reflect the ideology of the Talented Tenth—a concept that was pioneered by individuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Alexander Crummell who advocated for racial uplift led by college-educated African Americans and those who directly participated in activism. By presenting portraits of healthy babies, beautiful women, and strong men as the first image readers see, the editors of The Crisis also presented their ideas of which Black Americans were seen as making the greatest strides of intellectual progress for the race.
Pictures of babies and children, both fictional and real, were pervasive in The Crisis. The very first issue, published in November 1910, featured a child on the cover. Although the magazine often used artistic portrayals of children on the covers, real pictures of children were also featured. In later issues, editors solicited photos from readers. One of the most famous children’s photos from The Crisis is an image of Valdora Turner. Little Valdora was the daughter of Dr. Valdo Turner, a founder of the St. Paul, Minnesota, NAACP branch and the first Black physician in St. Paul. She was featured on the cover of the October 1922 Children’s Number issue with a photo her family sent into the magazine. Thousands of pictures of Black children from all over the world were mailed to The Crisis offices, such as in Valdora’s case. There were even baby contests featured in the magazine. In the May 1915 issue, Elizabeth Neill is recognized as one of the best babies in the Washington, D.C., “Better Babies” contest, and received a first prize certificate.
But why dedicate multiple issues to babies and children? One of the goals of the NAACP and The Crisis was to remove the false idea of Black people as tainted and dirty. In the nineteenth century, “race science” dominated the medical world. It played on the stereotypes that African Americans were naturally lazy and unintelligent, and used anatomy in an attempt to prove these arguments. The children featured in The Crisis were visible rejections to race science and eugenics: Black people could and did create beautiful, healthy, and intelligent children. Valdora, being the child of a prominent Black intellectual, and other children in The Crisis were a symbol of the vitality and life that existed in both the present and near future for the Black community.
“…but the whole argument…has long said that health and physique among colored people was not a matter of nourishment and surroundings but of inescapable hereditary ills. A glance at our pages this month will certainly help to show what arrant nonsense this thesis is.”The CrisisOctober 1914
Pictured with caps or fancy hairstyles, women dominated covers of The Crisis. Since the front covers accurately reflected what The Crisis discussed within its pages, the publication dedicated large amounts of space in most issues to acknowledging Black women’s educational development and activism. A section within The Crisis titled “Men of the Month” featured short write-ups about specific Black individuals who were advancing the race through their work. However, contrary to the name, women were also included as “Men of the Month.” For example, Dr. Marie B. Lucas was recognized for being the only woman to graduate from the Howard University Medical College in 1914.
The women on the covers of The Crisis represented both beauty and intelligence. Although many of the women shown did not exist, their image still evoked ideas of Black excellence and respectability. The stunning women on the front of The Crisis demonstrated the power of beauty in the quest for racial uplift. Similar to showing children on the covers and in various issues, beautiful Black women were featured on the covers and in features inside the magazine to achieve the same goal.
While The Crisis used the beauty of fictional and existing women on the covers to highlight Black people’s equality to other races, the women on the covers who did exist were also seen as pioneers of racial uplift. They were the symbol of heightened fashion and sophistication. Black women found within the pages of The Crisis were oftentimes highlighted for their educational achievements and activism, rather than for their proximity to Black men. In this sense, featuring women on the covers of The Crisis are examples of the progressive stance that Du Bois and The Crisis took at a time when women were not even allowed to vote.
During World War I, many African American men enlisted in the military to fight for their country. Many soldiers and illustrations of them were included in multiple issues, standing or sitting tall with their uniforms, or shooting from their positions in war trenches.
Du Bois himself was an advocate for Black men fighting in the War and spoke enthusiastically about it in The Crisis. In July 1918, he wrote his famous editorial titled “Close Ranks,” urging African Americans to join the war effort. At the time, Du Bois believed that through civic participation and Black achievement, Black Americans would be better accepted by white society. By participating in the War, Black Americans signaled to their white counterparts that they deserved respect, rather than to be treated as second-class citizens. In later years, Du Bois would come to regret this previous support after watching as Black soldiers came home to not only disrespect, but also brutal violence.
Other members of the NAACP also voiced their opinions about Black Americans joining the ranks. In a July 1917 issue, they stated, “A time of National Crisis must be a time of redoubled effort and vigilance if the Negro is to advance his status during the war…”
“Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks…with our own white fellow citizens…We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.”W.E.B. Du BoisJuly 1918
Presenting soldiers on the cover of The Crisis spoke of not only Du Bois’ and other editors of The Crisis’ support for Black Americans to fight in the war, but also their support in viewing this service as an act of racial uplift and Black excellence. Pictures of fictional and real soldiers on the front and within The Crisis published during World War I reflect Du Bois’, and Black Americans’ fervent hope for a more equal world, albeit a world that did not come to pass.
Visions of darling babies, and successful women and men were not in short supply on the front pages of The Crisis. The various pictures and drawings featured on the covers were curated to draw prospective readers in, but also to distinguish The Crisis from other magazines as one focused on Black topics and racial progress. However, the covers and issues of The Crisis in the early twentieth century demonstrate the complicated nature of Black society due to elitism. Middle-class Black Americans were expected to uplift the entire race and counter the dangerous stereotypes of savagery and unintelligence through their education, activism, and presenting themselves as enlightened and respectable. The Crisis did highlight unknown Black Americans at times, but in the early decades of the twentieth century, the idea of the Talented Tenth among some Black intellectuals took center stage as the best solution to overcome racism and discrimination. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the editors of The Crisis consistently used its platform to not only create a better future for Black people in the United States, but also the world.
Written by Miracle Johnson, Summer 2023 Robert F. Smith Fund Intern
Published on August 24, 2023