Tag Archives: Black History Month

Langston Hughes, Teenaged Poet

Last year, I celebrated Black History Month by writing about The Brownies’ Book, the groundbreaking magazine for African American children that was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Sadly, the magazine failed to reach its subscription goals and, after a two-year run, ceased publication in December 1921. While it lasted, The Brownies’ Book not only provided young African Americans with a chance to read about young people like themselves but also gave them a chance to see themselves in print by sending in letters to the editor, photos, poems, or stories. Aspiring writer Langston Hughes did all of these things.

Langston Hughes, The Brownies’ Book, June 1920

Hughes, who graduated from Cleveland’s Central High School in 1920,* made his first appearance in the pages of The Brownies’ Book in July of that year. Along with his graduation photo, he submitted a letter saying, “It might interest you to know that I have been elected Class Poet and have also written the Class Song for the graduates. I am, too, the editor of The Annual and am the first Negro to hold the position since 1901, when it was held by the son of Charles W. Chestnut. I thank you for the honor of having my picture in your publication.”**

After his graduation, Hughes went to Toluca, Mexico, to live with his father, who had separated from his mother shortly after he was born. Hughes was hoping to convince him to pay for his education at Columbia University. There was tension between the two, in part because Hughes’ father disliked what he thought of as his son’s sissified demeanor.*** Hughes’ father eventually agreed to pay his tuition, but only if he studied engineering instead of literature, which Hughes agreed to do.

In September 1920, Hughes submitted three poems to The Brownies’ Book. Jessie Redmon Faust, the magazine’s literary editor, wrote to Hughes accepting one of the poems, “The Fairies,” which she considered “very charming.” She asked if he had any stories about Mexico, or if he knew of any Mexican games. Hughes sent her an article about Mexican games, along with some more poems. “Fairies” and another poem, “Winter Sweetness,” appeared in the January 1921 issue of The Brownies’ Book, along with the article.

You can judge the poems for yourself, but, as something of a connoisseur, I have to say that “The Fairies” is not top-tier ca. 1920 fairy poetry. It is, however, the kind of writing that gets you published in The Brownies’ Book, which is what Hughes was aiming for.

On to the games! In one of them, called Lady White, a girl is chosen as Lady White and another as her suitor, Don Philip. The other players circle her in Ring Around the Rosie formation and sing a song about how Lady White’s suitor must break a window to behold Lady White. Some more singing goes on, and then Don Philip tries to break through the circle to get inside. Curious about this Freudian game, I Googled “Doña Blanca” and found this video from a children’s program, which I beg you to drop everything this instant to watch. In this version, the children don’t try to ram through each other’s enlaced hands, so it’s safer but makes for kind of a lame game.****

Toluca, ca. 1920, Hugo Brehme (mexicoenfotos.com)

More publications soon followed. The March 1921 issue included another poem, and an article about the Mexican city of Toluca appeared in April. In the article, Hughes recounts interesting details of daily life, such as, “On the second of November, which is a day in honor of the dead, they sell many little cardboard coffins and paper dolls dressed as mourners, and if a person meets you in the street and says ‘I’m dying,’ you must give him a gift unless you have said ‘I’m dying’ first; then, of course, he has to treat you to the present.”***** Also, Hughes notes that people’s houses have hardly any furniture except chairs, 27 in the case of one of his friends. “Perhaps it is a good idea, for on holidays there is plenty of room to dance without moving anything out,” he philosophizes.

In July 1921, there was a play by Hughes about a young couple who earn a gold piece selling pigs at the market, fantasize about what they can buy with it, and end up giving it to a poor old woman with a blind son. This is as close to hack work as Hughes gets.

The November 1921 issue featured a poem by Hughes, “Thanksgiving Time,” as well as a story, “Those Who Have No Turkey,” about a country girl who, visiting her snooty city cousins on Thanksgiving, is shocked to hear from a newsboy that his family has no turkey to eat and invites him and his family to dinner at her relatives’ house. It’s an engagingly told story, although Hughes spends too much time on buildup and rushes through the dinner in two paragraphs.

Hughes’ account of accompanying a high school class on a hike up Xinantecatl, an inactive volcano near Toluca, appeared in the December 1921 issue, the magazine’s last. Again, there are lots of interesting details, like the list of items he was told to bring along: “first, plenty of lunch; then, two warm blankets because we were to sleep in the open mountains; my camera for pictures; a bottle for water; a small amount of cognac or some other liquor in case of mountain sickness in the high altitude; and a pistol. ‘But above all,’ they said, ‘take onions!” The reason, it turned out, was that smelling them helps with altitude sickness. Indeed, Hughes reports, the onions turned out to be a lifesaver in the thin mountain air.

Langston Hughes, The Brownies’ Book, December 1921

Hughes’ work in The Brownies’ Book shows us an aspiring writer who knows his audience and has a flair for words, but there’s no evidence of budding genius. There’s more to the story, though. Early in 1921, he sent Faust a poem that he had written in July 1920, after crossing the Mississippi on his way to Mexico. She told him that she would publish it–not in The Brownies’ Book but in The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine for adults.

The poem was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It appeared in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis and became Hughes’ signature poem.******

The career of one of America’s greatest poets had begun.*******


*Hughes believed throughout his life that he was born on February 1, 1902, but, as this fascinating 2018 New York Times article recounts, a writer and poet researching his own family history came across several 1901 references to the infant Langston Hughes in the Topeka Plaindealer, an African American newspaper. February 1, 1901, is now widely accepted as his date of birth. So “Teenaged Poet” is a bit of a stretch–but he thought he was a teenager in 1921.

Charles W. Chesnutt, ca. 1898 (Cleveland Public Library)

**Charles Waddell Chesnutt was a well-known writer and political activist. His daughter Helen Chesnutt was Hughes’ Latin teacher and a figure of inspiration to him. Chesnutt’s Wikipedia entry says that he had four daughters but does not mention a son.

***Information about Hughes’ personal relationships is scant, but many scholars now believe that he was gay.

****We used to play a version of the ramming through the hands game when I was a kid, which, like many aspects of 1960s-1970s childhood, is horrifying in retrospect.

*****I lived in Mexico City in the 1980s, but sadly never observed this particular Day of the Dead tradition in practice. I suppose it would have been impracticable in a city with a population of 20 million.

******Unfortunately in retrospect, The Crisis often used swastikas in the magazine’s graphic design. The symbol had no political significance at the time, of course.

*******Blogger/composer Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project has been focusing on Hughes’ early work this month. His post about “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is here.

The Brownies' Book header

The Brownies’ Book: A pioneering magazine for African-American children

I spent much of today binge-reading the first fourteen issues of The Brownies’ Book, the NAACP’s magazine for African-American children. Doing this on the last day of Black History Month is the blogging equivalent of cracking open the textbook for the first time on the night before the final exam, but I had a wonderful time taking in the stories for and about African-American children, reading the poems and games chosen especially for them, and, most of all, hearing from the children in their own words.

The Crisis October 1918 cover, photo of toddler

In 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, announced the upcoming launch of a new magazine “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” The Crisis ran a children’s issue every October, featuring African folk tales, stories and poems about African-American children, and photos of cute babies; The Brownies’ Book included these and many other features. Jessie Redmon Fauset, the literary editor of The Crisis, served in this position at The Brownies’ Book as well, and later as its managing editor.

Jessie Redmon Fauset

Jessie Redmon Fauset, date unknown

There’s no way I could do justice to this wonderful magazine in one blog post, so I’ll just share a few of my favorite items.*

“The Jury,” a page of letters from young readers, is the part of The Brownies’ Book I enjoyed the most. In the January 1920 inaugural issue, a boy named Franklin Lewis, who dreams of being an architect but isn’t sure if this is possible, writes in asking “if you will please put in your paper some of the things which colored boys can work at when they grow up.”**

Letter to editor, The Brownies' Book, January 1920.

The Brownies’ Book, January 1920

This photograph of children in the “Silent Parade,” the famous 1917 march protesting violence against African-Americans, also appeared in the inaugural issue.

Children marching in Silent Parade, 1917, The Brownies' Book.

The Brownies’ Book, January 1920

A profile of child violinist Eugene Mars Martin, with this accompanying photo, ran in the “Little People of the Month” feature. Mars, I was saddened to learn, died suddenly at the age of 22 while working as the director of a music school.

Eugene Mars Martin, The Brownies' Book, Januar 1920.

The Brownies’ Book, January 1920

This cri de coeur by a reader, addressed to The Crisis but printed in “The Jury,” is both sad and hilarious. “P.S. I’m only fifteen years old, so please have a little pity,” she concludes.

Letter to the editor, The Brownies' Book, 1920

The Brownies’ Book, April 1920

Here are some drawings sent in by readers.

Illustrations from readers, The Brownies' Book, May 1920

The Brownies’ Book, May 1920

The pageant in this photo took place at Atlanta University, where Du Bois had formerly served as a professor.

Pageant, Atlanta University, The Brownies' Book, 1920

The Brownies’ Book, September 1920

The Brownies’ Book encouraged readers to send in their high school graduation photos and printed them all. Check out the graduate in the middle row on the right.

The Brownies' Book graduation photos Langston Hughes.

The Brownies’ Book, July 1920

Here he is with a byline, describing games children play in Mexico, where he had gone to live with his father after his graduation. (UPDATE 5/1/2021: After reading this post, Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project put the words of a Langston Hughes poem from The Brownies’ book to music.)

Langston Hughes article, The Brownies' Book, December 1920.

The Brownies’ Book, December 1920

I also love “The Judge,” the monthly column where a wise elder (could it be Du Bois? (UPDATE 5/1/2021: no, it was Fauset)) teaches lessons to children in a nuanced and non-preachy way. I was sorry to see the Judge explaining to children why they shouldn’t have done the things that led to whippings, but happy to see him back in the next issue gently telling the parents that there are more effective ways to discipline children.

Particularly popular among readers were the stories of African-American role models like Frederick Douglas, surveyor and almanac writer Benjamin Banneker, and Katy Ferguson, a freed slave who founded the first Sunday school in New York.

Katy Ferguson, The Brownies' Book, June 1920

Katy Ferguson, The Brownies’ Book, June 1920

And then there were the covers. Unlike The Crisis, which frequently used well-known white illustrators as cover artists, The Brownies’ Book featured work by African-American illustrators, including many women.

Brownies' Book cover, March 1920.

Albert Smith

The Brownies' Book cover, May 1920, girls dancing around maypole.

Laura Wheeler

Brownies' Book cover, July 1920

Albert Smith

As ahead of its time as it was, The Brownies’ Book was of its time as well. There were some head-scratching features, such as the stories about babies who scored impressively on eugenics tests.*** I didn’t know quite what to make of the story of how Mississippi Senator Blanche Bruce saved his former owner from the poorhouse by intervening with the President to get him a shipyard job, and then, to save him from the humiliation of knowing he had been rescued by his former slave, asked Mississippi’s white senator to make the nomination in his place. (UPDATE 2/1/2021: The blogger at Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, who writes about the New York Times of 100 years ago, points out in the comments that Bruce’s owner was also his father. This sheds a fascinating new light on the story.)

Drawing of Senator Blanche Bruce, The Brownies' Book, March 1920.

The Brownies’ Book, March 1920

These are minor quibbles, though, about a magazine that, in the face of the uniform whiteness of children’s literature, gave African-American children stories about children who looked like them, and about adults whose achievements they could aspire to emulate.

The Brownies’ Book only lasted two years. The magazine wasn’t able to meet its circulation target, and the December 1921 issue was its last. As much as that breaks my heart, it seems like a small miracle that it existed at all.

I’ve only scratched the surface. For more, you can read the magazine here.


*I’d promise to return to The Brownies’ Book later but fear invoking the Promised Post Curse.

**I do have my doubts about whether Franklin was real. This and some other letters strike me as suspiciously on the nose in espousing the magazine’s beliefs. Others are unmistakably from real children.

***One baby was declared perfect except for a slightly imperfect left tonsil.

The doctor and the chorus girl: a heartbreaking tale of interracial love

Recently, during one of the twice-a-day power cuts we’ve been experiencing in South Africa, I was reading a printout of the September 1919 inaugural issue of Shadowland,

Cover of Shadowland, September 1919, person filming tree with flowers.

September 1919

the movie magazine I mentioned in my last post. There was an article about the “Fame and Fortune” contest that Motion Picture magazine, Shadowland’s sister publication, had been running to select a future movie star. Fifty thousand young women had sent in their photographs, and, after months of deliberation, the celebrity jury, which included Mary Pickford and Cecil de Mille, was about to make its decision. The Shadowland article profiled four of the finalists.

Shadowland, September 1919

For lack of anything better to do in the absence of electricity, I started Googling the contestants on my phone. Three of them went on to, at best, brief, lackluster acting careers. The fourth, Helen Lee Worthing, joined the Ziegfeld Follies, went into the movies, married a black doctor…


So began a week of obsessive research about Worthing and her husband, Eugene Nelson. The story of the early success and subsequent decline of these two talented people is one of the most fascinating, and one of the saddest, that I have come across during this project.

Helen Lee Worthing, Cosmopolitan, August 1922.

Helen Lee Worthing, Cosmopolitan, August 1922

Worthing was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Louisville, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Her tombstone and Wikipedia profile list her birthdate as January 31, 1905. Since this would mean that she was fourteen at the time of the Shadowland profile, which describes her driving around Louisville doing “errands of mercy” for the Red Cross, she seems—like many actresses before and since—to have shaved a few years off of her age. If the age listed in her Los Angeles Times obituary is correct, she was actually born in 1898 or 1899.

The contest judges ended up picking four winners, but Worthing wasn’t one of them.* She soon became a popular member of the Ziegfeld Follies, though, and often appeared in newspapers doing things that were considered newsworthy when done by chorus girls, like having a pet pig

Helen Lee Worthing with pet pig.

Seattle Star, April 20, 1921

and working out on an exercise bicycle.

Helen Lee Worthing on exercise bicycle, 1921.

Salem Capital-Journal, March 18, 1921

Worthing married a Wall Street businessman named Charles MacDonald in 1921. Or maybe they secretly married in 1917—like many aspects of Worthing’s life, details are blurry. They divorced in 1922. According to a syndicated article called “When a Husband is Jealous of His Wife’s Job” (or alternatively, “When a Wife is Jealous of Her Husband’s Job”), Worthing blamed the failure of her marriage on her career success.

“My business was my husband’s rival, all right,” she said, “for I made the mistake of earning more than he did. There were other things of course. Our working hours didn’t coincide for one thing and then neither of us was willing to give in to the other. But it all came back to my salary.”

Headline, When a Husand is Jealous of His Wife's Job, 1922.

South Bend News-Times, April 16, 1922

I couldn’t help sympathizing with MacDonald about the working hours issue:

“I go to work at quarter of twelve midnight and am not done until after two. Mr. MacDonald usually goes to bed about the time I am going to work. And I come in all thrilled and ready to make an evening of it, at 3 A.M., when he is getting his beauty sleep.”

The article also contains a troubling remark:

“He did not mind if I went to dinner with some other man or if a thousand cavaliers sent me violets…If, just once, he had blackened my eye, because I thought of some other man, I could have forgiven him everything. If he had loved me enough to be jealous—all would have been well. But not he.”

That is, if Worthing actually said this. I always take quotes in newspapers from this period with a grain of salt. The cavaliers with violets and the “but not he” sound particularly bogus. In any case, Worthing was later quoted as accusing MacDonald of giving her a black eye with his “big Irish fist.”

Photograph of Helen Lee Worthing with headline Loser in Bout Between Chorus Girls Takes Poison Tablets for Headaches.

Albuquerque Morning Journal, April 26, 1922

It was a month later that Worthing’s self-destructive behavior first made headlines. On April 20, newspapers—including the New York Times, which wasn’t as fascinated by the personal lives of chorus girls as other papers—reported that she had poisoned herself with bichloride of mercury. She claimed that she had meant to take aspirin, but her “friends” said they believed she had tried to take her life.

Headshot of Ziegfeld Follies chorus member Edna Wheaton.

Edna Wheaton, todocoleccion.net

A few weeks before, Worthing had had an altercation with fellow Follies chorus member Edna Wheaton, possibly about a boyfriend of Worthing’s named Jack. “They fought, kicking and scratching one another until separated,” a news report stated. “The fight cost her her position.” A Hearst newspaper ran a cartoon of the scuffle.

Headline, When I Married a Follies Girl Beauty, 1922

Washington Times, December 17, 1922

A young society man named Daniel Caswell, in a syndicated article he wrote following his own marriage to a chorus girl, expressed skepticism about Worthing’s suicide attempt:

Swallowing bichloride of mercury is considered the best [method of pretending to attempt suicide] by most of the chorus girls, for the reason that the poison can easily be pumped out of the stomach with little damage to their looks or their figures.

Ziegfeld Follies program, 1923

In 1925, Worthing’s appearance on Palm Beach with fellow showgirl Phoebe Lee caused a sensation. As a reporter recalled six years later, “When they came onto the beach the town gasped, telephone wires began buzzing, cameras started clicking, and the Misses Worthing and Lee walked into temporary fame.” What really got the crowds agitated, apparently, was the “weird contrast” between their attire—Worthing was wearing a “smart bathing suit of red silk” and Lee “a home-made bathing suit of calico somewhat resembling blue rompers.” Worthing and Lee had had to beg for a vacation, but, after this excellent publicity, managers started dispatching chorus girls to popular resorts to drum up business for their shows.

Cover of Broadway Brevities, 1925

There was one undesired piece of publicity that year: Worthing testified in the extortion trial of Gregory Clow, editor of the scandal sheet Broadway Brevities, that she had paid him $150 to kill a story. Clow was found guilty on several counts and sentenced to prison. Worthing was back in court in 1926, suing a perfume company for using her photographs without her permission.

John Barrymore and Helen Worthing in Don Juan, 1926.

On the whole, though, things were going well. Worthing acted in a half-dozen movies between 1924 and 1926, including Don Juan, in which she appeared with John Barrymore (along with a number of other women, of course). The New York Times said of her performance in The Swan, released in 1925, “Miss Worthing is capital in this part, very pretty and carefully gowned.” The Washington Star called her “very fair to look upon” in the 1926 movie Watch Your Wife.

Poster for 1926 movie Watch Your Wife.

Then, in 1927, she married Dr. Eugene Nelson.

Dr. Eugene Nelson at his office, 1929.

Dr. Eugene Nelson, New York World-Telegram and Sun, December 23, 1929

Nelson was born in South Carolina in 1888, attended college at Prairie View Normal and Industrial College near Houston, and graduated in 1911 from Meharry Medical School in Nashville, the first black medical school in the south. He moved to Los Angeles, which was considered one of the best places in the United States for African-Americans to live at the time (if only because their numbers were small and racism was primarily directed against Mexican-Americans), and opened a medical practice.

Headline, Dr. Eugene Curry Nelson

In October 1924, the leftist African-American magazine The Messenger ran a profile by its co-founder, Chandler Owen, titled “Dr. Eugene Curry Nelson: A Professional Business Man of a New Type Among Negroes.”

Chandler Owen, 1919.

Chandler Owen, 1919

While he was on his way to Los Angeles, Owen wrote, fellow train passengers kept telling him to look up Dr. Nelson. When he arrived in L.A., his host took him to the Humming Bird, a nightclub that turned out to be owned by Nelson.

An excellent orchestra was producing the sort of subdued syncopated music that fills one with the very joy of living. Chicago, New York and many other cities have beautiful places of amusement similar to the Humming Bird, but none better…It is the Fountain of Youth for the tired and jaded, the bored and melancholy.

Humming Bird, Los Angeles night club, The Messenger, 1924.

The Humming Bird, The Messenger, October 1924

A 1924 Los Angeles Record article on a raid on the Humming Bird, written by 16-year-old reporter George Hodel, describes the club differently: “The atmosphere is saturated by the odor of intoxicants. The spirit of the men and women inside is changing from tipsy fun to licentious debauchery.” The police swept in “while white women careened drunkenly in the Arms of Negro escorts.” The Humming Bird, officers tell Hodel, “has been a nightlife rendezvous, where whites dine, dance and drink with members of the city’s Negro colony.” It’s a place, Hodel reports, where “the wildest sorts of orgies are carried on nightly.”

Interior of the Humming Bird, Los Angeles nightclub, 1924.

The Humming Bird, The Messenger, October 1924

Hodel mentions in passing that this was the third raid on the Humming Bird in three nights, so it struck me that the attempts by the police to shut it down may have been less than sincere. I assume that after the broken bottles and the screaming there was a payoff in a back room before the festivities resumed. (Hodel, by the way,  went on to be the chief suspect in the notorious 1947 “Black Dahlia” killing. His story about the raid appears in a book by his son, retired LAPD detective Steve Hodel, who believes he was guilty.)

Owen gave a speech, which Nelson attended. A few days later, he joined Nelson and his wife, mother-in-law, and two daughters at their home.**

Photo montage of Eugene Nelson, his wife Angelita, and their house from The Messenger, 1924.

The Messenger, October 1924

We soon found ourselves seated at the table, which was artistically decorated for the evening repast. As we chatted I learned of his interest in literature, art, and science. He has a bent for poetry and fiction.

Nelson’s business interests weren’t confined to the Humming Bird. Among his other enterprises, he was the driving force behind a bank that financed black businesses and owned a share in an oil well. Owen—seeming to forget momentarily that he’s a socialist—waxes lyrical about the white American business giants whom Nelson, in his eyes, resembles.

Nelson is, Owen concludes,

a man of high character and intelligence—a great asset to any community. Some day when you go to Los Angeles, you will very likely hear the same complimentary remarks about the good doctor that it was my pleasure to hear. And, what is far more important, you will find them to be true!

Eugene Nelson and Helen Lee Worthing, 1929.

Nelson and Worthing, 1929

Most accounts of Nelson and Worthing’s relationship say that they met in April 1927, when he was called to treat her after she was assaulted by a stranger in her home. The Los Angeles Times said in its report on the incident, however, that Worthing had been “confined to her bed due to a nervous breakdown and was under the care of Dr. Eugene Nelson.” In a reminiscence that was published in Ebony magazine in 1952, after her death, Worthing wrote that they met when her maid called him after she fell ill following a party during the filming of The Swan, which was released in February 1925.*** Given that this was just a few months after the account in the Messenger of Nelson’s apparently happy domestic life, it may have suited Nelson and Worthing to give the impression that they met later.

Helen Lee Worthing

Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1927

Newspapers all over the country ran stories about the attack. Worthing said she had been awakened in her bedroom at 10:30 p.m. and gotten up to turn the light. She didn’t remember anything after that until her maid, May Roziner, found her unconscious, lying in a pool of blood with her nose broken and a tooth knocked out. Nothing was stolen. “Owing to its unusual character, [the incident] was not reported to the police,” the Los Angeles Times said. Roziner later claimed that she had seen a strange man lurking about the Worthing bungalow, which, the papers reported (helpfully to future intruders), was located at 6823 Iris Circle, Hollywood. There was a skeptical tone to some of the newspaper accounts, but no one pointed out that this was exactly the type of situation in which you would call the police or otherwise called Worthing’s bluff on this bogus-sounding story.

New York Times headline, Burglar Hits Actress.

New York Times, April 17, 1927

So what did happen? One possibility is that Worthing fell while intoxicated. The Los Angeles Times reported that “at a consultation of Dr. Nelson with other physicians…it was decided that her injuries could not have been due to a fall caused by a sudden lapse of consciousness, and that she must have been attacked,” suggesting that Nelson was trying to forestall rumors of a drunken fall.

There are holes in Worthing’s account of her first meeting with Nelson as well. There must have been dozens of doctors on call to treat ailing Hollywood residents. Calling a black doctor wasn’t something that was generally done—“it caused some comment that she should call a Negro physician,” an African-American news service later reported. So there had to be a particular reason why he was called. Like, for example, an unwanted pregnancy. This possibility makes sense given details of Nelson’s practice that later came to light.

Helen Lee Worthing and Eugene Nelson

Worthing and Nelson, date unknown, from San Francisco Examiner, June 2, 1935

However they met, they fell in love. This is one part of the story about which there seems to be no doubt.

Interracial marriage had been illegal in California since 1850 (and would remain so until 1948), so Nelson and Worthing were married in a civil ceremony in Tijuana on June 28, 1927, two months after the purported attack. The story was featured prominently in the African-American press.

Headline: Prominent Physician Weds White Movie Star

Pittsburgh Courier, July 30, 1929

“East is East and West is West and Never the Twain shall meet” may be true and good in everything but love and war,

the report in the July 30 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder began.

At least that is the opinion of Helen Lee Worthing, beautiful Hollywood film actress and former Follies girl, as she planned to cinch her recent civil marriage at Tia Juana, Mexico, June 28, to Dr. Eugene Nelson, prominent and wealthy colored physician, by repeating the marriage troth with a marriage ceremony to be performed this week at Mexico City, D.F.

Dr. Nelson, Beau Brummel of the local profession, financial backer of Culver City “black and tan” resorts and whose professional clients include a mixture of all nationalities and races with the Negro in the minority, seems not at all disturbed at the premature release in a Los Angeles daily, of the secret marriage and in a personal interview with a representative of the P.C.N.B. [an African-American wire service] as to the correctness of the report merely shrugged and replied: “Well they say I have done it. However the announcement came prematurely. We didn’t intend for the story to get out but I think a girl friend of her’s told it in New York and the story got out that way.”

The couple honeymooned blissfully in La Jolla. This carefree time didn’t last for long, though. When they returned home, Worthing wrote in the Ebony article, she saw an article headlined “Film Colony Shocked as Helen Lee Worthing Marries Colored Physician.”

One night, after Worthing and Nelson had moved into a luxurious home on Wilshire Boulevard, they attended a theater opening. They arrived in a limousine, she in a mink and he in a tuxedo. There were some comments about how lovely she looked, then jeers and derisive laughter as people noticed Nelson. During the intermission, Worthing saw a friend from the Follies, but “there was no recognition or friendliness in her eyes. I might have been a stranger to her.”

Worthing’s screen career ended and she disappeared from the papers until December 1929, when news of her separation from Nelson caused a sensation.

Headline, Lost Stage Beauty Separates from Negro Mate

Bismarck Tribune, December 19, 1929

As reported in the Los Angeles Examiner, via a December 19 article in the Bismarck Tribune,****

the mysterious disappearance two years ago of Helen Lee Worthing, former New York stage beauty, apparently has been solved with the revelation that she has separated from her husband, Dr. Eugene C. Nelson, a negro physician of Los Angeles who admitted that he was a ‘colored’ man but denied that he was an ‘African.’

Accused of dodging the questions of his race, Nelson said he did it to protect his wife.***** “I am what I am. It can’t hurt me much.” Race had nothing to do with the separation, he said. “It was simply that she was jealous. I believe she would like a reconciliation.”

An AP story said that Nelson and Worthing

lived for some time in Hollywood and later moved to the section in Los Angeles where persons of the colored race predominate. Miss Worthing gradually dropped all of her screen colony friends although, it was said, they had no idea that her husband was not a caucasian.******

So what was he, exactly? Inquiring minds wanted to know. The United Press reported that

asked if he was a negro, he said: “What is a negro? As I understand it a negro is African. I am not an African, I am an American. You might say I’m ‘colored.’”

This nuanced explication of racial terminology is, apparently, what the press meant when they kept saying that Nelson had “denied he was a Negro.”

Headline: Stage Beauty Back Home With Colored Hubby After 'Spat'

Bismarck Tribune, December 20. 1929

Just a day later, the papers reported that Nelson and Worthing had reconciled. “I hope no one feels badly about it,” Worthing was quoted as saying in a United Press report. “I love him too much to leave him. I know he has Negro blood, but he’s all the world to me.” The AP quoted her as saying, “To me he is not what the world would call a negro. He is not black in skin or black in heart. I believe he loves me better than anything in the world, and I know that I do him. No social barrier in the world can separate us.” Nelson was quoted in the UP story as saying, “We belong to different races, but we both are intelligent and our love surmounts any racial barriers.”

Headline "White woman, black mate happy again."

San Pedro News Pilot, December 21, 1929

On December 21, the AP reported that Worthing and Nelson were planning a second honeymoon in Palm Springs.

“Our troubles now are happily over,” Mrs. Nelson said as she rested in the “garden of love” of her home today. Dr. Nelson, debonair mustached professional man, whose skin is little darker than the olive complexion of a Spaniard, nodded agreement with his white wife’s words.

Helen Lee Worthing and Eugene Worthing over caption "Their Separation Denied," December 1929.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 29, 1930

This happy time didn’t last long. Over the next few years there were reports of separations, reconciliations, alimony disputes, and medical treatment for Worthing for fake-sounding conditions like “persistent insomnia.” Worthing filed, and dropped, several suits for divorce.  She accused Nelson of “physical pain and unspeakable humiliation,” including locking her out of their house while she was dressed in a negligee and giving her drugs to make her crazy. He accused her of infidelity, including with a 16-year-old boy, and of using her alimony payments to buy narcotics. A neighbor in the Glendale apartment house where Worthing was living said that she was suffering from hallucinations and had attempted suicide. A judge ruled that she was mentally ill and paroled her to Nelson’s care.

Helen Lee Worthing and Eugene Nelson in 1933, shortly after their annulment

Worthing and Nelson in 1933, after their annulment

During what turned out to be their final divorce proceeding, Nelson counter-filed for an annulment on the grounds that they had not met Mexican residency requirements when they married in Tijuana. Worthing fought back for a while and then, during a February 1933 hearing, burst out, “Let him have the annulment.” When her attorney tried to stop her, concerned about her alimony, she said, “I have confidence in the doctor.”

Headline Missing Ex-Actress Found, with photo of Helen Lee Worthing

Boston Globe, June 19, 1933

In June 1933, Worthing disappeared from a New York-bound train in Pasadena. Police, suspecting that she had jumped, searched the area around the tracks. She was found shortly afterwards in a Los Angeles hotel. She and Nelson had been discussing a reconciliation, she said, but he had changed his mind and put her on the train.

Margaret Fay Desmond

Margaret Fay Desmond, Bismarck Tribune, July 19, 1933

The rumored reason for Nelson’s change of heart: a romance with a white woman named Margaret Fay Desmond, whose husband was suing him for $100,000 for alienation of affections.******* The United Press reported that Nelson had used terms like “Dear heart,” “Fay, my love,” and “Honey love” in letters to Desmond, who was working as a stenographer in his office. (Desmond’s husband lost the suit.)

In April 1935, Worthing was arrested for public intoxication when police found her sitting on a curbstone, singing to herself. “Helen Worthing…singer now,” the Indianapolis Times said, meanly, in a caption under a picture of Worthing in her chorus girl days.

Helen Lee worthing with nurse after 1935 suicide attempt.

Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1935 (newspapers.com)

In September of that year, while living in a charity home, Worthing tried to commit suicide because, she said, the man she loved was marrying someone else. “With all my other troubles, this was more than I could stand,” she was quoted as saying. “But I don’t want any sympathy. I should have been stronger.”

In 1939, Worthing pleaded guilty to forging a narcotics prescription. During her probation hearing, the AP reported, four of her former “negro servants”—two maids, a cook, and a chauffeur—promised to contribute $15 a week to pay for her training as a “beauty culture instructor.”

Headline: Helen Lee Worthing, 49, Toasted as Beauty, Dies

Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1948

In August 1948, after many attempts to end her life, Worthing died of an overdose of sleeping pills. She had been living in the three-room Hollywood home of Jerry Oro, a 39-year-old man from the Philippines, who said that he had been her friend for ten years. Her tiny room, the AP reported, was full of “yellowed clippings depicting the rise, and quick fall, of the dancer.”

Scrawled on the leaf of a book found next to her bed, the Los Angeles Times reported, was a note saying, “I can’t stand another straw—it would be too much.”

Headline: Negro Doctor Held in Operation Death

San Pedro News Pilot, March 7, 1941

Nelson also met a sad end. In 1940, his medical license was revoked for the performance of an illegal operation, i.e. an abortion. He continued practicing, however, and the next year he was arrested for performing an abortion on a 25-year-old woman named Otilia (Tillie) Durazzo, who died after the procedure. Nelson was killed in a head-on collision in 1962, at the age of 74, while driving on a coastal highway north of San Diego. His tombstone says “husband,” so he was married at the time—to whom, I’m not sure.

What struck me most about Nelson was the aplomb he demonstrated through all this. After he married Worthing, journalists never asked about his professional accomplishments, or whether he and his wife had encountered racism. All they cared about was whether he was a “Negro” and whether he had lied about it. He fielded one ridiculous question after another with laconic good nature. “I am what I am. It can’t hurt me much,” he said.

Except, of course, it did.

I had mixed feelings about posting this sordid and depressing story during Black History Month, and on Valentine’s Day. But history isn’t just a parade of heroes. It’s also the story of flawed people and the social forces that acted on them.  Worthing and Nelson committed an exceptional act of courage in marrying, and they paid a high price.

And love is still love even if it’s not destined to stand the test of time. Let’s leave Worthing and Nelson on their honeymoon in La Jolla, where, Worthing wrote in the Ebony article,

our luxurious hotel suite looked out over the ocean and during the night I could hear the surf breaking on the rocks below. Once I remember thinking, dreamily—the restless waves are like my soul—yearning and seeking for peace. And now at last I have found it.


*None of the four finalists went on to stardom, either, but the contest became an annual feature and the winner in 1922 was 16-year-old Clara Bow.

Clara Bow, Motion Picture magazine, January 1922.

Motion Picture, January 1922

**Owen says that the Nelson family lived at 108 South Oxford Street. There doesn’t appear to be such an address in Los Angeles today. There’s a 108 South Oxford Avenue in the Wilshire Central neighborhood, but, as far as I can tell from my very limited knowledge of L.A. geography, it seems to be an unlikely residence for Nelson. Most African-Americans lived in the neighborhood now known as South Central, then referred to as the “Black Belt.” (My efforts to parse Los Angeles geography were greatly assisted by this amazing map.) (UPDATE 1/15/10: According to  this dissertation by Alison Rose Jefferson, which became the book Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, Nelson’s residence was in fact at 108 South Oxford Avenue and his medical practice was at one point in the West Adams district, not far from there.)

***I wasn’t able to access the Ebony article, so I’m relying on a description of Worthing’s account in the book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.

****For this post, I’ve made extensive use for the first time of the newspaper archive on the Library of Congress website. It doesn’t have most major newspapers (which tend to be hidden behind infuriating paywalls), but the newspapers in the collection relied extensively on wire service reports and articles from larger papers.

*****It’s not clear what “it” was. Given that Nelson was a leader in the black community and lived there for most of his life, the charge of “passing” seems ridiculous, even if you accept the flawed premise that his ethnic background was anyone’s business. My theory is that, during the short time he and Worthing lived in a white area, he didn’t go out of his way to tell everyone he met that he was African-American, and this was regarded as deceptive.

******These “friends” appear in news stories over and over, claiming that they had no idea that Worthing’s husband had “Negro blood” and expressing bewilderment about why she had “withdrawn” and moved to a black neighborhood. No journalist ever raised the possibility that her friends had withdrawn from her rather than vice versa.

*******Alienation of affections laws have since been repealed in California and most of the rest of the United States. However, I was surprised to learn that they remain in effect in six states. The Supreme Court has refused requests to review their constitutionality.

Harry Roseland illustration in Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned She stopped to listen to the riot of song.

The first African-American heroine in children’s literature

For Black History Month this year, I decided—knowing how few novels by or about African-Americans existed a hundred years ago—to look into whether there were any stories about black children.*

There was one, it turns out: Hazel, by Mary White Ovington, a white social activist. It was published in 1913 by the Crisis Publishing Company, which was associated with The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. (The first children’s book by an African-American writer was Mrs. A.E. Johnson’s 1890 Clarence and Corinne: Or God’s Way, but the characters aren’t identified as African-American.)

Photo portrait of Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910.

Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910

Ovington, who was born in 1865, was a socialist and a co-founder of the NAACP. Over her long career, she started a settlement in Brooklyn, studied employment and housing issues among African-Americans in Manhattan, campaigned for women’s suffrage, held several senior positions in the NAACP, and wrote numerous books on race and gender. Reading about Ovington convinced me that she was an admirable person, but it didn’t give me high hopes for Hazel. I figured the story would be worthy and right-minded but preachy and boring. The sole Goodreads review (2 stars) reinforced this preconception.

Advertisement in The Crisis for Hazel: The Story of a Little Colored Girl by Mary White Ovington, 1913.

Advertisement in The Crisis, November 1913

I was pleasantly surprised. Hazel has plenty to say about racism, but it’s also full of adventure and friendship and adversity and humor and all the things a children’s book should have.

Hazel isn’t your typical early-20th-century African-American girl. For the first decade of her life she lives in middle-class comfort in Jamaica Plain in Boston, the beloved only child of a lawyer and his wife. She goes to the Congregational church and attends an integrated school, where, Ovington tells us, she and the other black students are “staunch little New Englanders, with the same speech, the same dress, the same ambitions as their white classmates.” And check out Hazel’s picture in the ad, which also appears as the frontispiece in the book—she looks like a black person drawn by a white person who has never seen a black person.**

Then Hazel’s father dies and she and her mother move to an apartment in a poor neighborhood in the South End, where her mother works a hairdresser and laundress. When the story starts, Hazel has been experiencing health problems and her mother decides to send her to spend the winter with her husband’s mother in Alabama.***

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, subtitled Granny.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

The trip is an eye-opener for Hazel, who has never experienced racism. To travel in the same train car as her white escort, eleven-year-old Hazel has to pretend to be her maid. Once she arrives in Alabama, a pair of white sisters her grandmother, Ellen, does laundry for don’t know what to make of her, with her well-spoken ways and fancy wardrobe. They pepper her with questions:

“Is your pa living?”
“What does your ma do?”
“How is she buying you such clothes?”
“How long have you been to school?”
“Are you reckoning to stay here this winter?”
“Are you working for Aunt Ellen?”

After they leave, Hazel complains that, if her mother went to visit these ladies, she “wouldn’t ask about every teenty thing they did.”**** Her grandmother tells her not to worry about it:

“These people here are just naturally curious, sugar. Don’t you get put out at ’em…Nothing much happens except the hoeing of the corn and the picking of the cotton; and when a little girl with soft eyes and a pretty dress and sweet ways comes among us, we’s just naturally curious. We wants to see her and learn all about it.”

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned She still picked her cotton in the autumn...

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

Later in the story, Hazel gets lost and, with night falling, stops at a house to ask directions. The occupants turn out to be the same two ladies. “Sister,” one of them calls to the other, “here’s Aunt Ellen’s child come to ask her way, and if the little [racial slur] didn’t knock at the front door!” But they invite Hazel in, marveling at her elegant little blue coat with a red lining. They ask her how much it cost, and Hazel says it was a gift from a friend of her father’s. The women tut with sympathy over her father’s death, saying that he was a “right nice boy.” When Hazel mentions that he was a lawyer, they say, “A [n-word] lawyer! That beats all.” They feed her coffee and biscuits and Hazel talks about life back in Boston. She’s planning to go to college, she says.

“What will you do with all your learning?” Miss Jane asked.

“I’ll teach.”


Hazel did not want to answer, but sitting very erect, with a precision that would have done any teacher credit, she replied: “Everybody goes to school in Boston, every single child. And the teachers don’t ask whether they are black or white, or rich or poor. There are Turks, and Arabians, and (switching to the map of Europe as safer ground) Hungarians and Bulgarians, and Norwegians, and Swedians, (doubtfully) and Greeks, and Spaniards, and Romans, and Germans and Irish.”*****

“You don’t say!” exclaimed Miss Laura, “all those heathen!”  

Then Hazel, responding to another in the volley of questions, replies, “No, Miss Fairmount,” and is told,

“My name is Jane. You should call me Miss Jane.”

“Not Miss Fairmount?”

“Certainly not. It is impertinent in a [n-word].”

Hazel, who has had enough by now, says she has to go, and the ladies stroke her coat, tell her to come again, and escort her out the back door, where their servant is waiting to walk her home.

I had expected that Hazel would encounter 1910s Alabama racism at its most vile. After all, she had been warned by her friend Charity in Boston that “there’s two kinds of white folks down there: those that hates you and those that calls you ‘a cute little [n-word].'” This is as bad as the white people around her get, though. Her experiences with her black neighbors are more traumatic. The little Boston Congregationalist freaks out the first time she attends the local church, where the preacher, after a cursory description of heaven, depicts his parishioners

standing in the lake of fire and brimstone, burning, burning, not for a day but forever and ever. The flames seemed to leap up as the minister shouted: “And the devil will reach out for you, ye generation of vipers, he’ll reach for you across the flames, and he’ll catch you and draw you into the burning lake.”

“Lord save us!” “Please have mercy, Jesus,” came from the moaning crowd.

Hazel was aghast.

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned Scipio Lee. African-American boy in a field.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

With her grandmother caught up in the service, Hazel tells her friend Scipio that she wants to leave. He takes her hand and leads her out, as the preacher shouts, “The heathen are burning, and every day the devil pours on fresh oil and the flames mount higher and higher to the sky.” (WARNING: THE UPCOMING EXCERPT INCLUDES DISTURBING MATERIAL.)

“Scip,” said Hazel with a quick breath, “do you believe in hell?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Scipio.

“You don’t believe what he is saying? You don’t believe God will put us in fire to burn forever and ever?”

“I seen a lynching once,” Scipio replied. “It were just like that, they poured on oil.”

“Oh, don’t,” Hazel gasped. She seized his arm with her two hands; “don’t” she cried.

After a moment she whispered, “But it didn’t last forever. He died?”

“Yes, ma’am. He died.”

“And wicked men burned him, and it was only for a few minutes. God wouldn’t make him burn forever and ever.”******

Scipio is the antithesis of Hazel, the illiterate son of a drunken sharecropper. Hazel, who doesn’t go to school in Alabama, takes him up as her project, meeting him in a pine grove every evening for reading lessons. Often, he is often battered and bleeding from his father’s beatings. One day, Hazel sees him beating his younger brother and breaks off their friendship, but eventually all is forgiven.

In the end, Hazel returns to Boston, promising to return. As she and her mother head up to spend the summer in Maine, where there is money to be made shampooing white people’s hair, she receives a letter from Scip:

Dear Sister:
Aunt Ellen has took me in.
I am going to help her pick cotton when it ripes.
The cat is playing by the fire.
Scipio Lee

Handbill for Zeke by Mary White Ovington, 1931

Handbill for “Zeke,” 1931

In 1931, Mary White Ovington published another children’s book, called Zeke. It’s about a boy—Scipio’s younger brother, apparently, but not the one he beat up—who, with the encouragement of the adult Hazel, becomes the first African-American in his area to attend college. I guess I’ll have to wait another twelve years to see what happens.

Hazel might be considered more historically significant today if its author had been black, or if its heroine had been less privileged. Still, it deserves to be better known. I’m glad I read it. Much more than that, I’m glad it was there for African-American children to read in 1913.

*There’s the notorious Story of Little Black Sambo, of course, but that book’s history turns out to be complicated. Author Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman who lived in India, intended Sambo to be Indian (hence the tigers). Here’s how he appeared on the cover of the original 1899 edition, which Bannerman illustrated.

Cover of The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, 1900. Cartoon of dark-skinned boy with umbrella.

Cover illustration, “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” Helen Bannerman, 1899

It was only much later, notably in a 1927 American edition with illustrations by Frank Dobias (also used decades later in a wildly popular Japanese edition), that Sambo was depicted as African. The illustrations remain under copyright, but if you’re curious you can see some of them here.

**Which, to be fair, wasn’t the case at all. Illustrator Harry Roseland was a well-known artist who specialized in paintings of poor African-Americans.

***Going on a long, arduous journey being the universal solution to serious health problems in the 1910s.

****“Teenty” is my new favorite 1910s word. Here it is in a poem called “When Baby Slept,” by Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley, best known for “Little Orphant Annie.” (Date unknown, but he died in 1916.)

WHEN weenty-teenty Baby slept,
With voices stilled we lightly stepped
And knelt beside the rug where she
Had fallen in sleep all wearily;
And when a dimpled hand would stir,
We breathlessly bent over her
And kissed the truant strands that swept
The tranc’d lids and the dreams that kept
When Baby blinked her Court and slept.

 *****This might be a teenty bit idealized. I went to college in the Boston area in the 1980s, and the educational system there wasn’t exactly a post-racial utopia.

******UPDATE 3/2/2019: Reading the post over, I realize that I didn’t address this aspect of the book sufficiently. While historically accurate, the lynching reference is too intense for a child of Hazel’s age, and for that reason I wouldn’t recommend Hazel (or this part of the book, at least) for a middle-school child of today. I’ve added the warning in the text of the blog to alert readers to the sensitive content.

On W.E.B. Du Bois’ 150th birthday, a look back at his “Jubilee”

The February 1918 issue of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, headlined EDITOR’S JUBILEE NUMBER, starts with this note: “The Editor of the CRISIS will celebrate his fiftieth birthday on the twenty-third of February, 1918. He would be glad on this occasion to have a word from each of his friends.” The editor was W.E.B. Du Bois, born 150 years ago today.

Top of title page of The Crisis, February 1918, Editor's Jubilee Number.

The Crisis, February 1918

The issue includes an autobiographical essay by Du Bois called “The Shadow of Years.” He tells of his ancestry:

a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, and thank God! No “Anglo-Saxon”

—his childhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, playing comfortably with his white friends and largely unaware of the country’s vast racial divide:

I think I probably surprised my hosts more than they me, for I was easily at home and perfectly happy and they looked to me just like ordinary people, while my brown face and frizzled hair must have seemed strange to them

Three photographs of African-American women in The Crisis magazine, 1918.

The Crisis, February 1918

—encountering other African-Americans in large numbers for the first time at Fisk College in Tennessee:

Lo! My people came dancing about me—riotous in color, gay in laughter, full of sympathy, need, and pleading; unbelievably beautiful girls—“colored” girls—sat beside me and actually talked to me while I gazed in tongue-tied silence

—and the “Days of Disillusionment” that fueled his desire to work for the upliftment of his people:

I began to realize how much of what I had called Will and Ability was sheer luck. Suppose my good mother had preferred a steady income from my child labor, rather than bank on the precarious dividend of my higher training?…Suppose Principal Hosmer had been born with no faith in “darkeys,” and instead of giving me Greek and Latin had taught me carpentry and the making of tin pans?

The Souls of Black Folk, title page, second edition, 1903.

Second edition, 1903

If you want to learn more about the human side of this towering (and sometimes intimidating) thinker, you can find the “The Shadow of Years” here. Or you can read “Of the Meaning of Progress,” the essay in Du Bois’ 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk about his days as a young teacher in a rural Tennessee community. (I’ve been listening to the audiobook, wonderfully narrated by Rodney Gardiner.)

In “The Shadow of Years,” Du Bois presents himself as an old man. “The most disquieting sign of my mounting years is a certain garrulity about myself, quite foreign to my young days,” he begins. He ends the essay as follows:

Last year, I looked death in the face and found its lineaments not unkind. But it was not my time. Yet, in nature sometime soon and in the fullness of days, I shall die; quietly, I trust, with my face turned South and Eastward; and dreaming or dreamless, I shall, I am sure, enjoy death as I have enjoyed life.

But Du Bois lived almost long enough to celebrate another Jubilee, dying in Ghana in 1963 at the age of ninety-five.

As for his request in The Crisis for a word from each of his friends, I’ll just say this, from the distance of a hundred years:

Thank you.

(You can read more about The Crisis here and here.)