Vivian Harsh Research Collection
of Afro-American History and Literature
Collection Number: Ben Burns 1981/01
Provenance: Donation of Ben Burns (1981, 1983, 1990s/1995) See “Note on the Provenance” below.
Size: 46 archival boxes
Repository: Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature Carter G. Woodson Regional Library (Chicago Public Library) 9525 South Halsted Street Chicago, Illinois 60628
Access: No restrictions
Citation: When quoting material from this collection, the preferred citation is: Ben Burns Papers, [Box #, Folder #], Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library
Processed by: Allyson Hobbs, September 2006
Note on the Provenance
The Ben Burns Collection consists of two parts. Part I was donated in 1981 and includes reference files and the personal library of Ben Burns. Part I was processed by Deborah Holton in 1988. Approximately 135 linear feet, Part I includes materials dating from 1950 to 1979.
This finding aid captures the materials in Part II of the collection. Burns donated these materials throughout the 1990s; most of the materials were donated in April and May of 1995. The materials in Part II of the collection date from 1939 to 1999.
Ben Burns had a long and distinguished career as “a white editor in black journalism.” He helped found Ebony and a number of other black publications and he trained many black writers in all aspects of print journalism. After working for black publications for thirty-five years, Burns referred to himself as “a black newspaperman, black in my orientation and thinking, in my concerns and outlook, in my friends and associations, black in everything but my skin color.” Burns summarized the influence that his experiences at black publications had on him: “I am a white man who has been passing for Negro for thirty-five years.”
Born Benjamin Bernstein on August 25, 1913 to Alexander, a housepainter, and Frieda Burns, Burns grew up on New York’s West Side. Burns attended New York University and received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in 1934. He married Esther Stern on November 28, 1937 and they had three children, Barbara, Richard and Stephen.
Burns was the national editor of the Chicago Defender from 1941 - 1945, the editor of Negro Digest from 1942 - 1954, and the executive editor of Ebony from 1945 - 1954, Jet from 1950 – 1954, Sepia from 1955 - 1958and Guns magazine from 1956 - 1958. He was later the vice president of a public relations firm, Cooper, Burns and Golin, from 1958 – 1966. He returned to journalism as the editor of the Chicago Daily Defender from 1966 - 1967 and the editor of Sepia from 1968 - 1977.
Burns’ membership in the Young Communist League after his college years limited his employment opportunities in the world of journalism. As Burns explained, “I think I must be the only journalist who ever worked not just on the Daily Worker, but all three of the country’s communist newspapers. With credentials like that, I knew it wouldn’t do much good to apply to The Wall Street Journal.” When the Burns were expecting their first child and the left-wing publication that Burns was working for in San Francisco folded, the couple returned to Chicago and Burns accepted a job painting houses with his father. Burns was hired at the Chicago Defender as a temporary editor when the newspaper needed extra writers to publish the legendary “Victory Through Unity” edition in September 1942. From that first assignment, Burns studied the black community “almost like a sociologist, filling thousands of file folders with tidbits of information about who-was-who in Chicago’s Bronzeville and what organizations made the South Side neighborhood tick.” These files comprise the majority of this collection.
Before Burns got the job working at the Defender, he worked in public relations for Earl Dickerson, a local black politician who was running for Congress against William Dawson in 1942. It was at this time that Burns met John H. Johnson. Johnson was a young political assistant who wanted to create a black equivalent of Life magazine. While Johnson raised money to fund the magazine, Burns worked on assembling the fledgling publication. The first issue was assembled on the Burns’ kitchen table in their apartment on Jackson Boulevard in Chicago. In 1954, Burns was fired from Ebony. During the late 1960s, Burns continued his career in black journalism as the editor of a rival publication, Sepia.
From 1968 to his retirement from journalism in 1977, Burns was the editor of Sepia. Beginning in 1977, the Burns traveled extensively and co-wrote a number of travel articles, including one describing their travels to the slave castles of Ghana, for the Sun-Times and other publications.
In 1996, Burns published his autobiography, Nitty Gritty: A White Editor in Black Journalism, with the University Press of Mississippi. In 1997, Burns was named to the Hall of Achievement of his alma mater, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Burns died of heart failure at the age of 86 on January 29, 2000 in Atlantis, Florida.
Scope and Content Note
The Ben Burns Collection includes a wide range of materials that reflect Burns’ career in journalism as well as his personal interests and pursuits. The collection consists of correspondence, photographs, manuscripts and over one thousand clippings. The collection has been arranged into the following six series: Correspondence, Manuscripts, Subject Research Files, Photographs, Audio-Visual/Oversize and Black Magazines and Various Publications.
The Vivian G. Harsh Collection at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library holds the entirety of the Ben Burns Collection. Burns considered donating part of his collection to Northwestern University (his alma mater) but decided that the Harsh, given its location “in the heart of the black community,” was a more appropriate repository.
Series I. Correspondence, 1938 - 1999
The Correspondence series consists of four subseries: The Chicago Defender Years, The Ebony Years, Sepia Business Correspondence, Nitty Gritty Correspondence and Personal Correspondence.
Subseries A. The Chicago Defender Years, 1941 – 1980
Burns began his career in journalism working at the Chicago Defender, where he was national editor from 1941 – 1945. This subseries includes an announcement of Burns as the new editor-in-chief of the Defender, correspondence between Burns and John Sengstacke regarding the remaking of the Defender and a number of letters from readers. Burns’ dispatches to Metz Lochard from the World Federation of Trade Unions Conference in Paris in 1945 are also included. These dispatches contain discussions of the conditions in South Africa and the difficulties that black workers faced in organizing unions. Photographs, business cards and the names and addresses of black delegates at the conference are also included.
Subseries B. The Ebony Years, 1938 – 1995
Burns was the executive editor of Ebony from 1945-1954. This subseries includes business correspondence, articles about Ebony and a review of Era Bell Thompson’s autobiography. Coverage of the disagreement about who prevented Richard Wright’s article, “I Choose Exile,” from being published in Ebony as well as other correspondence with Richard Wright regarding a production of Black Boy is contained in this subseries.
Subseries C. Sepia Business Correspondence, 1955 - 1977
In addition to issues such as disputes over payment, gentle reminders about overdue articles and discussions of the difficulties in finding skilled photographers, these files include a number of letters that express Burns’ editorial style and vision for Sepia. Some letters discuss Burns’ concerns about the ability of white journalists to write effectively for sophisticated black audiences. Rationales for the acceptance and rejection of articles are included as well as discussions of possible article ideas.
Subseries D. Nitty Gritty Correspondence, 1994 - 1996
This subseries includes correspondence between Burns and Seetha Srinivasan, Associate Director and Editor-in-Chief at the University Press of Mississippi. This correspondence tracks Burns’ disappointment in the “slashing and revising” done by the Press and his accusations that the copy editor, Roy Grisham, was especially “heavy-handed” during the editing process due to his southern background and his discomfort with the racial issues raised by Nitty Gritty. Discussions about graphic designs, photographs for the book cover and Burns’ changes to the manuscript are also included.
Subseries E. Personal Correspondence and Family Materials
This subseries contains personal correspondence and family materials including Burns’ daughter’s first or second grade composition and letters from elementary school students expressing their disbelief and interest in a white man who works for black publications. Copies of the Northwestern Observer and the Medillian are also included.
Series II: Manuscripts, 1955 - 1996
This series includes Burns’ autobiography, Nitty Gritty: A White Editor in Black Journalism, “Last Word” columns published in Sepia and an unpublished travel essay, “An African Diary.”
Series III: Subject Research Files, 1939 - 1999
This series consists of over one thousand clippings, reports and essays. This series is divided into five subseries that reflect the major subjects that interested Burns:
Subseries A: “Reaching the Negro Market”/African American Consumerism
This subseries includes lectures, pamphlets and reports published by Johnson Publishing Company as well as newspaper clippings and articles.
Subseries B: Interracial Marriage and Multiracial Identity
The articles in this subseries include discussions of census reports of the increase in interracial marriage (in the 1960s and 1970s), the Loving v. Virginia decision (1967), representations of interracial couples on soap operas, and the existence of historically mixed-race communities such as the “Jackson Whites” of Ramapo, New Jersey and the “Melungeons” of the Tennessee hill country. These clippings also discuss famous interracial couples including Margaret Rusk (Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s daughter) and Guy Smith.
Subseries C: Dawson/Dickerson Materials, 1938 - 1970
Burns worked on Earl Dickerson’s campaign when he ran for Congress against William Dawson in 1942. The materials in this subseries include copies of the publication, Voice of the First Congressional District, letters rallying support for Dickerson, Dickerson vs. Dawson flyers and other campaign materials as well as numerous articles from the Sun-Times and the Tribune on Dawson. Subseries D: Travel Ben and Esther Burns traveled extensively throughout their lives. This subseries contains travel documents related to their trips around the world as well as travel-related articles and clippings. Subseries E. Various Topics This subseries contains numerous clippings that reflect the wide variety of topics that interested Burns, including: affirmative action, anti-Semitism, assimilation, black English, black politics, Communism, Jews, prejudice, segregation, sex and white supremacy and word origins.
Series IV: Photographs, 1947 – 1970s
The collection contains 427 photographs. Highlights in this series include Esther and Ben Burns’ trips to Haiti in 1948 and to Europe in 1950 with John and Eunice Johnson. The couples hired renown photographer Gordon Parks to accompany them and to document their trip to Haiti. This series also includes photographs taken at Ebony magazine and include pictures of Burns with Josephine Baker.
Series V. Audio Visual/Oversize
This series consists of Burns’ collection of over one hundred records. Burns borrowed some of these records from famous people including Horace Cayton. Cassette tapes and video footage from the Burns’ and Johnsons’ vacations (“Ben Burns Europe Master 23 min,” “Burns Haiti Master 27 min,” “John H. Johnson & Ben Burns in Europe Spring 1950”) are also included in this series.
Series VI. Black Publications, Various Magazines and Newspapers
This series contains Ben Burns’ collection of publications that reflected his interests and includes magazines such as MsTique, Duke and CommonQuest as well as newspapers such as The Black Panther and the Daily Californian.