Chester Commodore Papers, 1914-2004
36 linear feet (70 boxes)
|Provenance:||Papers of Chester Commodore, African-American cartoon artist and Chicago Defender cartoon editor, were donated to the Harsh Collection by Lorin Nails-Smooté, step-daughter of Chester Commodore, and other family members, July 2007.|
|Size:||36 linear feet (70 boxes)|
|Repository:||Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library (Chicago Public Library), 9525 S. Halsted Street, Chicago, Illinois 60628|
|Access to Collection||The materials in this collection are not restricted.|
|Citation:||When quoting material from this collection, the preferred citation is: Chester Commodore Papers, [Box #, Folder #], Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library|
|Processed by:||Beverly Cook, Assistant Curator; Jeanie Child, intern|
Nearly all the materials in this collection were created or collected by Chester Commodore as he carried out his work and family life. A few items were added by Lorin Nails-Smooté after Commodore's death (i.e., obituary information, materials relating to a Commodore biography). Also added were few original cartoons accessioned in other archival collections held at the Chicago Public Library. During processing of this collection, copies of published Commodore cartoons whose originals are no longer available (primarily 1948-1968) were produced from digital images and added to the papers at the request of the donor.
Chester Commodore was one of the most influential and acclaimed African-American cartoonists of the twentieth century. During the nearly 50 years his cartoons appeared in the Chicago Defender, Commodore used his art to advocate for racial justice, human rights, and equality of opportunity. From the 1954 appearance of his world-famous first editorial cartoon (on the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education, featuring a hammer breaking chains); his work reached an international audience. More than that, his widely-seen cartoons helped to bridge the gulf between the two "parallel universes" representing the separate worlds of Blacks and Whites in the twentieth century. Through his realistic and non-stereotyped depiction of human subjects, Commodore helped to end the "eight-ball" caricature that white cartoonists had used to depict African-Americans.
Chester Commodore was born in Racine, Wisconsin, on August 22, 1914, to Pascal and Elizabeth (Bessie Fite) Commodore, along with five siblings-- Aletha (a half-sister), Blanche, Josephine, Louis, and Ruth. His parents and sisters moved to Chicago in 1923, but Chester and his older brother, Louis stayed with his maternal grandmother, Della Fite, in her Racine boarding house. His earliest memories centered on his love of drawing, and he was encouraged by John Prophet, who boarded at the house. In Grandmother Fite's music room Commodore mingled with notable African-American musicians, artists, and other cultured travelers who were denied accommodation in white-owned establishments in Chicago and Milwaukee. Always the boy observed and watched the living panorama he would later reproduce so effectively.
In 1927 Commodore joined his family in Chicago. He enrolled in Tilden Technical High School with the intention of studying drawing but instead found most art classes already filled. He needed no permission to practice drawing whenever he could, but he found few buyers for his work. Frustrated, he took his portfolio to Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender--but Abbott sternly told him to finish his schooling first. Commodore didn’t finish high school. He sought work, and wound up in jobs as a car washer, chauffeur and truck driver, in Chicago and in Minneapolis. Returning to Chicago in 1940, Commodore was hired the next year by the famed Pullman Company. He began as a Pullman railroad car cleaner, but was soon promoted to maintenance mechanic for cars on the New York Central line.
Commodore was still working at Pullman when he got a call from Charles Browning, a Defender editor, offering Commodore a job for advertising layout work. The paper desperately needed staff, as it sought alternative production methods during the 1948 printers strike. Browning had been a schoolmate of Commodore’s sister Ruth, and knew about his artistic abilities. He was hired on August 1, 1948, and rapidly advanced to photo layouts, story illustrations, and then to cartoons. On October 30, the Defender published the first humor or “gag” cartoon by proud new employee Chester Commodore.
In 1948 the Defender challenged its readership to provide a title for a "nameless" comic strip drawn by Commodore. After a five month contest, Commodore’s inaugural strip was named "The Sparks." Commodore took over cartoonist Jay Jackson's strip "Bungleton Green" in the early 1950s. He also contributed substantial stints drawing the cartoon features "The Ravings of Professor Doodle" and "So What?" while simultaneously providing art copy for the advertising department.
Jay Jackson died weeks before the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Commodore was thrust into the position of Defender editorial cartoonist. His opening effort became the universal iconic depiction of the U.S. Supreme Court's hammer smashing the chains of separate and unequal education. Commodore worked prodigiously as editorial cartoonist for the next three decades, with just a brief hiatus away from the Defender in the 1960s. During one period he was responsible for producing no less than seven cartoons or strips at the same time. Many of the editorial cartoons he created during this period impacted public opinion with their sharp depictions of lynching, denial of suffrage, and other injustices to African-Americans. Other publications began to reprint Commodore’s cartoons on their op-ed pages, and he joined the wider community of political cartoonists.
After the 1968 assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commodore turned a more penetrating eye and a wider scope on life in the African-American community. His canvas expanded to broader social problems created by injustice--poverty, false democracy, denial of government services. Commodore especially decried Black-on-Black crime as feeding upon the injustices meted out to the community. His clear eye could thus portray the complex effects of policy wheel operations upon community life. He focused upon those often ignored by other media: during a bull market period in the 1950s, for example, he chose to depict the hardships endured by striking steel workers who had not enjoyed stock market benefits. It was not at all easy for Commodore. He suffered greatly from assignments that required him to illustrate sensationally heinous crimes.
In 1974 the Defender launched its weekly arts supplement, "Accent." Each "Accent" cover featured a full-page Chester Commodore caricature of a current local or national celebrity—an artist, producer, writer, or other famed professional. The series continued for over five years. Many of Commodore's famous subjects requested and received their original Commodore caricature drawing as a memento.
Commodore's work brought him numerous awards: the National Newspaper Publishers Association's Best Cartoon Award in 1972 and in six years that followed; Cartoonist Profiles' Best Editorial Cartoon; and numerous awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. Meanwhile he received the National Conference of Christians and Jews' Brotherhood award in 1976; the Lu Palmer Foundation award (1980); and a Golden Medallion Award from the Pulitzer Prize Committee. But despite twelve Pulitzer nominations, Chester Commodore was never awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work. Commodore cartoons appeared in several exhibits, including the Chicago Public Library (1971), the Turbeville cartoon exhibit (1974); the Chicago Police Department (1977); the Colorado Pioneers Museum, and the Chicago City Bank & Trust (1978 and 1981).
It was Chester Commodore's great strength that he could integrate his enormous artistic output with his central role in a large family to create a seamlessly full life. He wholeheartedly joined the Defender staff "family" and remained close to co-workers for the rest of his life. He also participated in the larger journalistic community as one of its few African-American representatives. Chester Commodore married three times, first in the 1930s to Marie (Ruby) Bazel. The two sons born to this union, Chesterfield Jr. ("Butch") and Phillip Joseph ("Flip"), remained close to him during their adult lives. At the Defender Commodore met his third wife, Mattye Marcia Buchanan Hutchins Nails. They were married in 1955 and remained extremely devoted until her death in 1990. He called Marcia his inspiration and became a dedicated stepfather to her daughter Lorin as well as to her son William Hutchins. Commodore’s papers show his close ties to both the Commodore and Buchanan extended families. He shared his humor, guidance, artistic gifts, and material wealth with his stepchildren, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. His stepdaughter recalled seeing him create the next day's cartoons at his dining room table--able to focus efficiently yet fully participate in current family endeavors.
Always creative, Commodore in retirement had more time to indulge his hobby of model train building by producing detailed replicas of early steam trains from found objects such as coffee cans. He also built scale replicas of historic buildings and expertly carved wood into exquisite miniatures. Chasing his dream of flying, he attended Chicago's Coffey School in the 1930s and piloted a number of aircraft until 1957 when his wife discovered he did not fly with a parachute. The physically fit Commodore also learned speed skating while a young man.
Chester Commodore consistently looked out for "the little guy" (his own words) who had no other spokesperson. Accordingly, he often donated his work to special causes, such as the Neediest Children's Christmas Fund (1970s), and he visited local grammar schools, high schools and colleges to speak with the students and offer guidance. Entries in the Girl Scouts' annual city art contest received Commodore's expert evaluation.
By 1980 the U.S. political landscape turned markedly more conservative, and Commodore's efforts to improve the world through his art had engendered symptoms of burnout. He decided to retire from the Defender and moved with Marcia to Colorado Springs, Colorado. While he quickly made a place for himself in this new community he was eventually enticed back to working for the Defender in 1992. From Colorado Springs he sent the Defender at least one cartoon per week for the next 12 years. Chester Commodore continued creating these cartoons until a few days before his death on April 10, 2004.
More information about Chester Commodore and the Chicago Defender during the Commodore years can be found in the following archival collections held at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature:
- Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers
- Barbara Allen Papers
- Ben Burns Papers
- Charles A. Davis Papers
- Tim Jackson Papers
- Marjorie Stewart Joyner Papers
Scope and Content Note
The Chester Commodore Papers include his personal correspondence, photographs, original cartoon drawings, cartoon photocopies, newsclippings of Commodore cartoons, other clippings, and varied memorabilia. These materials (1914-2004) pertain to Commodore's nearly fifty years at the Chicago Defender newspaper, most of that time having been spent as editorial cartoonist. They also reflect his relationship to his colleagues at the Defender, to members of other local and national media, and to his extended family.
The papers were in Commodore's possession at the time of his death, and became the property of Lorin Nails-Smooté as his literary executor. They were received by the Harsh Research Collection in a state of little intrinsic order. The papers have been arranged into seven series: Correspondence, Photographs, Original Cartoons, Cartoon Copies, Cartoon Newsclippings, Memorabilia, and Biographical material. A few items dating from Commodore's death or later include materials for his funeral, historical U.S. census data, and other records providing historical context that were obtained during the preparation of an exhibit in 2007.
Correspondence (1939-2004) falls into personal, business and social greeting categories, intermingled. Chester Commodore's personal correspondence includes many letters from national and local media notables, politicians, and other cartoonists, or correspondence inviting him to participate in an exhibit, TV program, or other event. Accompanying publicity material or newsclippings are included with attached correspondence. Interfiled with these types of professional correspondence are letters from family members and friends, some of whom were Commodore's colleagues, especially in materials dating from 1939 to 1968. Few copies of correspondence sent by Commodore are included; it appears that he rarely made copies of his letters. The correspondence series is arranged chronologically, within general categories of correspondence and greeting cards. Greeting cards saved by his wife Marcia, with little or no written message, have been foldered separately in chronological order. Included here are a few cards hand made by Chester Commodore, mostly for Marcia.
The Correspondence series includes communications from Commodore's colleagues at the Defender, such as Charles Browning, Dr. Metz Lochard, Ethel Payne, Lu Palmer, and letters from other cartoonists, including John Fischetti and Dick Locher. Both President Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover thanked him for cartoons in which they were featured. Letters and notes are found from other notables from the African-American community including Harold Washington, Dempsey Travis, A.A. (“Sammy”) Rayner, and Cecil Partee.
Photographs (1915-1994) are arranged chronologically, and are mainly of family members but also include artwork and community events. Current family members have identified as many of the photographs as possible, but some remain unidentified.
Original Cartoons (1948 to 2004) have been subdivided into Chicago Defender "Accent" caricatures and Chicago Defender cartoons, mostly editorial. The "Accent" caricatures (1974-1979) were finished in ink [with black/white wash]. Many of the originals were presented as gifts to their famous subjects and therefore are not part of the collection. Unfortunately Commodore destroyed much of his pre-1969 original cartoon work before he moved to Colorado in 1981. The bulk of the original editorial cartoons date from 1970 to 1981 and from 1991 to 2004. They are arranged chronologically by year, then alphabetically by caption.
The Cartoon Photocopies series consists of copies of original cartoons, made by Commodore. Harsh Collection staff added photocopies made from the Proquest serials database reproducing Commodore cartoons that appeared in the Defender for the years 1948-1968, arranged chronologically. All other cartoon photocopies (1950s-2000s) are stored in chronological order.
News clippings (1950s -2004) include thousands of Commodore's published cartoons clipped by his wife, Marcia, from both the Chicago Defender and also from approximately thirty other publications. They are stored by publication (Chicago Defender or other press), arranged chronologically.
Memorabilia (1920-2004) include awards (and event programs) awarded to Chester Commodore, and exhibit programs in which his work was shown. There are broadsides and other small printed materials that contain Commodore cartoons. Scrapbooks and other materials used to prepare his Pulitzer nominations are also included. There is a small amount of miscellaneous original artwork, usually unidentified. The researcher can also find two manuscripts: "What Comes First," a children's story by Jerry Drain illustrated by Commodore; and "The Other Side of the Coin," 14 chapters consisting mostly of Commodore's own work, prepared in the 1990s but never published.
A significant amount of memorabilia consist of serial publications dating from the 1960s to 2002, found with Commodore's other papers and occasionally containing articles about him and/or cartoons created by him. Several memorabilia folders contain varied materials relating to Commodore's hobbies, such as model railroading, aviation, and travel. Memorabilia are organized by format and subject, then chronologically. A separate box contains three-dimensional objects found with his papers.
Biographical material gleaned during preparation of an exhibit of Commodore's work at the Harsh Research Collection (2008) was placed in a separate series in order to aid researchers. These materials include photocopies of published articles, news items, and PR materials relating to Commodore and his work. They also include a few items of correspondence, some vital records, and short biographical sketches prepared by Commodore for various Pulitzer Prize entries he submitted. Original copies of these materials are stored in their respective series.
Chester Commodore Papers Series Box List
|Series 3||Cartoons by Commodore (original)||21-51|
|Series 4||Cartoon Photocopies||52-53|
|Series 5||Cartoon Newsclippings||54-59|