Remembering Chicagoan Lerone Bennett, Jr.

Bennett at Johnson Publishing
Bennett at Johnson Publishing offices, circa 1985. (Source: Marjorie Stewart Joyner Papers, Photo 652, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Woodson Regional Library, Chicago Public Library)

Chicagoan and African American historian and editor Lerone Bennett, Jr. died Wednesday, February 14 at 89.

Bennett began a long and storied publishing career first writing for the Atlanta Daily World, while also serving as city editor for Jet magazine. In 1953, he became the associate editor of Ebony. Five years later, he accepted the position of executive editor.

In addition to his journalistic endeavors, Bennett was also an author. Perhaps most popular is his 1962 work, Before the Mayflower, a history of black America beginning in 1619. At least eight editions of the title were published, including a 25th anniversary edition and a reprint of the 1962 edition. He also wrote What Manner of Man, a Martin Luther King, Jr. biography. In 2000, Bennett published the controversial Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, a book that echoed a 1968 Ebony article in which Bennett asked if Lincoln was a white supremacist.

Bennett with Earl B. Dickerson
Bennett with attorney and civil rights advocate Earl B. Dickerson. (Source: Earl B. Dickerson Papers, Photo 148, Vivian G. Harsh Collection, Woodson Regional Library, Chicago Public Library)

Bennett was a tireless advocate for civil rights and the end to Jim Crow practices in the South. An account of a trip to the South in the mid-1950s with white Ebony photographer Mike Shea can be found in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection’s Ben Burns Papers. There, Bennett relates how he was inevitably questioned by police; how he had to travel in a separate rental car; as well as dine and sleep separately: “[A]s expected, [M]ike could always find a good hotel, while [I] had to settle for dumps and greasy eating places. [W]here to meet was always a problem.”

An icon of the black studies movement, Bennett was a frequent speaker at Olive-Harvey College’s annual Black Studies Conference. He served on the board of Chicago Public Library while Harold Washington was mayor. And he wrote a musical about the late mayor, entitled “Harold’s Journey,” which was performed at Orchestra Hall in 1989.

If you’re interested in black journalism in Chicago, explore the Ben Burns Papers, the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers or the McGill Family Papers. We also have the papers of a few of Bennett’s contemporaries, such as Timuel Black, Jr. and Leonard Wash.

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