Reading "Along the Color Line"
NAACP Reports from Black America in 1916 and 1917
by Tyler Babbie
In its early years, The Crisis, the NAACP’s monthly magazine edited by W.E.B Du Bois, sought to survey events of significance in African American communities across America. In a regular feature, initially called "Along the Color Line," Du Bois culled news from correspondents and published more than 100 short news reports each month under headings that included education, industry, political, church, military, personal, social uplift, and music and art. Here we map and display more than 1,800 entries published in 1916 and 1917. They provide a sampling of activities in several hundred Black communities during those pivotal years and tell us even more about what Du Bois’ wanted NAACP members to know about those activities.
A short essay follows the maps, explaining the origin and method of the "Along the Color Line" feature. (Here are other NAACP maps and data)
The maps contain material from August, 1916 to July, 1917, a year that immediately precedes and partially overlaps the great increase in membership that occurred between 1917 and 1918, an increase from 8,000 to 43,000 members. Archived copies of The Crisis contain an account of these key months fossilized in month-by-month coverage.
As printed in The Crisis, “Along the Color Line” and “The Horizon” are a collection of micro-articles presented in double columns, under various subject headings. The feature was a venue for communities to self-report their activities to The Crisis . Many items were sent by NAACP members and chapters. Others were clipped by African American newspapers. As such, it made community news into national news. The snippets of information in “Along the Color Line” range from the relatively minor—about a boy winning a skating competition, or the deaths of notable community members—to the major, including a running commentary and recording every lynching that came the magazine’s notice, regardless of the race of the victim. The miscellany gathers momentum with each entry, as each frame of information starts to come together to sketch out a moving picture of the life of the Black community in the nineteen-teens. It also reveals much about the concerns of the NAACP at the time, and the keen eye of Du Bois. At this key moment when the NAACP multiplied in size and came into its own as a major national movement, The Crisis devoted around a sixth of its total pages to “Along the Color Line” and “The Horizon.”
The Crisis categorized the entries under repeating headings: Athletics, Crime, Economics, Education, Foreign, General, Ghetto, Industry, Meetings, Military, Music and Art, Personal, Politics, Social Progress (Uplift), The Church, and eventually, The War. As such, it was an attempt to examine life through these many angles. Almost every entry contains geographic information, locating each event that it describes. These features mean that “Along the Color Line” and “The Horizon” are a database tagged by category, geographic location and date: something that invited the creation of these maps. Mapping “Along the Color Line” transmutes columns of text into visuals. The distribution of events shows the national and international scope of the miscellany.
Each entry is only a few sentences long, but they contain a rich trove of information. Entries are no more than a terse paragraph, resembling nothing so much as a tweet, informing the reader of some happening deemed to be worth reporting to the community. Most contain the location of the event as well. Their position in a monthly magazine means they are also tagged with a date—the month of publication. Most entries have happened within a month or two of publication, and the constant rotation of entries means that the news in the miscellanies stayed fresh. Reading these entries a century later gives a sense of embedded, real-time knowledge of events.
While these maps are primarily here to present the miscellanies from the early days of The Crisis in a more visual and interactive manner than the pdfs on archival sites, they also reveal spatial patterns when the dots representing individual entries begin to cluster, or when very few appear in other regions. The West Coast is relatively sparse, though events occur, especially in the cities. Major cities across the country draw many mentions, but so do the villages and small towns, particularly in the South. Unsurprisingly, the Historically Black Universities often draw multiple mentions in every issue.
“Along the Color Line” and “The Horizon” contain many entries that will resonate with contemporary readers: accounts of voter suppression, unequal policing, lynching under the eyes of the law, controversies over migration and immigration, unequal education, tension with the white working class’ labor movements, and many other topics appear in its pages. It also records notes on new art, music, academic achievements, infrastructure, industrial progress, lives and deaths of significant men and women, and progress made by the NAACP. Our maps currently contain 1782 entries drawn from these columns, a number which may rise in the future.
These maps attempt to make “Along the Color Line” and “The Horizon” more accessible to present-day readers. Presenting local and monthly history of the smaller scale on a map rather than in The Crisis’ double columns makes this information more interactive and visual. While the contents of each entry have their inherent historical interest, it is also important to see this as a study in method aligned with many current civil rights initiatives: publication and publicity were important then as now.
Research and data compilation: Tyler Babbie
Maps: Tyler Babbie, James Gregory