Lewis Museum's 'Growing Up Afro' takes viewers from paper routes to picket lines

Beulah Hinson beams as she holds up a copy of the Afro-American newspaper, the young girl's expression a sharp contrast to the headlines from this particular edition — "205 Die in Dance Hall Fire," "Hubby Made Store Love Nest."

The message behind the 70-year-old front page is all positive. Beulah was part of a small army that once sold and delivered the Afro-American in various East Coast cities, providing an important source of news and views in an era when the mainstream press could not be relied upon to cover the black community.

The paper's carriers are just part of an engrossing, richly evocative photographic exhibit at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, "Growing Up Afro: Snapshots of Black Childhood from the Afro-American Newspapers."

To celebrate the 120th anniversary of the publication, 120 pictures are on display through the end of the year, drawn from the Afro-American's files by the paper's archivist, John Gartrell. He decided to zero in on one broad concept that would help focus the exhibit.

"When I'm at the Afro-American table at Artscape or the Heritage festival," he said, "people stop by and tell me, 'I sold the newspaper as a kid,' or 'I toured the building on Eutaw Street when I was in school.' It's clear that people in this community, and at large, had a strong relationship with the paper."

That led Gartrell to the idea of fashioning an exhibit around the theme of young people: how they helped deliver the paper, and how they were reflected in its coverage of the African-American experience. The process of gathering the images required patience. There was no file in the Afro's "morgue" with the heading "Great shots of young people."

"I would find folders marked 'Summertime,' and they would have 50 to 60 pictures in them," Gartrell said. "There would be maybe one or two that showed what I was looking for." Whittling down the selections to 120 was "the hardest part," he added. "In the end, I went with the ones I liked."

The archivist settled on photos from the 1920s to the 1970s and grouped them around six broad topics, including "Golden School Days," "Games We Play," and the more politically pointed "A Child Shall Lead."

"People really like these images," said Michelle J. Wilkinson, the museum's exhibitions curator and director of collections. "It rejuvenates their memories. They try to identify folks in the photographs. Some of the images are just slice-of-life and some are posed, but to me, there is a kind of poetry in these photos."

The section on paperboys and papergirls provides a strong entry point for the exhibit, and an appropriate one for this museum. One boy, who delivered the Afro at age 10, kept his profits in a tin can and sold his piece of the action for a profit, grew up to be the lawyer, businessman and philanthropist Reginald F. Lewis.

"It was the first job a lot of kids had, the first opportunity to get some entrepreneurial experience," Gartrell said. "Afro newsboys hit the city — Baltimore, Philadelphia, D.C. — wherever the paper had a presence. Young people were so critical to the paper."

The roster of paperboys includes the Afro's current publisher, John J. Oliver Jr., great-grandson of John H. Murphy Sr., who founded the family-owned paper in 1892; Rep. Elijah Cummings; and former NAACP president and CEO Kweisi Mfume. (A reunion of former carriers was held last weekend at the museum in conjunction with the exhibit.)

In addition to scenes of hawking or delivering the paper, the display contains photos from the 1930s and '40s of paperboys and papergirls enjoying dinners and other prizes won in contests held for them by the Afro. Prizes might be tickets to a local movie theater — "We don't think of that as a big deal now, but it was for them then," Gartrell said — or a trip to New York City.

In such pictures, the youthful faces exude an unmistakable sense of pride and community. The same goes for the expressions captured in another grouping that documents the Afro's "Clean Block Campaign." The annual competitive neighborhood beautification project was started by Frances Murphy, the daughter of the paper's founder, in 1934.

"People would be cleaning the marble steps and hanging flower baskets," Gartrell said.

Eager Clean Block brigades of kids with brooms stand at the ready in a 1935 shot from Washington. From 1942, there's an image of three girls looking ever so satisfied alongside freshly polished steps of rowhouses on the 1100 block of N. Stricker St. in Baltimore.

The exhibit's "A Child Shall Lead" section covers the weighty issue of discrimination.

"The Afro was known for being vocal on civil rights," Gartrell said. "I was interested in [showing] how young people influenced that movement. When you think about Emmett Till, the girls in the Birmingham church bombing, you realize kids were always on the front lines."

In folders marked "demonstrations," the archivist uncovered potent images telling that youthful side of the struggle, including a 1952 photo that captures a protest outside Washington's then-segregated Rosedale Park.

White children on the inside of the fence make faces and jeer at the black children walking on the sidewalk in a neat formation with protest signs. There are no adults in the shot, but their influence, on both sides of the fence, couldn't be clearer.