Interesting Black History Photos

Interesting Black History Photos

  • 1963: An iconic portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was more or less shot from the hip. Allyn Baum snapped this photograph at a taping for a televised round table discussion that aired on NBC. You’d never guess, but Dr. King, looking past the viewer with a gaze for the ages, was seated at a table with four other panelists.

    Allyn Baum/The New York Times

    As indicated by the back of the print — pockmarked with stamps and copy-pasted captions at each instance of reuse — Dr. King’s image has been employed to accompany Times articles on many, many occasions.

    The New York Times

An Introduction: Photographing Martin Luther King Jr.


Hundreds of stunning images from black history, drawn from old negatives, have long been buried in the musty envelopes and crowded bins of the New York Times archives.

None of them was published by The Times until now.

Were the photos — or the people in them — not deemed newsworthy enough? Did the images not arrive in time for publication? Were they pushed aside by words here at an institution long known as the Gray Lady?

As you scroll through the images, each will take you back: To the charred wreckage of Malcolm X’s house in Queens, just hours after it was bombed. To the Lincoln Memorial, where thousands of African-American protesters gathered, six years before the March on Washington. To Lena Horne’s elegant penthouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. To a city sidewalk where schoolgirls jumped rope, while the writer Zora Neale Hurston cheered them on, behind the scenes.

Photographers for The Times captured all of these scenes, but then the pictures and negatives were filed in our archives, where they sat for decades.

This month, we present a robust selection for the very first time.

Every day during Black History Month, we will publish at least one of these photographs online, illuminating stories that were never told in our pages and others that have been mostly forgotten.

Among them are images of confrontations between the police and demonstrators, including a rally that erupted in violence after the assassination of Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader.

There are pioneers in Hollywood and hip-hop and in the ballpark, as well as ordinary people savoring daily life. And there are prominent figures, such as James Baldwin and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in photographs with stories of their own.

Consider the close-up of Dr. King above. It is the only photo in this project that has been previously published; it has appeared many times over the past 50 years, as the backside of the print clearly shows, and it looks as if it might have been taken during a formal sitting.

But it was shot during the summer of 1963 on a day when black protesters hurled eggs at Dr. King as he arrived at a church in Harlem. Earlier that day, he criticized black nationalists, saying that those who called for a separate black state were “wrong.” Some believed that those remarks inspired the attack that night.

Our photographer snapped Dr. King’s picture as he participated in a round table that was broadcast on NBC. The photo below, unpublished until now, captured that discussion.


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during that round-table discussion at WNBC-TV.

Allyn Baum/The New York Times

Sometime later, an editor cropped one of those images from the NBC appearance to create the head shot of Dr. King that is now so familiar and so disconnected from the tumultuous events of that day.

Many of these photographs, and their stories, are equally intriguing. But the collection is far from comprehensive. There are gaps, for many reasons.

We had a small staff of photographers — the first was hired sometime after 1910 — and nearly all of them were based in New York City. As a result, most staff photographs depicted events in New York and places nearby, though The Times also bought pictures from freelancers and studios in other parts of the country and overseas. (The Times’s picture agency, Wide World News Photo Service, which had staff members in London, Berlin and elsewhere, was sold to The Associated Press in 1941.)

More than now, we also put a premium back then on words, not pictures, which meant that many photographs that were taken were never published.

But other holes in coverage probably reflect the biases of some earlier editors at our news organization, long known as the newspaper of record. They and they alone determined who was newsworthy and who was not, at a time when black people were marginalized in society and in the media.

In our archive of roughly five million prints, after weeks of searching, we could not find a single staff photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois; of Romare Bearden, one of the country’s pre-eminent artists; or of Richard Wright, the influential author of “Native Son” and “Black Boy.” (The Times did publish a handful of photographs of these men taken by freelancers, friends or private studios.)

Our archive is vast — and the filing was sometimes idiosyncratic — so some of these images may still be unearthed. But as we unveil this trove of rediscovered photographs, keep in mind how much we are missing.

1964: Lena Horne, the actress and recording star, in her home at 300 West End Avenue in Manhattan, an apartment she found with help from Harry Belafonte. He, like Ms. Horne, had been turned away by brokers and landlords who refused to rent to African-Americans. Outraged, he bought the entire building and invited his friends to join him there. Ms. Horne got the penthouse.

Sam Falk/The New York Times

She was one of the most famous performers in the country, a recording star, a Hollywood actress and a nightclub sensation.

But in the late 1950s, Lena Horne still struggled to find property owners in Manhattan who were willing to sell co-ops or condominiums to African-Americans, even very wealthy ones.

So how exactly did she snare the penthouse apartment, featured in this photograph, at 300 West End Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side? With the help of a good friend, Harry Belafonte.

Back in 1958, Mr. Belafonte, who was the first recording artist to sell more than a million LPs, was turned away from one Manhattan apartment after another. And he was furious. So he sent his publicist, who was white, to rent a four-bedroom apartment in the building at 300 West End Avenue. His publicist passed on the paperwork, and Mr. Belafonte signed the one-year lease in his own name.

Within hours of moving in, Mr. Belafonte said, the building’s manager “became aware that he had a Negro as a tenant.” The building’s owner asked him to leave. Mr. Belafonte refused.

Instead, he bought the building, using dummy real estate companies to cloak his identity. Some tenants who had been renting there bought their apartments and some of Mr. Belafonte’s friends moved in, too. “Lena Horne got the penthouse,” said Mr. Belafonte, who described the real estate deal in his memoir, “My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance.”

By Dec. 17, 1964, when this photograph was taken by our photographer, Sam Falk, Ms. Horne and her husband, Lennie Hayton, a white composer and conductor, were comfortably settled in. She was hanging Christmas decorations that day as she prepared for the debut of her television show, “Lena.”

In the article that ran 10 days later, accompanied by a different photograph, a close-up, she mentioned her difficulties in finding an apartment, but not the back story to where she had landed.

“Lennie and I lived in hotels for years while we were on the road,” said Ms. Horne, who was 47 then. “And then we went through the hysteria of trying to find an apartment – all those stupid problems – and when we finally found a place that would admit both me and Lennie, we put our roots down.”



1957: Thousands gathered for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington to demand more action on civil rights and to observe the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision banning segregation in schools.

George Tames/The New York Times

A Pilgrimage for Equal Rights


Thousands came, from 30 states, to the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on May 17, 1957. They wanted more, and faster, action on civil rights issues and to look back and forward on the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

In a speech to the crowd that day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described that landmark Supreme Court decision as “a joyous daybreak to end the long night of enforced segregation.”

But even then, it was clear that segregation in schools would outlast its historic defeat in the courts, in part because efforts to put the ruling in effect were weak or nonexistent.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is not self-enforcing,” said an article in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks after the pilgrimage, “and instead of spelling the end of an era of civil-rights litigation, it has marked the beginning of a new and even more bitter phase.”

The photograph above seemed to capture perfectly the mood of the time: No one in the picture looks satisfied or triumphant. But our article that day relied only on words. No photographs were included.


1965: Malcolm X was sleeping when firebombs crashed through his living room windows shortly before 3 a.m. He rushed his wife and four young daughters out into the cold before fire engulfed their modest house in Queens. One of our photographers, Don Hogan Charles, walked through the house, shooting pictures of the damage.

Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

Malcolm X’s Close Call in Queens

Malcolm X was sleeping when firebombs crashed through his living room windows shortly before 3 in the morning. Jolted awake by the explosions, he rushed his wife and four young daughters out into the cold before fire engulfed their modest brick house in East Elmhurst, Queens.

We published an article about the attack on Feb. 15, 1965, and paired it with a photograph taken by a news agency that captured Malcolm X stepping out of his car, in front of his house. What our readers did not know was that one of our own photographers, Don Hogan Charles, had walked through the house, shooting powerful pictures of the damage.

This stark image of the shattered windows, singed walls and sooty debris, shown here for the first time, offers a glimpse of the private life of a man who spent much of his time in the public eye. Malcolm X gave speeches in Manhattan, Detroit and other cities around the country and overseas. But he came home to Queens.

The two-bedroom house at 23-11 97th Street, which was owned by the Nation of Islam, had a small living room, a dining room, a bathroom, a kitchen and a former utility room, where Malcolm X’s 5-month-old daughter slept in a crib. Few of the family’s possessions survived the blaze. Malcolm X, who told our reporter that he had been receiving daily threats, escaped that firebombing unscathed. He was assassinated one week later.


1965: A seven-foot, 17-year-old athlete, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., stood with teammates at the championship game for Catholic high schools. A few years later, he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

A High School Sensation


The shorts and kneepads scream 1965. But who is that lanky seven-foot-tall, 17-year-old high school athlete standing with teammates from Power Memorial Academy at the Catholic High School Athletic Association Championship game?

College recruiters were pursuing the center with intensity, harassing him in the street and searching for his unlisted phone number. The athlete, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., was a giant, an epic talent. But he eschewed the spotlight. He referred each scout to his coach.

“I want two things from college,” Alcindor said. “I want to be treated like Lew Alcindor. I want an education.”

Eventually he settled on U.C.L.A., then a career in the N.B.A., starting with the Milwaukee Bucks. He led the Bucks to a championship in 1971, and the day after that victory, he changed his name to one we are a bit more familiar with: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

1986: Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell” becomes the first rap album to go platinum. Chester Higgins Jr., who shot this photo at Madison Square Garden, said: “The music was slamming. The wordplay structure was mesmerizing, delivered as a diatribe that delineated the injustices experienced by this generation of young black people living in a society that held them in contempt.”

Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times

Run- DMC’s ‘Cry for Justice’

Chester Higgins Jr. spent 40 years as a staff photographer for The Times before retiring in 2014. Writing from Ethiopia, he described covering Run-DMC at Madison Square Garden in 1986 for a benefit concert against crack cocaine. We never published photographs from the show or wrote about the performance.

Arriving to photograph this new group Run-DMC, I had mixed feelings. The music was slamming. The wordplay structure was mesmerizing, delivered as a diatribe that delineated the injustices experienced by this generation of young black people living in a society that held them in contempt. It resonated as a cry for justice giving voice to frustrations. The music’s relentless tempo, driving earnestness and poetic structure had become a new creation with its own energy that spoke to these young people, but I found some of the lyrics horrifying, especially the use of the word “nigger.”

Growing up in the South, I felt the sting of this derogatory word; to embrace it in a song smacked of self-hate.

But at the same time, it was clear these entertainers connected with the youth of their generation. The audience loved them, and I realized how powerful and totally off the radar the new music called rap had become.


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