Seeing the World in Black and White

It’s the story of two men. The first man was a northerner living in the South. He was a Jew surrounded by Christians. He owned a plumbing and heating company, a well machinery company, and a “salvage house” but also published magazines. The second man was studious, sensitive but nonetheless put himself in harm’s way to help others. He trained as a musicologist but became a writer. Most important, both were white men who teamed up to tell the black man’s story.

George Levitan was born in Michigan in 1905. In 1910 the Michigan census listed the Levitan family as “Russ-Jewish.” By 1930 George was living in Fort Worth, married, and working as a sewing machine salesman.

Fast forward to 1944. Horace J. Blackwell, born of a white father and a black mother, operated a used clothing store on East Tenth Street. As George Levitan would do five years later, in 1944 Horace Blackwell made a considerable vocational leap: from selling clothes to publishing a magazine. Blackwell founded World’s Messenger, which printed “true stories” of African Americans written in the language of southern working-class blacks. In 1946 Blackwell founded another magazine, Negro Achievements.

But by 1949 Horace Blackwell was dying. He feared that upon his death his debt-bedeviled black magazines would be bought by white publishers. “There is not a white man in the United States who can publish a Negro magazine,” Blackwell wrote in a farewell editorial.

Enter George Levitan. Levitan, still a plumbing and heating merchant in 1949, bought a publishing company founded by a clothing merchant. Clip is from the January 26, 1947, Dallas Morning News.

Levitan took over the Blackwell publications. He changed the title of World’s Messenger to Bronze Thrills but continued the magazine’s earthy editorial content. He changed the title of Negro Achievements to Sepia but continued the magazine’s editorial focus: African American culture, religion, civil rights, education, leadership.

Although Levitan exercised firm control of Sepia, he hired Ben Burns (also white), a former editor at Ebony, the nation’s foremost African American magazine, founded in 1945. Levitan hoped to compete with Ebony, wanted Sepia to be a photojournalistic magazine like Look.

Levitan then hired Seth Kantor, also white, as executive editor. Kantor would soon leave Sepia and become a nationally known newspaper journalist. Levitan then hired another young white writer: John Howard Griffin.

John Howard Griffin (pictured) was born in Dallas in 1920. He briefly attended Fort Worth’s Paschal High School but at age fifteen went to Europe to study medicine and music. He trained as a musicologist, specializing in Gregorian chants. During World War II he worked in the French Resistance as a medic. He helped smuggle Austrian Jews to safety. He then served as a forward observer in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the South Pacific, where he was wounded and lost his sight in 1946. He returned to the States and attended schools for the blind. He then returned to his parents’ farm near Mansfield. Despite his blindness he raised purebred livestock and wrote fiction and nonfiction.

The year 1957 was monumental for John Howard Griffin. First, his sight returned after eleven years of blindness. Second, Griffin was hired by George Levitan. By 1959 Griffin’s restored sight had allowed him to observe the South around him for two years. What he saw made him want to trade his eyes for a new pair: John Howard Griffin wanted to see the South through African American eyes. So in 1959 Griffin made a story pitch to Levitan: Griffin would have his skin darkened chemically and travel across the segregated South, living as a black man. Levitan told Griffin he was crazy but offered to finance Griffin’s Dixieland odyssey—including the medical procedures—in return for being able to serialize in Sepia magazine Griffin’s account of his experience. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

Griffin later recalled his rationale for his journey and his meeting with Levitan.

In 1959, as John Howard Griffin and George Levitan were planning Griffin’s journey, Levitan was still in the plumbing and heating business. Business was good: Ridgehaven Court bisects Ridglea Country Club.

In late 1959 Griffin, his skin darkened and his hair cropped, left New Orleans and headed for Georgia, traveling by thumb and by Greyhound. He sat in the back of city buses, ate and slept in cafes and hotels that accepted African Americans, confined himself to “colored” water fountains and restrooms, worked at the only jobs open to African Americans, such as shining shoes.

After six weeks living as a black man in the South, John Howard Griffin returned home. In 1960 he described his experiences—often harrowing—in the six-part serial “Journey into Shame” in George Levitan’s Sepia magazine. The series was later distributed by King Features Syndicate. Clip is from the June 13, 1960, Ottawa Citizen.

Predictably, reviews of “Journey into Shame” were mixed: For example, in Chicago, Sepia’s rival, Ebony magazine, pictured Griffin on its cover; in Griffin’s hometown of Mansfield, an effigy of Griffin, painted half white and half black, was hanged. Clip is from the April 3, 1960, Dallas Morning News.

Concerned about his family’s safety, Griffin moved his family to Mexico for a few months and then moved back to Mansfield. By 1968 Griffin was living at 3816 West Biddison in Fort Worth.

Griffin expanded the serial “Journey into Shame,” and it was published as the book Black Like Me by Houghton Mifflin in 1961. The book was a best-seller. A film starring James Whitmore was made in 1964.

Griffin continued to write; Levitan continued to wear the hats of both a magazine publisher and a businessman in the hard-hat trades: By 1968 Levitan owned Well Machinery & Supply Company, which for many years was housed in the building at Main and 17th Streets built in 1886 by grocer Joseph H. Brown. Levitan’s publishing company was located at 1220 Harding Street east of downtown. (Image detail from Henry Wellge’s 1886 bird’s-eye-view map.)

George Levitan also had a charitable side. In 1969 and 1970 Levitan bought the grand champion steers at the Stock Show and donated the steers to benefit Josephine Marshall, a woman with “an open door, an open heart,” and eleven foster children.

George Levitan died in 1976.

He is buried in Ahavath Sholom Cemetery.

John Howard Griffin died in 1980. He is buried in Mansfield Cemetery.

By 1983 Sepia magazine had a circulation of approximately 160,000, but it could not compete with Ebony (2011 circulation, 1.2 million). That year Sepia magazine’s big iron heart—its rotary press–stopped beating.

A half century after once-blind John Howard Griffin saw the South through a black man’s eyes, Black Like Me continues to be read in several languages and to be taught in colleges.

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2 Responses to Seeing the World in Black and White

  1. Your research is riveting! I’m going to harp on your writing a book about this stuff until you do. Or a book of your city photos. Or both. I’m easy.

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