It’s the story of two men—two men who formed an unlikely alliance to collaborate on an unlikely journey during the socially turbulent last half of the twentieth century. The first man was a northerner living in the South, a Jew surrounded by gentiles. The second man was a native Texan and a Catholic. Studious and sensitive, he trained as a musicologist but worked in the French Resistance during World War II and became a writer.
Most important, both men were white men who teamed up to tell the black man’s story during the era of segregation in America.
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 Jefferson Blackwell, born of a white father and a black mother, sold ice cream and second-hand goods on East 10th Street in Fort Worth’s African-American “downtown.” Just as George Levitan would do six years later, in 1944 Horace Blackwell made a considerable vocational leap: from selling second-hand goods 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.
Blackwell died on December 15, 1949.
Enter George Levitan. In 1950 Levitan, by then the owner of a trading company, bought a publishing company founded by a dealer in second-hand goods.
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 in 1953 but continued the magazine’s editorial focus: African-American culture, religion, civil rights, education, leadership. He added Jive and Hep magazines.
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. Levitan hoped to compete with Ebony, wanted Sepia to be a photojournalistic magazine like Look. Levitan’s publishing company was located at 1200 Harding Street east of downtown.
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 was born in Dallas in 1920. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
In 1930 young John and his family were living at 2201 College Avenue in Fairmount. Griffin 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—at least as well as any white man could. 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 Dixie odyssey—including the medical procedures—in return for being able to serialize in Sepia magazine Griffin’s account of his experience.
Griffin later recalled his rationale for his journey and his meeting with Levitan.
In late 1959 Griffin, his skin darkened and his hair shaved, left New Orleans and headed east toward 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.
The April 1960 cover of Sepia magazine.
Predictably, reactions to Griffin’s social experiment 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. Griffin said that he did not condemn whoever hanged the effigy but that he planned to continue to write his series for the magazine. Clip is from the April 3, 1960 Dallas Morning News.
After Griffin was hanged in effigy he posed with a front page of the Star-Telegram. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library Star-Telegram Collection.)
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.
Forgetting myself for a moment, I stopped to study the menu that was elegantly exposed in a show window. I read, realizing that a few days earlier I could have gone in and ordered anything on the menu. But now, though I was the same person with the same appetite, the same appreciation and even the same wallet, no power on earth could get me inside this place for a meal. I recalled hearing some Negro say, “You can live here all your life, but you’ll never get inside one of the great restaurants except as a kitchen boy.” The Negro often dreams of things separated from him only by a door, knowing that he is forever cut off from experiencing them.
An excerpt from Black Like Me.
Griffin continued to write; Levitan continued to wear the hats of both a magazine publisher (he added Soul Teen and Soul Confessions in 1973) and a businessman in the hard-hat trades: In 1963 Levitan bought Well Machinery & Supply Company.
George Levitan died in 1976.
He is buried in Ahavath Sholom Cemetery.
John Howard Griffin died on September 9, 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. That year Sepia magazine’s big iron heart—its rotary press–stopped beating.
Today, a half-century after once-blind John Howard Griffin saw the South through a black man’s eyes with the help of a northern Jew living among gentiles in the South, Black Like Me continues to be read in several languages and to be taught in colleges.