When Orrin C. Evans died in 1971 at the age of 68 he was eulogized in the New York Times as 'the dean of black reporters'. From our vantage point of another quarter century, we can also say he was the father of black comic books.
Mr. Evans was born in 1902 in Steeleton, Pennsylvania, the eldest son of George J. Evans Sr., and Maude Wilson Evans. Mr. Evans Sr. was employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad, his wife was the first black to graduate from the Williamsport Teachers' College, and the family lived in white neighborhoods. However, despite this stable home life the everyday realities of Northern racism were never far from their door. Mr. Evans Sr. passed for white in order to provide a better living for his family than the menial jobs available to blacks would allow, but this forced him to carry the pretense to the inevitable ends of hiding the darker skinned Orrin in a back room while Maude donned an apron and pretended to be a maid when friends from his work dropped by. On other occasions, his father was not able to acknowledge Orrin at his workplace. Years later Orrin was visibly moved when relating these episodes. As Orrin's friend, Claude Lewis wrote in 1971, 'There was no National Association for the Advancement of Colored People back then, there was no Urban League. Like others of his time, Orrin Evans was out there on his own. And what he had to suffer was more than anyone I know could endure'.
Orrin was a strong headed young man, and during the family's many dinner table discussions on the issues of the day he so often used the phrase don't tell me in defending his beliefs that his father took to calling him 'Mister don't tell me', and as often as he would drive Orrin to school and wait in the parking lot till he got in the door, just as often would Orrin exit through the rear. Despite the emphasis placed on education in his family Orrin was more interested in the experiences life offered, and he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to pursue his goal of writing.
His first job was on the Sportsman's Magazine at age 17, and his first real newspaper experience was with the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest black paper in the country. From there, in the early nineteen-thirties, he decided to break the color barrier and landed a writing position on the Philadelphia Record, becoming the first black writer to cover general assignments for a mainstream white newspaper in the United States. In 1944 at the Record he wrote a series of articles about segregation in the armed services, which were read into the congressional record, and helped end the practice. He won an honorable mention in that year's Hayword Hale Broun award, but also drew some unwelcome attention. To criticize the government during wartime, even to point out the obvious hypocrisy of segregating troops putting their lives on the line to defend a country where democracy supposedly makes all men equal was considered treasonous by some and he and his family received death threats. His daughter Hope remembers their house being protected in a 24 hour a day vigil by a congregation of Orrin's friends, both black and white, until the threats subsided.
This was not the only time Orrin was threatened because of his color and position. Once at the Philadelphia Police Precinct at 55th and Pine a police sergeant pulled his revolver and ordered him out of the station, not believing a black man had any legitimate place on the front side of the bars, and the national hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh once held up a press conference during the infamous kidnapping of his son to have Orrin ousted because he was black.
Shortly after the war, the Record was hit by a strike and management decided to shut the paper down rather than settle the labor issues. Orrin was out of a job and looking for something to do. He had always loved cartoons. His daughter Hope, a teacher like her grandmother, mother, and aunt remembers her father reading the comics to her, and particularly enjoying The Katzenjammer Kids and Lil Abner. At work he liked to walk through the art department and watch the staff cartoonists work. In later life he enjoyed the civil rights cartoons of his friend Jerry Doyle, and went out of his way to meet Morrie Turner, the first syndicated black cartoonist. He was always impressed with the way a well executed cartoon could simplify and clarify complex issues, and, noting the high illiteracy rate in the black community, began to consider the possibility that he could reach a wider audience with a comicbook than through his other writings, which by 1947 had expanded to include works in the Chicago Defender, Philadelphia Independent, the Public Journal, American Musician and Crisis, the NAACP journal.
For Orrin to note the lack of black heroes in the popular culture was a singular feat in itself. As Claude Lewis said in a recent interview 'We weren't very conscious about being left out, it was just the way things were. We identified with Superman, Batman, Submariner and the rest of them without giving much thought to it. If you've never seen a black hero you don't spend a lot of time wondering where they are. Today you would, but back then, there were no blacks in ads. It just didn't happen'. Orrin wanted to change all this. He considered himself an urban American born in the twentieth century, fully integrated into the western world. He and his wife were long time supporters of the NAACP and the Urban League. The works of WEB Du Bois spoke more to him than did those of Marcus Garvey. He possessed a library said to be possibly the finest in the black community with volumes not only of Afrocentric interest or white commentaries on what was termed 'the Negro problem', but a library that represented his own wide range of interests, and he wanted to produce a comic that would reflect these values.
Like all his other projects Orrin threw himself whole heartedly into his proposed comic. He arraigned a partnership to publish the comic which included Harry T. Saylor, editor at the record, his friend Bill Driscoll, the sports editor, and others. Orrin was determined that the book should be of high moral and educational standards. He co-created the features in the comic along with the artists who included his brother, George J Evans Jr, two other Philadelphia cartoonists, one of whom was John Terrill, the other named Cooper, and a Baltimore artist who signed his work Cravat. The cartoonists probably wrote their own scripts, and there was further editorial input by Bill Driscoll. Hope remembers this as a very happy time for him, and that he was involved in every step of the book's production, having secured a bullpen/production area in another building.
All Negro Comics # 1 carries a cover date of June 1947. No information about the press run or distribution remains, but it is believed that the comic was distributed outside of the Philadelphia area.
A second issue was planned and the art completed, but when Orrin was ready to publish he found that his source for newsprint would no longer sell to him, nor would any of the other vendors he contacted. Though Orrin was unyielding in his support of integration and civil rights he was moderate in his methods of achieving these goals. He believed in the general fairness of the system he had been born into. He was not a man given to conspiratorial thinking, but his family remembers that his belief was that there was pressure being placed on the newsprint wholesalers by bigger publishers and distributors who didn't welcome any intrusions on their established territories.
Race and economics have always been emotionally charged rallying points and from this date we can only look to the model of history and judge for ourselves. Surely the mainstream publishers had an interest in cultivating the black market. Parent's Magazine published two issues of Negro Heroes, dated Spring 1947 and Summer 1948, featuring reprints from their Calling All Girls, Real Heroes and True Comics. Fawcett published three issues of Negro Romance, the second issue being reprinted by Charlton as Negro Romances number four, dated June through October 1950 and May 1955 respectively, as well as a series of sports hero comics about 1950 that included short runs of books starring Jackie Robinson and Joe Lewis. White companies also designed and distributed tabloid sized inserts of comics and general interest material to be inserted into black newspapers, but All Negro Comics was not only the first comic of original material to be marketed to blacks, it was the only comic book produced by blacks, and the only comic book featuring black characters in lead heroic roles. After this, with the very obvious exception of several anti-racist EC stories, blacks disappeared from comics except for background in the jungle books, where the day was always saved by white jungle kings. Blacks were never seen in street scenes, never anguished over lost romances or romped in teen aged innocence. Probably the next time a black appeared in a comic book was Spiderman 18, November 1964, where a black cop is depicted. There were exceptions to prove the rule: some romance comics with photo covers used occasional pictures of relatively darker girls, but with straight hair and generally caucasian features, and there's a solitary black on a mid 1950s Charlton cover about the time they reprinted Negro Romances. Gabe Jones of Sgt Fury's Howling Commandos debuted with a May 1963 cover date, but in true comicbook fashion, the series depicts integration of the armed services at a time when there was none, while comics in general made no mention of a contemporary issue. Blacks were never seen in their true percentage of the population until after this first appearance in Spiderman. The first silver age black hero, the Black Panther was created by Lee and Kirby and debuted in Fantastic Four 52, July 1966. A series of black history comics were released under the general title of Golden Legacy, between 1966 and 1972. There were sixteen issues published with most titles reprinted in 1976, and again in 1983. The last American edition of Classics Illustrated, number 169 was Negro Americans The Early Years published in 1969. The second issue of All Negro was never published.
Orrin Evans returned to the newspaper business. He was an editor at the Chester Times, and later at the Philadelphia Bulletin, where he worked with Claude Lewis who recently said 'Orrin had many contacts throughout the city of Philadelphia and the region. He knew the people who were running the city and he knew the people who were at the bottom, and he was equally at ease in either community. He was well liked and well versed and that made him a very valuable person in a newsroom'. During his lifetime Mr. Evans was featured in articles in Jet and Ebony magazines. He was a director of the Philadelphia Press Association, and an officer of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia. In 1966 he won the Inter Urban League of Pennsylvania Achievement Award. He covered more National Urban League and NAACP conventions than any other reporter and the month before his death he was honored in a resolution at the annual NAACP convention in Minneapolis and a scholarship was created in his name.
At the time of Mr. Evans' death Claude Lewis wrote what was well known by Orrins friends, that perhaps his greatest strenght was that he hadn't been left bitter by past experiences, but always believed that the good in humans would prevail.
Orrin C. Evans' contribution to the comics industry is important to us today not only because he was the first black publisher, but because he was he was an exceptional intellect from outside the field who saw the great potential in comic books as a medium for both entertainment and education, and who had the determination to see his dreams through to reality.
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