By Janis Ware
The first time I heard the names Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, and about their monumental contribution to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was while watching the movie “Hidden Figures”. Jackson, Johnson and Vaughan were mathematicians and, in the case of Jackson, the first Black female engineer in the history of NASA. These were not just “Hidden Figures,” they were phenomenal women. Phenomenal Black women. The movie debuted in 2016 and was directed by Theodore Melfi. The screenplay was co-written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. Both white. However, they were not the first to tell this story, far from it. The Norfolk Journal and Guide, a Black female-owned newspaper (Brenda Andrews, Publisher) that is in its 121st year of existence, published a May 1942 story, “Paving the Way for Women Engineers,” introducing the trio to local readers in southeastern Virginia, and later the world. In September 2016, author Margot Lee Shutterly wrote the book, Hidden Figures that inspired the film.
Do you know who Vivien Thomas was? He passed away in 1985, but not before helping pioneer open-heart surgery while a surgical research assistant at Vanderbilt University and later at Johns Hopkins University. As lab director at Johns Hopkins, Thomas would go on to educate thousands of future doctors in the process. A 2004 movie about Thomas’ life and work, starring Mos Def and Gabriel Union, titled “Like Something the Lord Made,” focuses on his rise from cleaning labs to assisting the late Dr. Alfred Blaylock with the first “Blue Baby” surgery. A 1989 profile story in Washingtonian magazine was the catalyst for the film. Both the script and the magazine story were written by white people.
The Black-owned Press also had that story, and it’s as important today as it was when the Chicago Defender had to be snuck onto passenger trains heading south from Chicago by Black Pullman porters during the 1920’s, or when The Black Panther Newspaper made its way from the presses at the Black Panther Party headquarters in Oakland to cities all around the world during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.
The guile and fearlessness it took for Jet magazine publisher John H. Johnson to give the go-ahead to publish the open casket funeral photographs of 14-year-old Emmett Till following his murder in Money, Mississippi by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam in 1955, is the kind of forward-facing journalism that makes the Black-owned press great. The cover of the September 15, 1955 Jet magazine is considered a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. The same could be said for the Black Lives Matter coverage in Black-owned publications, including the 10 collaborating on the Word In Black project. The world saw the photos, read the stories and learned the names of people within the communities we serve.
With everything from the coronavirus pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement to eviction moratoriums, there’s so much news, a publication can be forgiven for not making one thing or another their top priority. That said, we still must keep our eyes on the prize and that is being present and prepared to be the one to tell the world our stories.
For more than 56 years, The Atlanta Voice has been proud to be metropolitan Atlanta’s most widely read Black-owned newspaper. I believe this is a testament to our unique relationship with those we serve and report on: Black Georgians. As one of the largest Black-owned newspapers in Georgia, I believe it’s our duty to tell the stories – good or bad – that reflect the lives of Black Americans. I believe in the Black-owned press. It’s the legacy of my late father, J. Lowell Ware, and it will one day be my own. Remaining a source of information for our people – both online and in print – is imperative. There should no longer be “Hidden Figures” within the Black community, it is our honor and responsibility to chronicle our history. Our motto is as relevant today as it was when it was coined nearly six decades ago: “A People Without A Voice Cannot Be Heard.”
Janis Ware is the publisher of The Atlanta Voice.