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For me he was someone who in 1977 I needed to interview for my dissertation research. Excited to be in the midst of a very profitable seeking out of living primary sources, the men who had known, interacted with, and worked for Claude Barnett and his Associated Negro Press news service, I had travelled to numerous locations across the country to seek them out. It was one thing however for a PhD candidate with a wife and two young children and no permanent teaching position, to interview the likes of Roy Wilkins and Ernest Johnson in New York City close to my home in Stamford, Connecticut, and Harry Richardon and C.A. Scott in Atlanta while attending an Organization of American Historians meeting. It was another thing entirely to find the where with all to travel to Honolulu, Hawaii to speak with the former executive editor of the Associated Negro Press and close confidant and friend of Claude and Etta Moten Barnett. I was thankful when, after a bit of back and forth correspondence between Bloomington, Indiana and Honolulu, my much sought after primary source agreed to record his responses to questions I would pose to him. Unbeknownst to me at the time I was conversing with the man who in the election of 2008 would become controversially known as candidate Barack Obama’s “Communist Uncle Frank.”
At some point during the Presidential campaign of 2008 in what we have come to call the vetting process that all candidates for office are now subject to, someone in the anti-Barack Obama camp came across the following paragraph in candidate for president Obama’s book, Dreams From My Father. It referenced for Obama a moment from his growing up years with his grandfather in Hawaii that he seems to have looked back on with a funny and warm feeling of nostalgia.
There was a poet named Frank who lived in a dilapidated house in a run-down section of Waikiki. He had enjoyed some modest notoriety once, was a contemporary of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes during his years in Chicago—Gramps once showed me some of his work anthologized in a book of black poetry. But by the time I met Frank he must have been pushing eighty, with a big, dewlapped face and an ill-kempt gray Afro that made him look like an old, shaggy-maned lion. He would read us his poetry whenever we stopped by his house, sharing whiskey with Gramps out of an emptied jelly jar. As the night wore on, the two of them would solicit my help in composing dirty limericks. Eventually the conversation would turn to laments about women.
www.moonbattery.comUsed only with express written permission
One wonders what exactly it was about this passage that aroused the vetter’s curiosity. But for that vetter, and for the other strident voices that joined in what became a chorus of anti- Obama suspicion and accusation, the conversation the adult Barack Obama recalled from his impressionable growing up years listening to Gramps and “Uncle Frank” clearly involved more than dirty limericks and laments about women. Much to the vetter’s delight, “Uncle Frank,” who he came to be tagged by the candidate’s opponents, turned out to be Frank Marshall Davis. Research revealed Davis emerging from the political wars of the middle part of 20th century America at worst from the researcher’s point of view as a “fellow traveller” at a time in our nation’s history when that was enough to condemn a man as un-American. Or even better, as the vetter would discover at least to his own satisfaction, the “Uncle” who was now out of Barack Obama’s closet and could be tagged as an avowed member of the Communist Party of the United States of America. Once this news hit the internet, everyone and their sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts by the dozens appear to have weighed in on what became one of the more interesting back and forth skirmishes of that election campaign.
The debate that ensued among partisans and opponents of the Obama candidacy revolved around what this association with so questionable a character at so impressionable an age should mean for your view of the candidate’s fitness to be President of the United States. When it became clear that “Uncle Frank” could on the basis of available evidence be reasonably classified as a Communist radical critic of the America of his day, the answer to that question of how this youthful association should impact on one’s estimate of the Democratic candidate’s fitness for office devolved into how substantial an influence “Uncle Frank” had been in shaping the world view of Obama. From the Communist side of the ledger Gerald Horne, a contributing editor to the Communist Party of the United States’ Political Affairs opined that Frank Marshall Davis was "a decisive influence in helping Obama to find his present identity" as an African-American. From the opposite side of the 2008 election time political spectrum came the virulently anti-Obama book The Obama Nation by Jerome Corsi. Corsi shares with Horne the notion of a decisive role for “Uncle Frank,” in shaping the young boy into a candidate who now in the author’s view, because of his ideological make up, was unfit to be President of the United States. Not surprisingly the Democratic nominee for president’s campaign staff immediately produced a lengthy response suggesting a new title – Unfit For Publication – for Corsi’s anti-Obama screed.
www.moonbattery.comUsed only with express written permission
The Frank Marshall Davis who occupies a small place for Barack Obama in Dreams of My Father is an avuncular figure who shared with grandpa Stanley Kansas roots, growing up 50 miles apart near Wichita. He would be recalled by the adult Obama as someone from a time and place that in his person and beliefs was frozen in time. Barack Obama’s “Uncle Frank” was someone who saw little progress in race relations from the days in the 1930s when he first came to work for Claude Barnett at the Associated Negro Press.
As Obama remembered,
It made me smile, thinking back on Frank and his old Black Power, dashiki self. In some ways he was as incurable as my mother, as certain in his faith, living in the same sixties time warp that Hawaii had created.
The President to be also remembered Frank later in life when he took a job in South Chicago as a community organizer and took some time one day to visit the areas where Frank Marshall Davis had lived, "I imagined Frank in a baggy suit and wide lapels, standing in front of the old Regal Theatre, waiting to see Duke or Ella emerge from a gig."
Sounds innocent enough. But google up Frank Marshall Davis on the net and one gets lost in sorting through a maze of conspiratorial notions originating in the heat of the 2008 campaign about the Davis and Obama connection ranging from claims that Davis is President Obama’s real father – to notions of him being an FBI undercover informant at the same time that he was part of a Communist conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States – to his being a sex pervert having authored a hard core pornographic novel under the pseudonym Bob Greene – all of which is aimed at proving that Barack Obama was a communist? socialist? leftist radical? maybe even sexual threat? who we were in danger of placing in the White House as our Commander In Chief. I try to sort all this out and make some sense of it - not an easy task given who Davis was for me back in 1977 when he generously gave me wonderfully valuable insights into the working of the Associated Negro Press that he served as executive editor in the late 1930s and early 1940s. As I read back into the transcript of the responses that came to me from distant Hawaii to the questions I posed, the picture that emerges in my mind is of a talented and very professional journalist so far distant from the man pictured in the election controversy as to make it seem that the Frank Marshall Davis of the 2008 election cycle was on a different planet in a different universe than my Frank Marshall Davis of 1977.
What was lacking in all this back and forth partisan sniping is “Uncle Frank” speaking for himself. Let’s let him do that. So here I put aside whether he was or wasn’t a Communist and sexual pervert; or if he was, what impact that should have on one’s view of Barack Obama as candidate and now president; and simply try to give you as accurately as I can who he was for me as aspiring PhD candidate and budding professional historian in search of as accurate and full a picture as possible of the history and role of the Associated Negro Press, as I pursued early in my journey into the African American past the elusive Black Clio of history.
THE ROAD INTO JOURNALISM
I was born in in Arkansas City, Kansas. After finishing high school there I attended for a year the Quaker Friends School in Wichita, Kansas, taking sort of a general course. It was then that I decided to enter the Department of Journalism at Kansas State College, in Manhattan, Kansas. At the time there were only five colleges in Kansas that were state supported, three teachers colleges, Kansas State, and the University of Kansas. I did not want to go to the University of Kansas because it had such an inordinate amount of prejudice. At the same time I also did not want to teach, which was the career, along with medicine and the law that were preferred by black students. After reading the catalogue at Kansas State I hit upon the idea of studying journalism. It seemed to offer me a much more interesting field than say business or commerce, or music or things of that nature. It also did not require mathematics. And I disliked mathematics. So I hit upon the idea of journalism. I knew very little about the black press at the time. Outside of the Crisis Magazine ( organ of the NAACP) and an occasional glance at the Chicago Defender (leading Black national weekly of that day), it was, so far as I was concerned, virtually nonexistent.
My mother died in the summer of 1926. My lone Aunt Haddy began writing me. She was full of remorse at not having kept in touch with her sister. She also induced her estranged husband, C. W. Reynolds, himself a frustrated newspaperman, to write. Reynolds was a Pullman Porter, but he had been a sort of correspondent for the Indianapolis Freeman (a venerable Black newspaper of the later 19th and early 20th centuries) years before. Between the two of them they got me interested in Chicago. Reynolds also sent me copies of the Light and Heebie Jeebies, a magazine put out by Claude Barnett and P. L. Prattis.
In 1927 after the end of my first semester and in the middle of my junior year I decided to go to Chicago. I knew no one there at all. I had corresponded with my uncle, but that is as far as it went. I think I reached Chicago with thirty six dollars in my pocket. This was in February when it was as cold as the devil. So I had a very interesting time there as I began finding out about things.
www.lib.k-state.eduUsed only with express written permission
At that time the Chicago Defender was just a few doors away from the offices of the Associated Negro press. Claude Barnett and Robert Abbott apparently did not like each other. So you did have that conflict. Anyway, I soon learned that there were very few trained black newspapermen. The opportunities in the white field for black reporters were exceedingly limited. I knew of only two. Lester Walton who later became minister to Liberia, was then a star re-write man for the old Herald Tribune in New York. The other was Eugene Gordon who was a feature editor for the Boston Globe. There were a very few other black men in the field that had been trained as newspapermen. One was Dewey Jones who was city editor of the Defender. And shortly afterward they added into the field one of the sons of P. B. Young of the Norfolk Journal and Guide.
Opportunities were so limited that it was difficult to have depth and actually survive, because those who were experienced in the field were holding on to all of their jobs for dear life. So I had a devil of a time around Chicago. I finally got hooked up with two men, Perry Thompson and Henry Brown, who were trying to put out something called the National News and Feature Service, a magazine that was to be circulated to all the Negro newspapers. So I was involved in these until one day somebody came in and told us that there was being installed all the facilities for a daily newspaper around 37th and Indiana. This became the Chicago Evening Bulletin . The owners of this project had no experience at all in the field of journalism. They both were real estate men. They had enough money to continue for a year even if nothing came in from sales or advertising. We hooked up with the Evening Bulletin and Billboard Jackson who was a former entertainer who was identified with Billboard Magazine and acted as entertainment editor. It was not long before the paper started falling apart because of lack of funds and not enough financing.
Then to complicate matters there came into existence, which lasted for only a short time, the Chicago Sun, another black daily newspaper. Both of them went under, and I was out in the cold again. Then I got into the editorial set over that the Chicago Whip, edited by Joseph B. Bibb who later became one of the state officials of Illinois. So I stayed there until the Whip began to have financial troubles. Then I went up to Gary, Indiana to the Gary American edited by Chauncey Townsend who was also one of the few black journalists well trained. He was from the University of Southern California. I became managing editor there.
Shortly after that I decided to return to Kansas State. I had already established somewhat of a reputation as a poet at Kansas State, and the Department of Journalism there was anxious for me to come back and finish my schooling there. So I returned. I spent another year there, but this was just as the depression started. I left in the middle of my senior year hoping to come back for the other half year and get my degree, but I became one of the depression causalities and never did return.
Anyway, I returned to Gary, Indiana and worked again as managing editor of the Gary American until one day a fellow with the name of W. A. Scott came to Gary to look for an editor for the Atlanta World. He had been sent over by Claude Barnett whom I had met before.
Now Claude Barnett was very tall, especially during that particular time when people were not as tall as they are now. He was also very suave, very soft spoken and very easy to get along with. He apparently had developed an appreciation for my ability in the field, so when C. A Scott came to him asking for an editor I was named as the person who would suit what he wanted.
So then I went to Atlanta. The Atlanta World at that time was published twice a week. Shortly after I got there it became a tri-weekly. Then after a year it became a daily newspaper, and it still is a daily. I had the privilege of editing it into a daily newspaper and this was the first successful black daily in the nation. I stayed there from 1931 through 1934 when I returned to Chicago, with a little bit more on the Gary American, and then went to work for the Associated Negro Press as a feature editor. This was in 1935.
It was there that I became quite well acquainted with the problems of most of the black newspapers throughout the country. The Associated Negro Press was making every effort to fill the need of a news gathering agency to supply all the black papers. We were trying to be a combination of what in the white world were the Associated Press, United Press, and such organizations. So we had our job cut out for us. Particularly since most of the black newspapers were very poor and could not afford even the small fees that were being charged by ANP. Now the big black newspapers-there were about four or five of them-could pay. They did what they could along this particular line, but that was not quite enough to take care of all that was necessary.
THE BLACK PRESS
Black newspapers came into existence to counteract the extreme bias of most of the white press. Very few articles were printed in the white press which were other than being condemnatory of Negroes. And there was no social news, or anything of that nature. The black press therefore printed the other side of the news as seen from the black view point. We also had social notes and items of general interest which instilled a certain amount of pride in the black reader. And that in itself was a very strong reason for the existence of the black press. Now until the black press became comparatively powerful the white press could do and get by with just about anything they wished. Then later on after the black readers became alerted to what was going on, the black press was able to counteract much of the stuff that was going on. I was in Atlanta in 1931 just a few months after the Scottsboro case in which these nine black kids were arrested and almost railroaded to execution. The black press gave this full coverage, and it went a long way toward stopping not only the miscarriage of justice there, but in other events and other happening throughout the nation. So the black press has had a very significant part to play in advancing the welfare of black America.
Five years later we get a taste of the sharpness and passion for presenting the black side of the news that Davis brought to his reporting and commentary in a selection from a column he wrote from his ANP desk on the still simmering Scottsboro case
Once again justice has been administered in the world infamous Scottsboro case. Heywood Patterson, the first of those to be re-tried, has been given a seventy five year prison term for daring to ride a train which was also being use by two female bums. If the railroad had provided one boxcar with a sign “For Negro Hoboes Only,” this case might never have gone to court.
The nine defendants have already spent five years in prison. If these long terms are to be the best that can be obtained for the lads under the defense group, then the Reds may well have dominated the trials. Between execution and seventy five years in an Alabama prison, many sensible people would prefer death.
The ANP under those circumstances was as highly subjective as one could find. Our bias naturally was in favor of blacks, so therefore what we did was to serve in many instances to give an entirely different side to the picture which first appeared in the daily white newspapers.
Now Claude Barnett personally was quite conservative. I frankly was and still am quite radical. But we served as a very good counter balance to each other. We did not get in each others’ way. I was responsible almost solely for whatever went out in our releases. We usually had two releases going out a week. One on Friday that was our big release, and one on Monday, our deadline release. And anything else of importance developed we would wire our subscriber newspapers. Whatever I sent out I tried to make it completely newsworthy. And in all fairness I sent out many articles that were communist inspired. But unless that was something that was newsworthy, it didn’t go out across my desk.
www.reformation.org and Chicago Historical SocietyUsed only with express written permission
Left: Frank Marshall Davis (image courtesy www.reformation.org). Center: Associated Negro Press Pass (image courtesy Chicago Historical Society). Right: Claude A. Barnett (image courtesy Chicago Historical Society).
By my saying that he was conservative and I was radical, we both had the same goal in mind which is common to just about all members of the black press. And that was full equality, and an end to discrimination and racism. He thought he would get it on one side of the street, the conservative side. I thought I could get more of it on the radical side. So we sort of complemented each other without either of us being at all antagonistic toward each other. As a matter of fact on one or two occasions Claude, when he was an assistant in the Federal Department of Agriculture, was accused by the FBI of being present at some very left wing or radical meetings, and as being a key speaker. In actuality, I was the person who was responsible for the speeches that were made, which to my way of thinking showed how reliable the FBI could be. So we had these things which we had to consider.
Whatever Frank Marshall Davis would become in the midst of the partisan presidential politics of 2008, he clearly had the respect of his boss for his professionalism. Writing in 1954 to Corrine Murrow in the midst of the McCarthy hunt for subversives in government and the public sector, Claude Barnett would say this about his former managing editor.
I recall telling him we were interested in news about Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, so long as it was news and that we would use news about anarchists which was the worst word I knew if it had a news relationship to Negroes. I told him that under no circumstances would we brook any political propaganda. Mr. Davis agreed and never to my knowledge did he use this vehicle in other but an honorable fashion.
Well there he is, primary source and walking history text whose testimony would impact in important ways on what I would say about the Associated Negro Press and Claude Barnett in what became A Black National News Service: The Associated Negro Press and Claude Barnett. “Uncle Frank” to be would give me considerably more detail than what appears in these selections from his interview transcription, and would advance in productive ways my understanding both of the working of the Associated Negro Press, of the make-up and character of Claude Barnett and other ANP hands, and of the world Frank Marshall Davis lived in and reported on.
Thirty years later Frank Marshall Davis, African American journalist, would be presented to the American electorate as “Uncle Frank,” and on at least one occasion as "Father Frank," made into someone decidedly different than the man I knew as primary history source, as the 2008 salvos were fired from a variety of sources on the net and in print in an effort to impugn the fitness of character of the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
"Does anyone believe for one second that if John McCain or Sarah Palin were mentored by a self-admitted child rapist and general pervert that it wouldn't be the singular focus of multiple news cycles, questioning how such a relationship was damaging to their delicate and emerging psychologies, rendering them too unreliable for the Presidency, or perhaps darkly suggesting that the candidate might have been abused by such a mentor themselves?"
"Sometime between 1927 and 1948, Frank Marshall Davis was recruited as a special agent or informer for the FBI—Federal Bureau of Inquisition....As a newspaperman, Davis had the perfect opportunity to know what was happening in Chicago. As a left wing or "Communist" sympathizer, no one would suspect him of association with the ultra right wing FBI."
"Ann Dunham graduated from Mercer Island High School in Washington State, in 1960. Her family moved to Hawaii that same year where she attended the University of Hawaii."
www.reformation.orgUsed only with express written permission
"It was there that she had an affair with Davis and the result was baby Obama!!"
www.reformation.orgUsed only with express written permission
Ann Dunham & baby Obama
I’ll be darned! Frank Marshall Davis, Barack Obama’s “Communist Uncle Frank” – and his “real” father to boot! Frank Marshall Davis, Executive Editor, Associated Negro Press, primary source extraordinaire for historian Lawrence Hogan.
And most recently with news from Arizona about Sheriff Joe and his investigation that is splashed over the net, the hunt for a past that would disqualify Barack Obama for the Presidency he now holds has come back into today’s news cycle.
Sheriff Joe, you forgot to investigate “Uncle Frank.”
Different planet! Different universe!
Voices from America’s Black Past: Black Exemplars from Slavery Times to "Thank God Almighty, Free At Last." Lawrence Hogan. Thinker Media, Inc.
Dreams From My Father. Barack Obama.
A Black National News Service: The Associated Negro Press and Claude Barnett. Lawrence Hogan. St. Johann Press, Haworth, New Jersey.
Livin' the Blues. Frank Marshall Davis.
Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press, ed. by John Edgar Tidwell.
The Obama Nation. Frank Corsi.
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About the Author
Dr. Lawrence Hogan is Senior Professor of History at New Jersey's Union County College. He has taught, researched, written about, published,
For me, he was someone who in 1977 I needed to interview for my dissertation research. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was conversing with the man who in the election of 2008 would become controversially known as candidate Barack Obama’s “Communist Uncle Frank.”