Living History: Connecting the Threads Between Juneteenth and the Story of Black Graphic Designers

Posted inDesign Education

There is no complete U.S. history without America’s accountability of its own story of slavery. We can try to vote it out of our classrooms, our libraries or even our history text books. We can even try to close our eyes to the residual pathology still lingering over our communities today. We have a saying in the Black church, “Trouble don’t last always.” The era of slavery did indeed end, but did its ethos really end?

The African American community commemorates the end of slavery with the celebration of “Juneteenth.” Juneteenth as a federal holiday is relatively new, but for generations, the Black community has regarded it as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day. Most definitely a day of jubilee, Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery, at the close of the Civil War 1895.  

The holiday began in Galveston, Texas, where those enslaved people hadn’t been informed that the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in 1863. They didn’t realize they were free. They didn’t know that slavery had ended.  The Emancipation Proclamation 1863 wasn’t implemented in many areas until after the Civil War in 1865 and until June 19, 1865.

Composing room of the Planet newspaper, Richmond, Virginia
Library of Congress

Originally Juneteenth was celebrated during community events, church picnics and neighborhood gatherings, across generations of the Black community. It became a federal holiday in 2021 when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Juneteenth was established as a federal holiday because of the tireless labor of Lula Briggs Galloway, Opal Lee, and a cadre of insistent activists, assertively advocating for the commemorative holiday. Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday established since 1983, when the Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

The circumstances that gave rise to Juneteenth somewhat remind me of the Black designers’ place in the canonical story of design. Just because we were not in the Euro Anglo Modernist record keeping of a canonical design history doesn’t mean my BIPOC community of Black designers didn’t exist or have its own history. We have always existed, and this truth maybe unknown to many, but our Black graphic design history began in enslavement. We have always participated in the story and technology of communication design in North America.

People posed on porch of and in the Planet newspaper publishing house, Richmond, Virginia
Library of Congress

The Slave Artisan from West Africa is the first Black designer in North America making HIS appearance in the Colonial printshops during and after slavery. As emancipated labor, my research points to HIS (there were no women initially recorded; the first appeared at Spelman College and Claflin University) labor was a threat to the printing and typographic trades organizing after slavery concluded. This is the beginning of erasure, discrimination and extreme prejudice as well the use of white supremacy tactics against the Slave Artisan as one of our country’s first graphic designers, typographers and printers. Though much of Black design history has been obscured, one sociologist has written extensively of our journey and reveals the hidden truth that has always been there.

W.E.B. Dubois, an African American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and father of data visualization and information graphics, offers the Black designer’s documentation of our origins and our rich history of our participation in the design industry. He wrote countless essays on the Slave Artisan. Recently, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum invited me to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Illuminating DuBois: Examining the Legacy of a Sociologist and Historian Through Research and Design” about Du Bois’ legacy and its impact on my work. I discussed my research findings which offer great insight into the Black graphic designers’ origins and history in North America, origins that can be traced to Africa. In a vintage series of essays edited by James E. Newton and Ronald L. Lewis, “The Other Slaves: Mechanics, Artisans and Craftsmen,” I discovered Du Bois’ entry, “The African Artisan.” In it, DuBois tells us that the first cargo of “Negro” slaves were Negro American artisans who first landed and were sold to the settlers in the Virginia colony. His essay “The Ante Bellum Negro Artisan,” speaks volumes of truth in its opening line, “The Negro slave was the artisan of the South before the war…” The book of compiled essays speaks of woodcutters, printers, engravers, typesetters as Southern artisans having their origins in West African and landing in Colonial America. Uncovering such a rich Black design history in the history of enslavement has been incredibly validating.

Du Bois’ work that has captured the design community is the story of his data visualization charts. More than geometric drafted charts in the popular book, W.E.B Du Bois’ Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America, there is a rich, hidden history of Black graphic designers. Focusing on the revitalized discovery of the vintage graphic charts, we discover exactly where our presence is located within the graphic design, typographic and printing industries during and after slavery.

Two charts in particular show us the presence of the Black designer up from slavery: Chart No. 61—U.S. Negro Newspapers and Periodicals and Chart No. 57—U.S. Negro Businessmen who are Publishers and Editors. In these charts exhibiting Negro newspapers, periodicals, publishers and editors we can logically deduce that there must be graphic designers, typographers and pressmen! Eugene F. Provenzo Jr.’s “W.E.B DuBois’s Exhibit of American Negroes: African Americans at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century” and The Library of Congress’s “A Small Nation of People: W.E.B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress, share the complete photographic account of the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle where we first discover Du Bois’ data visualization charts, but there’s more. Provenzo, tells us the exhibit was planned and executed by “Negroes,” curated by Thomas J. Calloway and W.E.B Du Bois as well as Daniel A.P. Murray.

Du Bois, as sociologist, was dedicated to researching and publishing data about the African American community after Emancipation and up from slavery. When we search the complete photographic story of the 1900 Paris Exposition, we discover a more dynamic conversation than geometry which may have influenced the Modernist contemporary art movement and origins of Bauhaus DNA.

Press room of the Planet newspaper, Richmond, Virginia
Library of Congress

Recording their progress was of great importance to DuBois especially coordinating Atlanta Conferences at Atlanta University where he was a teacher and researcher. At Atlanta University, he further developed his commitment to Urban Sociology in United States. His sociological studies of the African American condition and progress present every walk of life the “Negro” faced after Emancipation. I have discovered significant data and research conversations about the “Negro Artisan” as he moves in the labor force in America after slavery. Du Bois’ Atlanta essays are also dynamic resource files for even the Women in Design history of Black designing women in America!

I was a freshman at Rhode Island School of Design when Fannie Lou Hamer gave her speech  “Until I Am Free, You Are Not Free Either,” delivered at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, January 1971.  At that time, I never knew there was such a cadre of 1970 Black Designers— Dorothy E. Hayes, Mahler Ryder, Reynold Ruffins, Emory Douglas and their colleagues making design contributions after emancipation and through the civil rights era. I never knew there were Black students on RISD’s 1969 campus demanding diversity in its student body.  An integrated design history had never been written during the Civil Rights Era, during my coming-of-age design narrative.

Printing with printing presses at Claflin University, Orangeburg, S.C.
Library of Congress

As a product of the era’s prejudicial thinking, I never truly understood why my high school teacher told me I would never be an artist. Why would she tell me as a teenager, that I would have no future as a visual artist? Racism and the bigotry of low expectations are the primary barriers for young Black designers and artists. This Juneteenth 2023, I stand with Fannie Lou Hamer and her immortal words!  Just because the design historical canon didn’t teach me of the Black designer’s contributions doesn’t mean I haven’t learned about that invaluable history. And now, uncovering and sharing that history is a cornerstone of my life’s work.

We have a collective history that is true to our design community. Today, our design academics and practitioners are serving a far more diverse community than those who were trailblazers through the closed doors of our industry. I even teach a decolonized design canonical history because there are so many new design stories and histories that must be included in our Academy’s pedagogy. Centuries after emancipation, I am dedicated to decolonizing the design canon for a more fair, just and equitable history we all can freely embrace. We all can and should celebrate Juneteenth! We are free to tell the story as we see fit, no matter what subject positions we inhabit.

Happy Juneteenth!

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller is recognized for her outsized influence within the graphic design profession to end the marginalization of BIPOC designers through her civil rights activism, industry exposé trade writing, research rigor, and archival vision. Miller is a national leader of minority rights, gender, race diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion advocacy in graphic design. She is founder of the former Cheryl D. Miller Design, Inc., NYC, a social impact design firm. She is a designer, author, educator, theologian, and a decolonizing design historian.