The silence of the marching people can be sensed even in the sepia-toned photographs, which show women and children dressed in white, followed by men in somber black suits. Banners held aloft sound slogans like “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Your Hands Are Full of Blood,” while at the front, a line of drummers provides the only cadence, aside from the rhythm of walking feet. The July 28, 1917, NAACP Silent Protest Parade in New York City is recognized as one of the earliest African American civil rights demonstrations, but remains obscure in popular history. To mark its 100th anniversary, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University has organized a small display of photographs from the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection.
The four photographs by Underwood and Underwood are part of an archive of art and manuscripts formed in 1941, after the activist, diplomat, and author James Weldon Johnson was killed when his car was hit by a train. Yale commemorated the collection’s 75th year with a 2016 exhibition, and it featured in the more recent show Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & The Beinecke Library. “The photographs of the event attest not only to its political weight, but also to its beauty, to a portentousness that seems to have been carefully scripted and managed,” Melissa Barton, organizer of these exhibitions and curator of prose and drama for the Yale Collection of American Literature, which includes the James Weldon Johnson archive, told Hyperallergic.
“Remembering the Silent Protest Parade exposes the history to the many people who have never been informed about it and encourages research into the march and similar events,” Dante Haughton, a junior at Skidmore College and a summer intern working on the display at the Beinecke Library, told Hyperallergic. “Some will be upset that they have never been taught about the parade or the East St. Louis massacre [which inspired it] and want to know about other ignored events in our past and how/why they are led to be forgotten.”
In the video below, created by another intern, Yale School of Art MFA student Shikeith Cathey, Haughton reads the 1917 “call to march”:
According to the Beinecke, Johnson, who was an NAACP field secretary, conceived of the Silent Protest Parade, which was then organized by the NAACP in collaboration with community and church leaders. It drew an estimated 10,000 people, who walked down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan from 55th and 59th Streets to Madison Square. The protest was organized following the staggering brutality of the East St. Louis race riots, which left between 50 and 200 African Americans dead and thousands of others without homes, after their neighborhoods were burned by white mobs. Yet the violence that Johnson and other marchers, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Reverend Hutchens Chew Bishop, were responding to was deeper, sustained by a government that allowed Jim Crow laws and lynchings to go unchecked.
In a petition to the White House, the marchers called on President Woodrow Wilson to take action, stating that in the “last thirty-one years 2,867 colored men and women have been lynched by mobs without trial. … We believe that this spirit of lawlessness is doing untold injury to our country and we submit that the record proves that the States are either unwilling or unable to put down lynching and mob violence.”
The organizers ended their list of “why do we march” reasons with:
We march because the growing consciousness and solidarity of race coupled with sorrow and discrimination have made us one: a union that may never be dissolved in spite of shallow-brained agitators, scheming pundits and political tricksters who secure a fleeting popularity and uncertain financial support by promoting the disunion of a people who ought to consider themselves as one.
Much more terror was to come, including the “Red Summer” of 1919, which saw race riots in Nebraska, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Tennessee. Yet the Silent Protest Parade showed the potential for public demonstration before the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. As James Weldon Johnson later reflected, “The streets of New York have witnessed many strange sights, but, I judge, never one stranger than this; certainly, never one more impressive.”
The display of photographs from the 1917 NAACP Silent Protest Parade continues at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (Yale University, 121 Wall Street, New Haven, CT) through July 30.