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In 1959, two white men teamed up to tell the Black man’s story during the era of segregation in America.
George Levitan was born in Michigan in 1905. By 1950 Levitan was living in Fort Worth, where he bought the company that published Negro Achievements magazine. He changed the title to Sepia and hoped to compete with Ebony magazine.
In 1957, Levitan hired a young writer who had his own story to tell.
John Howard Griffin was born in Dallas in 1920 and by 1930 was living in Fort Worth’s Fairmount neighborhood with his parents. Griffin briefly attended Paschal High School but at age 15 went to Europe to study medicine and music. He trained as a musicologist. During World War II he worked in the French Resistance as a medic. He then served as a forward observer for the U.S. Army in the South Pacific, where he was blinded. He returned to his parents, now living on a farm near Mansfield. Despite his blindness, he wrote fiction and nonfiction.
The year 1957 was monumental for Griffin. First, his sight suddenly returned. Second, he was hired by George Levitan.
By 1959, Griffin’s restored sight had allowed him to observe the South around him for two years. What he saw made him want to trade his eyes for a new pair: Griffin wanted to see the South through African-American eyes — at least to the extent that any white person could. So, in 1959 Griffin pitched an audacious story idea to Levitan: Griffin would have his skin darkened chemically and travel across the segregated South as a black man. Levitan told Griffin he was crazy but agreed to finance Griffin’s Dixie odyssey — including the medical procedures — in return for the right to serialize in Sepia magazine Griffin’s account of his experiences.
In late 1959 Griffin, his skin darkened and his hair shaved, left New Orleans and headed east toward Georgia, traveling by thumb and by Greyhound. He sat in the back of city buses, ate and slept in cafes and hotels that accepted African Americans, confined himself to “colored” water fountains and restrooms, worked at the only jobs open to African Americans, such as shining shoes. Yes, he was shown kindness by both Blacks and whites, but he also learned to withstand what he called the “hate stare” from white people.
Griffin wrote: “I found that in New Orleans, the Negro receives many courtesies from the whites, certainly far more than in any other southern city I visited. But all the courtesies in the world do not cover up the one vital and massive discourtesy — that he is kept in a status of inferior citizenship because he is a Negro. He is not a second-class citizen, but a tenth-class one ... The feeling of utter hopelessness I found among Negroes elsewhere in the South is replaced in Montgomery by a spirit of passive resistance. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s influence, like an echo of Gandhi’s, prevails.”
After six weeks living as a Black man in the South, John Howard Griffin returned home. In 1960 he described his experiences — often harrowing — in the serial “Journey into Shame” in Sepia magazine.
Predictably, reactions to Griffin’s social experiment were mixed. For example, Sepia’s rival magazine Ebony pictured Griffin on its cover; in Griffin’s hometown of Mansfield, he was hanged in effigy.
Griffin’s story was published as the book “Black Like Me” in 1961 and became a best-seller. A film starring James Whitmore was made in 1964.
George Levitan died in 1976. John Howard Griffin died in 1980.
Today, a half-century after a white man saw the South through a Black man’s eyes, “Black Like Me” continues to be read in several languages and to be taught in colleges.
Mike Nichols blogs about Fort Worth history at www.hometownbyhandlebar.com.