ACE MALLORY by E. Harper Johnson
(c) 2016, Arthur L. Lortie

African-American owned and operated newspapers, especially those that cater primarily to black audiences, have a long and proud history in the United States, dating as far back as March, 1827. Their format mirrored mainstream newspapers, right down to the inclusion of homegrown comic strips. I already looked at one of these, with the abbreviated history of the Jules Verne-ish strip //Phantom Island// from The New York Amsterdam News, and I have a few more on the backburner.

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This entry, Ace Mallory, comes from The New York Age. It's one of the few I collected that doesn't have science fictional themes. At first glance today, it might appear overly reverse-racist, but it was a product of its time, history and the personnel involved.

The Age itself was one of the most influential and longest lived of these niche papers. It had been founded by Timothy Thomas Fortune with his close friend Booker T. Washington as a silent investor. The Age began October 15, 1887 as an expanded version of the weekly New York Globe and its successor, the daily Freeman. Its tone echoed Fortune's philosophies, including promoting racial pride by focusing on the accomplishments of prominent blacks and their history.

Washington was the leading spokesman of his time for black issues and a master at public relations. As lynchings in the South reached their peak in 1895, Washington gave a famous speech, leading to the "Atlanta compromise," which brought him national fame. He called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship, rather than trying to challenge directly the Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South.

After World War II, the popula
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Richard and Vicky Bourne-Vanneck
rity and prosperity of black newspapers grew by leaps and bounds. Circulation had reached over 2 million with 4 New York newspapers - the Courier (277,900), the Afro-American (235,600), the Defender (193,100) and the Amsterdam News (105,300) - accounting for 38% of that total. One criticism of these newspapers was that, to boost circulation, their headlines leaned toward the lurid and sensational.

The Harlem-based Age, however, was not a beneficiary of this growing audience and the gap between their readership and that of New York's Big 4 was widening. Meanwhile, as the 1940s were nearing its close, racial equality seemed to be finally starting to make mild progress, especially after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league sports when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947. This led some to feel that a more balanced approach to black news might be in order.

In August, 1948, the long rumored sale of The Age was completed for $120,000 from the Fred R. Moore Corporation. The new owner was Englishman Vincent Paul Richard Bourne-Vanneck (June 11, 1913 - April 25, 1989). Known as Richard, he was a white English engineer, who, on June 26, 1943, had married Ethiopian Victoria Algia Thomas, a former Red Cross worker living in Cardiff, Wales, who just happened to be black. An influential and popular couple in English society, they emigrated to the United States in December, 1947 looking for new business opportunities. They came to New York with what one paper described as "an open mind, and they wound up with a newspaper".

Vicky became the managing partner and the new owners attempted to tone down the sensationalism by changing its politics from "Republican to progressive but not Communist." Their lofty goals, however, never materialized and after a brief rise in circulation, likely due to a wider distribution channel, sales spiraled downward. They eventually had to sell out to the Chicago News Defender after just 4 years.

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Their first big move af
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Dan Burley
ter taking over the paper, however, had been a very good one. On August 28, 1948, they lured rising star Dan Burley (11/07/1907 – 10/29/1962) away from the rival Amsterdam News to become their managing editor.

Burley quickly became one of the most respected newsmen (of any color) in New York. He guested on many network television and radio shows before hosting his own two shows on WWRL Radio and also appeared in five films. He also edited many other African-American publications, including the magazines Ebony and Jet.

He also had a personal tie to The Age's history -- his mother, the first African American woman to teach at Armour Tech (the forerunner to the Illinois Institute of Technology), had taught under founder Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University.

A true polymath, his successful journalism, radio and film careers were matched by his talents as a pianist and poet. He learned piano while attending Wendell Phillips High School with classmates and famous jazz musicians Lionell Hampton and Louis Jordan. His own music career began playing Blues cafes, socials and clubs in Chicago and his barrelhouse playing style is said to have influenced the Beatles song Lady Madonna.

His newspaper career began with the Daily Defender, a Chicago weekly, and, at age 22, became its sports editor. In his widely syndicated column, he became a leading advocate for the integration of baseball, and he also wrote for the Chicago Bee. After moving to New York City, Burley became theatrical editor of the Amsterdam News and married his first wife, Gustava McCurdy, the first black woman to sing the national anthem at Madison Square Garden, andin 1946, founded his own musical group, Dan Burley & His Skiffle Boys and collaborated with several famous jazz greats, including Hampton and Cab Callaway.

Encouraged to document Harlem and jazz dialect and idioms by the famous poet Langston Hughes, Burley popularized this lingo in his dialogues and stories, and parodied Shakespeare and other famous poets. He is credited with coining the word bebop and his resume includes authorship of the influential Harlem Handbook of Jive, which helped bridge the gap in understanding between white and black Americans in the post-World War II era. It sold more than 100,000 copies through two printings, in 1941 and 1944.

Burley then recruited E[ugene] Harper Johnson, a fellow musician, as staff artist. Harper, as he signed his work, began his career as a violinist and performed internationally in Europe and Africa. But after he injured his wrist in a horseback riding accident, he turned his attention full time to art and illustration. He illustrated his first book in 1938.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he studied music and art in France at the Studio of Gene Paul Lawrence and at the Academie Julian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pratt Institute and the National Academy School of Fine Arts. He illustrated more than 200 books beginning in 1938, contributed articles to many journals and books and his paintings hang in many museums and galleries.