Who determines who and what is newsworthy? This question served as a starting point for two New York Times journalists who aimed to uncover the historical erasure of African Americans from news organizations by examining unpublished photos in the Times’ archives. The photos they found have been published in a new book, “Unseen: Unpublished Black History from The New York Times Archives,” and are on display at an exhibit at Barnard’s Altschul Tunnel through the end of December.
The authors of “Unseen” spoke at Barnard on Thursday following the unveiling of the exhibit earlier in the week. The photographs on display at Altschul feature celebrities like Aretha Franklin, James Baldwin, and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as everyday families in Harlem and Detroit.
Authors Rachel L. Swarns, a New York Times reporter, and Darcy Eveleigh, a former New York Times photo editor, joined Kim F. Hall, the Lucyle Hook Professor of English and a professor of Africana studies, in Barnard’s James Room for a panel and discussion about their new book. The book was co-authored by New York Times reporter Damien Cave and former senior editor at the Times Dana Canedy, who became the first person of color, first woman, and youngest administrator of the Pulitzer Prize at the Journalism School last year. Canedy was not in attendance at the event.
Eveleigh and Swarns described moments during their archival research when they confronted racial bias in photo editing. As an example, they shared photographs that ran in the Times following a tennis match in the early 1960s in which Arthur Ashe defeated Dennis Ralston.
“This is a story that we pretty much found was a blatant example of racism and bias by editors at the time,” Eveleigh said. “Arthur [Ashe] was the No. 6 player at the time, and he upended the No. 1 seed. But the next day, the paper ran two photographs of the white loser and not a single photograph of the black winner. If that happened today, I would probably be fired if I did that.”
The project emerged from a conversation between Eveleigh and former New York Times photo editor John G. Morris, who in 2012 urged her to explore the Times’ archives and “re-edit everything.” She and Swarns described the process both of identifying neglected rolls of film that contained significant footage of African Americans as well as uncovering the publishing and editing decisions made by journalists who came before them.
“Part of this project was about bringing to life and unearthing beautiful images that had not been seen before, but also looking at ourselves as an institution, [asking] what we covered, what we didn’t, and why we didn’t,” Swarns said. “The New York Times was an institution at a time when institutions were marginalizing African Americans and not covering people.”
The authors shared the stories behind a selection of the book’s images, including the Times’ most published staff photograph of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the only staff photograph of Medgar Evers taken days prior to his assassination.
“Some of these pictures we looked at and we said to ourselves, ‘There’s racism there, probably,’” Eveleigh said. “In other instances we just couldn’t say for sure. Maybe there wasn’t space—the newspapers didn’t value images in the way we do now.”
The event and exhibit were co-hosted by the Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Barnard Communications. Patricia Keim, Barnard’s assistant vice president for communications & marketing, spoke about the relevance of displaying these images on campus.
“When we heard about the project and how interesting it was, the book seemed to lend itself to things and issues that we’re discussing at Barnard,” Keim said. “We asked the Times if they would be interested in helping us mount an exhibit so that people could experience and interact with the images in more than one setting.”
Hall noted that the presence of the photographs on Barnard’s campus are contributing to ongoing conversations about the history of representation in media as well as at universities.
“There’s a quote in the book that says something like, ‘History is at your front door,’ and this is exactly what this project is doing,” Hall said. “You don’t have to go into the archives, you can just go into a building [on campus], it’s here.”