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THE BROWNIES’ BOOK: Mapping Black Boston Education Histories

Cover Drawing for the July 1920 issue of TBB. The image depicts three males young, middle-aged, and elderly (left to right) each saluting, and attired in uniforms suggesting military service. In the background is the Crispus Attucks Monument (located in Boston, MA Boston Commons). The cover suggests a genealogical lineage of Black military service and a pronounced goal to honor Black servicemen.
A cover of the July 1922 issue of the Brownies’ Book, the first magazine for African-American children in the US. The cover shows the Bunker Hill Monument in the background, with a banner and flowers showing the spot where Crispus Attucks was killed on State Street in Boston. An African-American child stands guard to the left of the flowers and two African-American soldiers, one older man with a white beard and the other, younger and taller man, salute Crispus Attucks’ memorial.

Partially supported by a NULab Seedling Grant.

Feature image: Cover Drawing for the July 1920 issue of TBB. The image depicts three males young, middle-aged, and elderly (left to right) each saluting, and attired in uniforms suggesting military service. In the background is the Crispus Attucks Monument (located in Boston, MA Boston Commons). The cover suggests a genealogical lineage of Black military service and a pronounced goal to honor Black servicemen. Image source.

Long-taught in U.S. Education, and globally, is the idea that Boston, Massachusetts was the locus of action and conflict that begat the American Revolution and the United States. This is to say that Boston has become culturally narrativized vis-à-vis England in ideologies of “America” and Americanization, patriotism and national identity, and supposed “freedom”—likewise, these stories of the city have produced specific ideas of U.S. citizenship in/as a democratic republic. But we know, then and now, that Boston was far from free for enslaved Black people and Indigenous communities robbed of their lands. Walking the streets of Boston today, even, means confronting histories and public education in real-time.

Boston, MA presents a provocative case study for U.S. rhetorical education histories, particularly for American citizenship at the intersection of race and space. THE BROWNIES’ BOOK—a 1920-1921 African American children’s periodical co-edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Augustus Granville Dill—exemplifies particular ideologies of Black citizenship (and Black historical and civic education) at the outset of a burgeoning African American literary and intellectual tradition; it solicited and published work by famous New Negro (Harlem) Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen Imes, James Weldon Johnson and several others. What we know of THE BROWNIES’ BOOK is that it was used not solely for general entertainment, but also as a “reader” (textbook) in classrooms and schools. THE BROWNIES’ BOOK’s use in both regards suggests that there was a specific mission toward alternative education approaches that were ushered in by 20th century Black parents, teachers, and public intellectuals; this stands in contrast to national public education and global narratives of Boston (as a space) and Bostonian figures by bringing an explicit educative focus to Black Bostonians in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

The initiative to “map” THE BROWNIES’ BOOK within Boston’s geographic and education histories began in Fall 2022, but this project’s interest in Boston began much earlier for the Project Director. Tieanna Graphenreed began researching THE BROWNIES’ BOOK and children’s authorship in 2018, and quickly took notice of Boston’s recurrence as a topic and subject of literary, artistic, and historical discussion, from short stories to full-color illustrations.

Figure 1

The 2022-2023 NULab Seedling Grant supports archival research, development, and online hosting of a digital interactive map that illustrates Black-Boston historical sites discussed in THE BROWNIES’ BOOK alongside the geographies (schools, neighborhoods, training centers, and workplaces) of “Brownies”—the editors’ nickname for 20th century children and youth who subscribers and readers of THE BROWNIES’ BOOK. This small-scale case study helps contextualize THE BROWNIES’ BOOK’s import to (and impact upon) research and narratives of early 20th c. Boston and Black Bostonians across demographics—with special attention to how BROWNIES’ supports learning, teaching, and other aspects of Boston’s Black children’s education histories.

As an interactive digital map featuring Boston’s geographic landscape, this project will spatialize and visualize connections between early Black Boston histories and 20th century Black children’s rhetorical education. Notable in THE BROWNIES’ BOOK is how it showcases stories about prominent 18th and 19th century Black Boston figures and sites (e.g., Crispus Attucks and his monument, Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley Peters, etc.) and publishes letters, stories, and essays from early 20th c. Black children readers and parents from Boston in the magazine. To the latter point, the map will include information about writers’ Boston neighborhoods (like Roxbury or Cambridge) and school affiliations. Such hints about readers’ everyday spaces, places, and ideas are essential narratives in a map focused on 20th c. Black Bostonians experiences.

Figure 2

This map is set to be part of Tieanna Graphenreed’s dissertation and larger digital project THE BROWNIES’ BOOK INDEX, a digital database that documents texts and text-types, authors and authorship, and geographic presence of published works in THE BROWNIES’ BOOK (1920-1921).

THE BROWNIES’ BOOK in Boston” map will launch in December 2023 as part of a special collection with the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at Boston Public Libraries.

Figure 1. Testimonial letter, written by fifteen-year old Ruth Halliwell of Boston, Mass. In the letter, Halliwell expresses that sheand her little sister, Katie, enjoyTHE BROWNIES’ BOOK. She tells a relays a story that Katie had just received her first copy ofTHE BROWNIES’ BOOK, and that Katie is especially enamored with the Queen of Abyssinia [a reference to a photograph in theFrontispiece of the inaugural January 1920 issue]: “She says, ‘that little girl don’t look very old; maybe when I’m as big asher, I’llbe a creen, too.’ We are all interested in the magazine. I am fifteen and I like it as much as Katie.”(The Jury, Halliwell; MARCH 1920).

Figure 2. “Little People of the Month” in the September 1920 issue ofTHE BROWNIES’ BOOK. This column celebrates theaccomplishments of Brownies’ who have written to the Editors about their recent accomplishments or have otherwise beennominated for recognition by parents, teachers, or other children/youth. In the bottom left each page is a brief acknowledgementand photograph, respectively, of Lois M. Jones, a 14-year-old girl from Boston, Mass. who is reported to have won her secondscholarship at the Museum of Fine Arts. Jones is an Honors student attending the High School of Practical Arts at Boston.


“Data Play/Grounds: The Brownies’ Book Archive and Black Children’s Subjectivity”. DH Race and Lecture Series at Framingham State University, Framingham, MA (Metro-Boston area); lecture series funded by a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities Initiatives Grant. April 5, 2023.

Panelist. Lightning Talk, “Why an Index? On Archival Absences and Authorship in The Brownies’ Book.” NULab/Digital Scholarship Group Fall Welcome. November 4, 2021.

“Playing Tag: Meta(Data), Child Authors, and Other Lessons from The Brownies’ Book.” NULab Spring Conference: Data and Social Justice. April 9, 2021. Virtual. 

Panelist. “Working with Datasets in the Humanities.” Hosted by the DH Hub: A Collaborative Community for Graduate Student and Early-Career Researchers and Practitioners at Northeastern University.

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