J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wheatley and Attucks “Against All Odds” Advertisements

On his Black Quotidian website, Matt Delmont shares material from African-American newspapers—the news stories, opinion pieces, and advertisements that black Americans in larger cities were reading in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Earlier this week the site featured a comics-style advertisement for Black and White Ointment and Skin Soap from the 17 Sept 1938 Pittsburgh Courier. That ad featured the Boston poet Phillis Wheatley—shown as a little girl coming of a slave ship at left.

Another ad in the same “Against All Odds” campaign highlighted Crispus Attucks, shot and killed at the Boston Massacre. It looks like twelve such pages might have been combined to create the Against All Odds booklet one could buy with three Black and White Beauty Creations labels and 25¢. I haven’t found any trace of that booklet today.

I can pick holes in the history that both ads relate. Wheatley didn’t meet King George III or, as far as the contemporaneous evidence tells us, Gen. George Washington. (But she did meet the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the colonies, and Washington did invite her to visit him at Cambridge.)

Likewise, no witness spoke of Attucks making a “speech” that incited opposition to the British troops on 5 Mar 1770, though he was at the front of the crowd that confronted the soldiers on King Street.

Still, these ads are valuable evidence of how the memory of Wheatley and Attucks was preserved and shaped in popular culture—not just in schoolbooks and formal histories but also in commercial communications. At a time when mainstream America was openly hostile to citizens of African ancestry, they upheld the memory of “the terrible ‘Middle Passage’” and of blacks’ role in the nation’s origin.

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