We continue our Black History Month coverage with the first creator profile. I decided to go back in history and while going through some of the earliest cartoonists, I came across Oliver W. Harrington, a creator whose life was as interesting as his importance.
Nicknamed “Ollie,” Harrington was born in 1912 of multi-ethnic descent and passed away in 1995. Harrington was an American cartoonist and an outspoken advocate against racism and for civil rights in the United States, eventually leaving the country to live abroad living in Berlin, East Germany (where he received political asylum) for the last three decades of his life.
Born to a railroad porter, and an immigrant from Austria Hungry, Harrington was the oldest of five children and raised in the Bronx. His artistic talent was shown from a young age, and he used his talents to vent his frustration about the racism he faced growing up and began to take on a racist sixth grade teacher. No matter his talent he was sent to a high school to prepare him to work in the textile industry. But, Harrington focused on his art skill and the Harlem Renaissance. In 1931, he was able to enroll at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan. There, he refined his skills as an artist under the school’s accomplished faculty and earned a modest living as an actor, puppeteer, set designer, and cartoonist.
In 1932 Harrington began selling political cartoons to Harlem newspapers including the Amsterdam News where he caught the eye of city editor Ted Poston who hired him in 1935. There he used his skills as a cartoonist and political satirist where he created a series called Dark Laughter and then eventually changed the name to Bootsie after its main character. The character was an African-American dealing with racism in the U.S. and Harrington described him as “a jolly, rather well-fed but soulful character.” This strip is one of the first comic strips by a black artist to break onto the national stage.
Harrington’s left-wing politics was a focus of his political cartoons and he took a job as an art instructor with the Works Progress Administration. In 1942 he was named the art editor of the new Harlem newspaper People’s Voice where he created a new comic strip called Live Gray.
During World War II the Pittsburgh Courier sent Harrington as a correspondent to Europe and North Africa. In Italy, he met Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP. After the war, Harrington was hired by White to develop the organizations public relations department where he became an outspoken advocate for civil rights.
In his new-found role Harrington published Terror in Tennesse, a controversial expose of increased lynching violence in the post-WW II South. This lead to Harrington debating U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark on the topic of “The Struggle for Justice as a World Force.” He confronted Clark for the U.S. government’s failure to curb lynching and other racially motivated violence.
In 1947 Harrington had a falling out with the NAACP and resumed his career as a political activist and cartoonist where he revived Bootsie for the Pittsburgh Courier. In 1950 he was named the art editor of Freedom, a left-wing newspaper, and took a position as art instructor at New York’s Jefferson School of Social Sciences, a school with a prominent position on the long government list of purportedly subversive and communist organizations. His stance wasn’t helped at all when he went to the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War after an invitation from a Soviet humor magazine.
In 1961, he left Paris for East Germany where he requested political asylum and spent the rest of his life in East Berlin. The move was prompted by the death of Richard Wright, a friend of his in 1960 whom he suspected was assassinated and felt the American embassy had a deliberate campaign of harassment directed at the expat community.
In East Germany, Harrington continued his journalism and cartooning working for various communist publications. He illustrated and contributed to publications such as Eulenspiegel, Das Magazine, and the Daily Worker.
He returned to the United States a final time in 1994 as a visiting journalism professor at Michigan State University. After his death in Germany in 1995, Harrington was honored with the establishment of the Oliver Wendell Harrington Cartoon Art Collection at the Walter O. Evans Collection of African-American Art in Savannah, Georgia.