Black people have been fabulous for a long time and author/writer/social media maven Nichelle Gainer knew it. That’s why she created the Tumblr site Vintage Black Glamour (now also on Facebook, Twitter Pinterest and Instagram to showcase the style and glamour of Black people while also providing a window onto a history that tells more than just the story of slavery.
Vintage Black Glamour is a visual record of movie stars, singers, models, writers, dancers, students, politicians, athletes and even regular folks who were well-dressed, sophisticated and gorgeously turned out. All the images are accompanied by historical information that includes who is pictured and what they accomplished, In many cases, there are surprising historical moments similar to our own Little Known Black History Facts.
Gainer’s intent was always to create a lavish coffee table book to showcase that history and that has come to pass. In June, Essential World/Rocket 88 Books will publish her dream come true – a book that proves that style, fashion and sophistication are also a significant part of our history. We caught up with Gainer to ask what the book and the vision were all about.
Blackamericaweb.com: What gave you the idea for Vintage Black Glamour in the first place?
Nichelle Gainer: I started the Tumblr site to generate interest for what I always knew would be a book. I conceived Vintage Black Glamour in 20005 as the coffee table book that it would be. I came up with the idea because I love coffee table books. I’d go to any number of bookstores and you’d see awesome books with Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and some of the great socialites like Babe Paley. In researching a novel, I saw an array of Black people from all walks of life and I was disappointed but not surprised that I didn’t see more of that in coffee table books. The other reason was my two aunts. One was a fashion model in the 50’s in fashion shows and beauty contests and another aunt was an opera singer. I knew there were more women like both of my aunts.
You’ve gotten a great response to Vintage Black Glamour through social media. Did that surprise you?
I was surprised how fast it grew. But I knew there were more people like me. I’m no different than anyone else. I grew up in the 80’s and my textbooks didn’t have a lot of Black history cultural or otherwise. There were the standard things in there so I knew people had things missing from their history books just like I did. I knew there would be people knocked out by the pictures like I was. Not just the celebrities but [other people.] Information is powerful. I’m flattered when teachers tell me they’ve used some of the things we’ve shared or when parents tell me they’re going to have their kids to do a report someone we’ve shown that they never heard of before. So that’s what it’s about so people can get the fullness of our history because Black history is American history.
Do you think these images make a difference in the way that people view African-Americans?
I had a writer I respect very much call me an image activist. I guess I am, in a way. A lot of images I put up are to counteract things. We have the right to be as mediocre or rachet as anyone else, but let’s not forget our excellence. Let’s not forget our contributions and beauty and our style and our grace and our intelligence. Let’s not forget that. I think it makes a difference if I put up a picture on Veteran’s Day of two Navy men in the 40’s serving their country in a time when they could not get a coffee in most places. I think it’s powerful to put up a picture of Jane Matilda Bolin, the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School. I think that’s its powerful to show Lena Horne at a Paris fashion show in the 50’s. I know some people say ‘I don’t need to see a Black ice skater to know I can skate.’ That’s fine. But some people do.
People often look at Black history in terms of suffering and oppression. Yet these pictures show that people were still accomplishing and achieving even in difficult times.
It’s important to keep it going whether it’s at Vintage Black Glamour or other channels. Part of the reason that John H. Johnson started Ebony magazine was because he wanted people to know that Negroes get married and have parties and weddings and live their lives and go to concerts and shop for shoes just like everyone else. It’s a shame but it’s always a push to recognize our humanity. The typical things that are known about Black History Month are the same things. All Black history is not negative. Even in the midst of those things, people lived their lives. They enjoyed their lives at some point, even in the midst of these terrible things. Not all of our history is depressed and downtrodden. We need to know the fullness of our history and I think learning about the happy, interesting, different parts of it is fun and empowering.
Vintage Black Glamour, the coffee table book, will be released this June. To join the mailing list and be notified about the book’s release, click here.
A Tribute to Famous Firsts: Part I
50 photos Launch gallery
1. 1773: First African American woman to publish a book: Phillis Wheatley.
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2. 1827: First African American owned and operated Newspaper: The Freedom's Journal.
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3. 1853: First novel published by an African American: Clotel or The President's Daughter by William Wells Brown.
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4. 1866: First African American woman enlistee in the U.S. Army: Cathay Williams.
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5. 1872: First African American nominee for Vice President of the United States: Frederick Douglass by the Equal Rights Party.
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6. 1895: First African American person to earn a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) from Harvard University: W.E.B. Du Bois.
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7. 1899: First African American to achieve a world championship in any sport: Marshall "Major" Taylor, for 1-mile track cycling.
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8. 1901: First African American invited to dine at the White House: Booker T. Washington.
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9. 1908: First African American heavyweight boxing champion: Jack Johnson.
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10. 1910: First African-American female millionaire: Madam C. J. Walker.
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11. 1919: First African-American special agent for the FBI: James Wormley Jones.
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12. 1921: First African-American woman to become an aviation pilot, first American to hold an international pilot license: Bessie Coleman.
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13. 1937: First African-American federal magistrate: William H. Hastie (later the first African-American governor of the United States Virgin Islands).
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14. 1938: First African-American female federal agency head: Mary McLeod Bethune (National Youth Administration).
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15. 1939: First African American to star in her own television program: Ethel Waters, The Ethel Waters Show, on NBC.
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16. 1940: First African-American flag officer: Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., U.S. Army.
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17. 1941: First African American to give a White House Command Performance: Josh White.
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18. 1942: First African American to be awarded the Navy Cross: Doris Miller.
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19. 1943: First African-American artists to have a #1 hit on the Billboard charts: Mills Brothers ("Paper Doll"), topped "Best Sellers in Stores" chart on November 6.
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20. 1944: First African American to receive a contract with a major American opera company: Camilla Williams.
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21. 1944: First known comic book art by an African-American: Matt Baker for Fox Comics and Fiction House.
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22. 1945: First African-American member of the New York City Opera: Todd Duncan.
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23. 1947: First African-American artist to receive sole credit for a #1 hit on the Billboard charts: 'Open the Door, Richard' by Count Basie.
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24. 1948: First African-American star of a regularly scheduled network television series: Bob Howard, The Bob Howard Show.
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25. 1948: First African American to star in network television sitcom: Actress Amanda Randolph, The Laytons.
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26. 1948: First African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal: Alice Coachman.
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27. 1949: First African American to win an MVP award in Major League Baseball: Jackie Robinson (Brooklyn Dodgers, National League).
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28. 1950: First African American to win Pulitzer Prize: Gwendolyn Brooks (Book of poetry, Annie Allen, 1949).
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29. 1950: First African American to win Nobel Peace Prize: Ralph Bunche.
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30. 1950: First African-American woman to compete on the world tennis tour: Althea Gibson.
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31. 1950: First African-American solo singer to have a #1 hit on the Billboard charts: Nat King Cole ("Mona Lisa").
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32. 1954: First African-American U.S. Navy Diver: Carl Brashear.
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33. 1954: First African-American woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress: Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones, 1954) AND the first individual African-American woman as subject on the cover of Life magazine: Dorothy Dandridge, November 1, 1954.
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34. 1955: First African-American member of the Metropolitan Opera: Marian Anderson.
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35. 1955: First African-American male dancer in a major ballet company: Arthur Mitchell (New York City Ballet).
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36. 1955: First African-American singer to appear in a telecast opera: Leontyne Price in NBC's production of Tosca.
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37. 1959: First African-American Grammy Award winners, in the award's inaugural year: Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie (two awards each).
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38. 1959: First African American television journalist: Louis Lomax.
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39. 1959: First African American group to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100: The Platters ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes").
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40. 1961: First African American to win the Heisman Trophy: Ernie Davis.
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41. 1962: First African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: Jackie Robinson.
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42. 1962: First African-American coach in Major League Baseball: John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil (Chicago Cubs).
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43. 1962: First African-American composer nominated for an Academy Award: Duke Ellington (Best Music, Scoring of a Motion Picture, Paris Blues).
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44. 1962: First African-American attorney general of a state: Edward Brooke (Massachusetts).
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45. 1963: First African American named as Time magazine's Man of the Year: Martin Luther King, Jr.
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46. 1963: First African American to appear as a series regular on a prime time dramatic television series: Cicely Tyson, "East Side/West Side" (CBS).
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47. 1963: First African-American to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award: Diahann Carroll, for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role, for episode "A Horse Has a Big Head, Let Him Worry" of Naked City.
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48. 1963: First African Americans inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame: New York Renaissance, inducted as a team.
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49. 1963: First African American to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy: Charles V. Bush.
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50. 1963: The first and only African American to win a NASCAR Grand National event: Wendell Scott at Speedway Park, Jacksonville, Florida.
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