Jim Crow, Science Fiction, and WorldCon

No black fans had become active to any extent by 1957, but females without brothers or husbands in fandom became more numerous. The one who attracted the most notice was Lee Hoffman, whom everyone had assumed to be male until she appeared at a fan gathering for the first time and almost disrupted the New Orleans Worldcon in 1951 in the process.
—Harry Warner, Jr. “Fandom Between World War II and Sputnik” in Science Fiction Fandom 70

Nolacon I, held over Labor Day weekend (September 1-3) in New Orleans in 1951, was the ninth WorldCon. Harry Warner’s pronouncement that no black fans had become active in fandom by 1957 was not true: black fans bought pulps and science-fiction books, and some even participated in “active fandom” as members of science fiction fan clubs and organizations. Allen Glasser in “History of the Scienceers” recalled:

During the early months of the Scienceers’ existence—from its start in December 1929 through the spring of 1930—our president was Warren Fitzgerald. As previously mentioned, Warren was about fifteen years older than the other members. He was a light-skinned Negro—amiable, cultured, and a fine gentleman in every sense of that word. With his gracious, darker-hued wife, Warren made our young members welcome to use his Harlem home for our meetings—an offer we gratefully accepted.
(Science Fiction Fanzine Reader 49)

Attendees at Nolacon might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. While the convention itself made no formal statement regarding race, racial segregation was very much in effect in New Orleans in the 1950s. Public transportation, restrooms, and other facilities were segregated into “white” and “colored” under Jim Crow; restaurants, hotels, and other businesses simply refused to serve black customers, blacks and whites had separate beaches and parks.

There were less than 200 attendees. Nolacon Bulletin #2 (July 1951) lists 196 members; Harry Warner, Jr. in in his memoir of fandom in the 50s A Wealth of Fable says 183 were officially registered “and 300 or more persons were believed to be on hand at one time or another” (352). Membership at the door was $1; tickets for the southern chicken fried banquet, $2.50. The convention hall was at the St. Charles Hotel, which was air-conditioned—and traditionally white-only. Not all the rooms in the surrounding hotels were air-conditioned, and fans sweltered in the heat. Unable to sleep, they began an all-night poker game in room 770, which became a two-day room party that reached legendary proportions.

One highlight was a midnight showing of The Day the Earth Stood Still at the local Saenger Theater. Seating was segregated. Black attendees would have had to enter through a side door, to sit up on the balcony. Had any black science fiction fans done so, the film they watched could have stood as a metaphor for the mythic white space they found themselves in: a film of the possibilities of the future starring white people, for white people; the few non-white actors such as Rama Bai and Spencer Chan went uncredited.

day-the-earth-stood-still-people-watch-as-klaatu-approaches-crowd

Segregation had risen as an issue in science fiction fandom long before Nolacon I was a glimmer in the New Orleans Science-Fantasy Society’s eye. In Summer of 1944, archfans Forrest J. Ackerman and Jack Speer had published an 8-page one-shot periodical in the Fantasy Amateur Press Association titled Black & White [PDF]. Ackerman published an editorial denouncing Speer’s racial prejudice and support of Jim Crow; and recalled:

On our way to the Nycon [1939, the first WorldCon], Morojo and I felt distinctly uncomfortable, embarrass[ed] to be members of such a country, when we passed through a certain state wherein seats in the coaches were partitioned temporarily and marked “For Colored Only.” We resented this, we did not like to think any colored people were blaming us in their minds, looking at us accusingly. Beyond personal, selfish considerations, we considered the situation fundamentally unjust. (Science Fiction Fanzine Reader 92)

The other half of the ‘zine was Speers’ rebuttal; which is proof if any was needed that even science fiction fans could be prejudiced and close-minded. The best that can be said is that Speer’s position was soundly thrashed in the fanzines that reviewed the periodical. Seven years later, it was in another fan-periodical that the issue of Jim Crow and Nolacon was raised:

On the subject of this year’s World Science Fiction Convention: It will be of great interest to this editor to discover whether there were both WHITE and COLORED entrances to the convention-hall this year, for the tenets of the sovereign state of Louisiana and the noble city of New Orleans strictly forbid the mingling of ‘Caucasian and non-Caucasian races’ in such public buildings as are usually the sites of conventions. Just as a clinical study, let’s review the case.

We know that the basis for the persecution, discrimination, and segregation of and against the negro in the southern U.S. is an economic one. It is profitable for the Southern bourgeoisie (if we may borrow a work from the marxist lexicons) to oppress the Negro and other minority groups. The only way in which to fight this racist fascism is [to] make it extremely unprofitable for the South to pursue this racist policy.

Cities like Miami Beach and New Orleans derive a sufficient sum from the tourist trade (which includes the many convention dollars spent, not at the auction, but on such relative nonessentials as food and lodging) to make them review with alacrity the necessity of maintaining feudal laws in the face of a serious decrease in this income. Therefore, we must look upon the South’s financial dependency on the tourist trade as a weapon which democratic Americans from more e[n]lightented sections of the county must use, as a club if need be, against the forces of bourgeois reaction and open fascism in the South.

Many progressives are foregoing the annual vacation-trip to Miami Beach, in the hope that this will graphically inform the business interests in the south who profit from such vacation-trips that democratic dollars shall not be spent to uphold [and] strengthen an undemocratic system.

It is up to the fans who will vote on future convention site[s] to make sure that all fans will be able to have an equally good time, regardless of the racial, national, or religious differences that may be evident to the eye of a sovereign state or a noble city.

—Michael DeAngelis, Asmodeus #2 (Fall 1951), 5

The call to action may sound familiar. The World Science Fiction Convention still struggles with issues of making sure that all fans, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ableness are able to fully participate, enjoy, and share their common love of science fiction art, literature, and media. While the Jack Speer of this generation may no longer be arguing explicitly and out loud for segregation, behavior which demeans, denigrates, and disenfranchises others based on such factors accomplishes much the same thing. Likewise, DeAngelis’ suggestion that fans vote with their wallets, choosing not to financially support racist policies, is still very much sound advice.

The editorial in Asmodeus #2 made little splash in fandom; by the time it came out, it isn’t clear that it would have been in time to affect attendance, even if it had achieved widespread distribution. Yet at least two fans chose to respond, in letter to the editors. The first is from L. Sprague de Camp:

Mr. DeAngelis’s attribution of Southern race-prejudice to the economic motives of the Southern reactionary bourgeoisie is the usual Marxian pseudo-scientific fertilizer, based on the ludicrous assumption that people mostly act in accordance with economic class interests. If he’d lived in the South he’d know that the strongest such prejudice is found among the Southern white proletariat, & and that it’s based not on economics but on a psycho-cultural attitude imbibed in childhood and derived from the former Southern caste system. Actually Southern segregational practices are highly unprofitable to all Southerners, but most Southern whites take the view they’d rather be poor than suffer what they consider spiritual defilement. I don’t approve of their attitude any more than deA, but to drag in Communist twaddle merely confuses the issue.
—L. Sprague de Camp, Asmodeus #3 (Spring 1952), 25

This is ultimately nitpicking without addressing the substance of the problem, something else that fans of science fiction today will recognize whenever the issue of discrimination rears its head. A penchant for pedantry often undermines any real progress, and carefully side-steps the issue of acknowledging a problem exists or what to do about it.

The second letter is from Redd Boggs, a prominent fan and fanzine publisher who has been nominated for several Retro Hugo awards for his fan-writing:

DeAngelis seems to be belaboring a dead horse with his remarks on the Nolacon. And after all, it was not the fault of the Southern fans themselves that Jim Crow exists down there. I might think more of them if I know they were doing what they could to break down racial barriers, but I don’t think less of them for putting on a convention despite the segregation that had to be observed. What else could they do? Should we have allowed the South to have a convention? I think we should have. They deserved the chance to have one, and to deny them one on the basis of racial prejudice smacks of another kind of prejudice. Sectional discrimination is almost as bad as racial discrimination. I don’t think fandom should ever allow a con to be held in a hotel where anti-Semitic rules are found, or—if it is anywhere but the South—where Negroes are barred, but if we go to the South there is little or no alternative. If there is an alternative, as there will be almost anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon, I trust we’ll take it. Otherwise, deAngelis’ analysis of the economic basis of segregation leaves much to be desired. I fail to see how an end to the tourist trade, if it affected the South very much, could accomplish anything but the opposite effect Mike desires: making the whites poorer and thus more in competition than ever with the Negro.
—Redd Boggs, Asmodeus #3, 27

“Sectional discrimination” in 1952 was the “reverse racism” of the 2020s—a fallacy used by those who claim that efforts to combat or reverse racial discrimination are themselves a form of discrimination. Boggs’ claims break down what might be the typical white fan’s mindset of the era: philosophically displeased with Jim Crow, but unwilling to actually do anything about it.

Implicit in all the Asmodeus debate are a number of implicit prejudices: that the culture of the American South was monolithic and unchangeable, that economics were a key factor in racial discrimination, that African-Americans were as a population disadvantaged by this discrimination, that science fiction fandom should not support racial discrimination…and that fandom as a whole was unwilling or unable to confront these issues with positive action.

We don’t know if any black fans tried to attend Nolacon I and were turned away at the door, but these issues were not simply theoretical—they were real, and affected real people. We know because there is at least one account of that actually happening:

[Gene Deweese had] been corresponding with a girl, Bev Clark, in northern Indiana, and wanted me to go with him to meet her, which suited me fine; I was finally finding girls I could talk to. Gene arranged things and we went up. It was the first time I’d met a black (or African-American, if you prefer) person socially. We got along fine, and later on we’d arranged that the three of us would drive to Midwestcon, again in my car; that car got a lot of use that summer; Juanita and her friend Lee Tremper would meet us there, and we’d have fun. We arrived at Beatley’s Hotel (or Beastley’s-on-the-Bayou, which was one of the fannish descriptions at the time) but Bev was refused admittance. No blacks allowed. None of us had even considered the possibility. On the way out, we talked to a few fans sitting on the hotel porch and some anger was expressed, especially by Harlan Ellison, who said that all fandom would hear about this outrage. We drove home, and as far as I know, nobody ever mentioned the episode again. Except me, of course.
—Buck Coulson, “Midwest Memories” in Mimosa #13 [PDF] (1993), 36

That was in 1953; Coulson added that later that year Bev attended the 1953 WorldCon in Philadelphia with them and there were “no room problems.” Juanita Coulson (she and Buck married in 1954), would add on to the account:

Lots of people commiserated and thought this was terrible and something should be done about it—but nobody did anything. We happen to know this particular instance pretty well. The convention hotel was Beatley’s at Indian Lake, a Midwestcon, and the Negro girl fan was Beverly Clark. She, Buck and Gene drove over from Indiana, had their reservations cleverly lost by the hotel management, much sympathy and no action from the other con attendees, and turned around and drove back that same night. A procedure I would not recommend. I didn’t find out about this until Saturday night, despite repeated inquiries of other people, some of whom were witnesses to the earlier incident. (I had come on the bus with Lee Tremper, expecting to meet the other trio. Obviously, I never did.) What could have been done? Well, at an outside guess I would say if the managers of the con and plenty of the fans had gotten together and promised the hotel keeper if she didn’t admit a guest with a reservation regardless of color they’d take their business elsewhere something might well have been accomplished. Nobody suggested this, and there was no indication that enough of the fans were willing to put their actions where their mouths were. They had lots of company in mundania at that time. […] It’s nice to think fans are slans and ahead of their times and farseeing and politically and socially advanced and all—but I’d take it with a healthy dose of salt. I been there. At least I got into fandom on the time-line edge, It was at that break point in the early-mid 50s that hotels began realizing there’d been an emancipation proclamation* or Buck and I would have missed a lot of cons. We wrote ahead to the hotel in Philly to make sure Bev Clark and her friend Eleanor Turner would be admitted, or we probably wouldn’t have gone.
—Juanita Coulson, Starling #14 [PDF] (1970), 19-20

Racial segregation in the United States has been officially over for some time; Supreme Court cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964) and legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped end Jim Crow—though it was a long and uphill struggle, and far from bloodless. We still deal with the issues raised by segregation and its ends today, culturally and socio-economically.

The full effects of Jim Crow and racism both implicit and explicit prevalent on early fandom will never be known. How do you measure the effect of those fans who wanted to attend, but were denied access to the hotel where the convention was held? How many fans were turned off by the lukewarm response from fans like Redd Boggs, who didn’t agree with Jim Crow but were willing to implicitly endorse it so that Southerners could have their own science fiction conventions?

While Jim Crow is a thing of the past, it is a part of science fiction fandom history—and one which we forget only at our own peril. There was a time when white fans did nothing, while black fans had to use side entrances and were denied entrance. If we are to not be hypocrites, to embrace and celebrate our diversity and look ahead to the future, we must make sure that all science fiction fans are treated equally—not harassed or discriminated against, not made second-class citizens because of their ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation—and to not retreat when such remarks are made.

Remarks were made at the 78th WorldCon, CoNZealand, in 2020. George R. R. Martin has been criticized for his hosting of the Hugo Awards at the event, where he spent considerable time discussing historically important figures in science fiction like John W. Campbell—long time editor of Astounding (1937-1971) and a noted racist in the Jack Speer vein. Martin has also been criticized for disrespecting the award winners, mispronouncing names and undercutting accomplishments like N. K. Jemisin’s “hat trick” of three Hugo awards for best novel in as many years, and four in the last five (2016, 2017, 2018, and 2020). Several times, Martin reminisced about when fandom was so much smaller, and the convention was simply held in a hotel.

Many fans and writers, including Jemisin and other nominees and winners, tweeted, blogged, and essayed about the awards, but one observation from genre fiction scholar Jess Nevins stood out:

In their way, the SFF gatekeepers are the equivalent of the Lost Cause Southerners: clinging for dear life to this fantasy construction of the past that is at angle to the real thing, making secular saints of white men of reprehensible moralities and behavior. (tweeted by @JessNevins 11:17 AM · Aug 2, 2020)

It can be difficult to get away from the shadow of the past. John W. Campbell and H. P. Lovecraft were racist; that does not negate their accomplishments as editor and writer, respectively, but it does cast a shadow over their legacy. In 2011, Nnedi Okorafor’s response to winning the World Fantasy Award—then in Lovecraft’s likeness and nicknamed “The Howard”—sparked a petition for the replacement of the award, which happened in 2015. In her acceptance speech for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best New Writer, Jeannette Ng called out the award’s namesake:

John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.

Her words sparked change; the award was renamed to the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, and Ng herself earned the 2020 Hugo for Best Related Work for making that speech.

Positive change can happen, if people raise their voices and work for it.


Originally published in The Cromcast Chronicle #1 (Dec 2020).

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

2 thoughts on “Jim Crow, Science Fiction, and WorldCon

  1. Horror/sci-fi/fantasy genre readers, like their favorite authors, often reflect the best and worst of their society with no special claim to being exempt from those failings. What can be said of these “Shadows Over Fandom” except that they exist (and existed), and that progress toward the enlightened, prejudice-free worlds often depicted in these stories is maddeningly slow but, despite setbacks and endless gatekeeping, still incrementally being made. And these devoted readers of possibilities who, having glimpsed them, know more than most that better paths are possible, have an additional responsibility to move their and our worlds toward those possibilities, .

    Like

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