Bertram A Fitzgerald
and the Golden Legacy Series of Black History Comics
by tom christopher
(an edited version of this article appeared in the Comic Buyers Guide)
Bertram A Fitzgerald is the publisher of the Golden Legacy Series of Black History Comicbooks. During the Decade between 1966 and 1976 he acted as editor and publisher for the series and wrote almost half the books. He also oversaw production of 7 issues of the integrated teen comic Fast Willie Jackson, as well as an anti drug comic.
Mr Fitzgerald was born 6 November 1932 in Harlem, New York, the first child of Bertram Fitzgerald Sr. and Hattie E. Sessoms. His father had been born in Jamaica, and lived in Cuba before coming to the US, and his mother was born in Virginia
Bertram had only been a cursory reader of comics as a child, reading only a small amount of the newsstand’s offerings, but he liked the Classics Illustrated series. He remembers enjoying the adventure stories of the early issues. The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe, the Count of Monte Cristo, the Last of the Mochicans, and Moby Dick, these stories touched his imagination and he equally enjoyed reading the biographies of the writers at the end of the book. But as much as he identified with the heroes of these sagas, so too was he offended by the stereotypical portrayal of his race in such books as Uncle Toms Cabin.
His love of reading grew past the comicbook stage and Fitzgerald progressed to more adult material, and eventually found himself in the airforce, a fan of W. Sommerset Maughm, and reading biographies of Alexander Dumas and Alexander Pushkin. He was dismayed that in each of these biographies, the writers took great pains to separate Dumas and Pushkin from their African heritage. He recalled this fact was also omitted from the Classics Comics biography of Dumas he had read years before, and wondered how it would’ve effected his own life to have known this great writer had been black at a time when his own understanding of the world and his potential in it was being formed, and he began to think of comics in a different way. He began to think of comics as a misused tool for education and social change. Fitzgerald remained in the Airforce during his college years, being stationed in Texas, California, Wyoming and Michigan, where he attended night school after completing his military duties. He graduated from Brooklyn college in 1953 with a degree in accounting.
In 1966 Fitzgerald was working for the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance when he jumped feet first into publishing. He acted as defacto editor of the first edition of Golden Legacy, though in hindsight, he feels he wasn’t fully prepared for the complexity of the job. He decided on the topic for the first issue, and approached his army friend Leo Carty, with whom he’d worked before, designing a board game Fitzgerald had created based on the stock market, and asked him to write and illustrate it. Fitzgerald later made minor changes in the script.
The first edition of Golden Legacy Volume 1, The Saga of Toussaint L’ Ouverture, and the Birth of Haiti was published in 1966, and now only needed to be distributed. Fitzgerald had had a difficult time finding a printer able to do good four color work on a black oriented magazine, eventually having to settle on a small out of state printer who’s lack of modern printing equipment is apparent on the early editions, and now he faced the same problems with distribution. Comicbooks were seen as entertainment, not education, the market for black educational material was considered marginal indeed, and Fitzgerald was unable to break into this biased newsstand monopoly. Instead he worked briefly with a loose group of independent distributors called commission men, who supplied the black community with specialized products like darker stockings, beauty products and dream books, which were overlooked by white distributors, but he found it difficult to be paid by these men. Volume 2, the Saga of Harriet Tubman, with story by Joan Bacchus and art by her and Tom Feelings was produced and distributed this way, but by Volume 3 Fitzgerald was looking for a more creative method of funding and distribution.
He approached the Coca Cola Company with the idea that since blacks accounted for a greater per capita share of soft drink sales than whites, they should acknowledge this by cultivating black customers through sponsorship of black culture. Coke was interested and they asked Fitzgerald to suspend newsstand distribution until they could work out a deal, which took about a year.
During this time Fitzgerald was introduced to Tom Feelings, an artist with a similar vision who had already prepared an illustrated feature on Crispus Attucks for another publication, and this feature was adapted for the third volume of Golden Legacy, with additional artwork by golden age artist Ezra Jackson.
This is the first issue to list Dr Benjamin Quarles, Professor of History at Morgan State College as consultant,and is the first issue to feature a full color back cover ad for the Coca Cola Company featuring photos of African American models.
One of Coca Cola’s concerns was the lack of printing quality on the early issues, but with their new financial backing, Fitzgerald was able to to get a better press to take his business
Fitzgerald believes it was his background as an accountant that allowed him to work out this deal to everyone’s advantage where Coca Cola bought ads before publication and would then buy bulk amounts of comics at a great discount to distribute them free to schools, libraries, and organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League and the Reading is Fundamental programs. 11 titles were published this way over the next several years, and the final few books were published under similar arrangements with a number of other companies. Bowery Savings, Equitable LIfe, Avon Cosmetics, A & P Food Stores, AT&T, Woolworths, Exxon, Columbia Pictures, McDonalds and Philadelphia Electric all became supporters of this series.
Howard Darden became art director with Volume 7, and new material was published through 1976, with an approximate total of nine million copies distributed.
In 1976 – 77 Fitzgerald tested the waters with an integrated teen comic called Fast Willie Jackson. It ran 7 issues between Oct 1976, and #7, September 1977. This book, while not code approved, received newsstand distribution and each issue had increased sales, but unfortunately did not reach the break even point until the last issue, and Fitzgerald was unable to continue publishing just as he was finalizing the sale of animation rights to Filmation, who had a current hit with Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.
In 1983 an out of state entrepreneur wrote Fitzgerald enquiring about buying a lot of comics, and asking about circulation. Fitzgerald wrote a letter in return giving him these figures. From out of state this person was able to use this letter to falsely convince Fitzgerald’s printer that they had a business relationship, and arrange for a reprinting of the series on credit, a feat Fitzgerald was never able to do, being required to pay up front for all his printing despite major corporate clients. The entire series of 16 volumes was bootlegged, with the copyright illegally assigned to the interloper.
Fitzgerald had experienced discrimination and racism before, both subtle and gross, in both his private and business lives. It was hard to say sometimes which was which, or which was worse. In his dealings with printers and distributors, it wasn’t necessary for him to be specifically slighted racially as an individual, but the generalized misconception that comicbooks about black history wouldn’t sell led them to be marginalised conceptually, and that inevitably to other blatant oversights, such as the omission in the Classics Illustrated series of Alexander Dumas’ racial heritage, and these ‘small’ oversights eventually form a big picture where the audience for this material is marginalised to the point of never seeing a reflection of themselves in the general culture.
Fitzgerald had felt at a couple of points that as a business oriented community activist he may have been under surveillance by Cointelpro or similar program to neutralize black activism. He received calls from all types of individuals and organizations and felt it only logical if any of his callers were under surveillance then he also would be by extension. At the time he was preparing his 13th volume, the biography of Martin Luther King Jr and working for a national holiday in his honor, while experiencing unannounced air conditioning repairs in the middle of winter and disappearing mass mailings of 63000 pieces, and a police official he knew socially assured him his phone was tapped. He would testify later in court that his printer’s rep passed on a message from a major comics publisher that his legs could be broken if he didn’t stop publishing, but was this racial, would it have happened to anyone outside the comics industry or was it the confabulation of his print rep, who seemed to have other emotional problems associated with him?
It was a stressful time for Fitzgerald. He was confounded by his experience with the court system over the four year copyright trial that followed. He sued the out of state party, who effectively disappeared, and his printer. He was originally given a monetary award, but liability had been split and the award was against the out of state entrepreneur, from whom Fitzgerald knew he would never collect. Upon appeal, he was given a larger award, but refused his legal fees, which ran to the amount of the award. The printer then appealed. Fitzgerald had suffered two heart attacks during this time and was warned by the judge ‘You’ll die before you get any of this money’. Mr Fitzgerald at this time was working for the Office of the Mayor of New York City as spokesman and advocate for the communications industry, and rather than appeal his case for the third time he retired to his full time occupation.
During the decade in which he produced 16 volumes of Golden Legacy Comics Bertram A Fitzgerald left a legacy of his own, comprising of the most successful series of Afrocentric comics to date. The Golden Legacy comics are thoroughly professional in their writing, art, and production values, and full of enough historical surprises to interest adult readers presented in a package accessible to younger readers. Golden Legacy Volume 10 covers the mutiny on the slave ship Amistad, which has recently been made into a movie by Steven Spielberg from sources that are, as of this writing, in dispute with court action pending. These comics utilized the talents of young unknown black writers and artists, some of whom have gone on to positions of prominence, such as Joan Bacchus Maynard, who is now executive director for the Weeksville Society, excavating black revolutionary war sites in Brooklyn, as well as established cartoonists of other races such as Charles Molina, Tony Tallarico and Don Perlin. Despite the racial hassles he experienced himself, Fitzgerald’s only criteria for those he employed was that they could produce professional work. ‘I just couldn’t bring myself to be a hater,’ he said recently, ‘it just didn’t make sense to justify their hatred in any way.’
Golden Legacy Comics are still in print and available through Fitzgerald Publishing Co. To see the website click here.
GOLDEN LEGACY COMICS
Volume 1 The Saga of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Birth of Haiti 1966
Writer Leo Carty art: Leo Carty
Volume 2 The Saga of Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her people 1966′
Writer Joan Bacchus Art: pencils: Joan Bacchus
Inks Tom Feelings
Volume 3 Crispus Attucks and the Minutemen 1967
Writer Tom Feelings Art: Tom Feelings and Ezra Jackson
Volume 4 The Life of Benjamin Banneker 1968
Writer Francis Taylor Art Ezra Jackson
Volume 5 The Life of Matthew Henson 1969
Writer Joan Bacchus Art: Joan Bacchus
Volume 6 Alexander Dumas and Family 1969
Writer: Bertram Fitzgerald Art: Ezra Jackson
Volume 7 Frederick Douglas Part 1 1969
Writer Bertram Fitzgerald: Art: Howard Darden
Volume 8 Frederick Douglas Part 2 1970
Writer: Bertram Fitzgerald Art: Howard Darden
Volume 9 The Life of Robert Smalls 1970
Writer: Bertram Fitzgerald, Don Perlin Art: Don Perlin
Volume 10 Joseph Cinque and the Amistad Mutiny 1970
Writer Joan Bacchus Art: Joan Bacchus
Volume 11 Men of Action: White, Wilkins & Marshall 1970
Writer: Bertram Fitzgerald Art: Ezra Jackson,
Don Perlin, Tony Tallarico
Volume 12 Black Cowboys 1972
Writer Don Perlin Art Don Perlin
Volume 13 Martin Luther King, Jr 1972
Writer: Bertram Fitzgerald Art: Don Perlin
Volume 14 The Life of Alexander Pushkin ‘*date’
Writer: Warren Parker Art: Tony Tallarico
Volume 15 Ancient African Kingdoms ‘*date’
Writer: Robert Fitzgerald Art Howard Darden
Volume 16 The Black Inventors Latimer and Woods ‘*date’
Writer Bertram A Fitzgerald Art: Leo Carty, Tony Tallarico
* Dates not readily avail;able. New material was puvblished through 1976
FAST WILLIE JACKSON
Fitzgerald produced 7 issues of the integrated teen comic Fast Willie Jackson in 1976 and 1977.
Most teen comics over the last 50 years have stayed close to the successful Archie archtype and while Fast Willie is no exception, it does push the envelope further than most.
Fast Willie is the designated everyman at Mocity High School. Not the best athlete or student, and hardly ever able to get a date, but nonetheless, the glue that holds the gang together. Joined by foxy DeeDee and Maria Martinez, ladykiller Frankie, Muscular Hannibal, Afrocentric radical Jabar and JoJo the class clown and augmented by Jose Martinez, Maria’s father, Sister Zola, the fortune teller, Police Officer Flagg, Mr Solomon, the deli owner, Ms Jane Fronda, the white homeroom teacher, and the tragi-comic incoherencies of Harry the wino, the kids breeze through not only the typical teen world of lost homework and beauty contests but more complex situations that involve home burglaries, getting into R rated movies, and police harassment. The kids even experience a dream sequence on a slave ship, courtesy of the then current book Roots and its TV adaptation.
Mocity is a specifically more urban setting than Riverdale, and the kids hang out at the Martinez’ restaurante, The Spanish Main, Solomon’s Kosher Deli and their Brothers Club House in an abandoned building. Background signage, some in Spanish and Hebrew, indicate bodegas among the hardware stores and movie theatres. The costumes and dialogue firmly anchor the series in the mid 1970s.
The books were written by Fitzgerald and artist Gus Lemoine. The art is clean, attractive and in the tradition of teen comics. The comics’ letter pages reflect an audience of mixed race, sex and ages from across the whole of the United States
Mr. Fitzgerald’s other effort, titled Drugs…Where It’s At. was the only book produced of a proposed series of public service publications. It’s a full sized, four color comic of 16 pages including the newsprint covers.
While themed commercial and public service comics are by definition a confined medium, and some of the information in this 1970 book is outdated, it is nonetheless a noteworthy effort.
The story opens with an interesting sequence where the first page and a half is comprised of panels that repeat, side by side. The first showing a drug pusher’s verbal approach towards a group of potential buyers, and the next showing his internal dialogue. He is arrested by the end of the second page, but on the top of the third page, the camera pulls back and we see the first two pages as a display on a classroom wall, and a teacher states ‘A stupid, short story designed to scare the daylights out of you…maybe…’ and a generally realistic appraisal of the potential dangers of drug abuse follows.
The art is by veteran cartoonist Tony Tallarico, and the scriot by Bertram Fitzgerald
A QUICK HISTORY OF BLACK COMICBOOKS
The first independently produced black comicbook, All Negro #1, June 1947, shares a general cover date with the first issue of Negro Heroes #1, Spring 1947. All Negro comics was new fictional material, produced by blacks for a black audience,and Negro Heroes was reprints from Parents ‘ Magazine’s non fiction series, Calling all Girls, Real Life and True Comics. A second issue of All Negro was prepared, but never published, and a second issue of Negro Heroes was published dated Summer 1948.
Fawcett published 3 issues of Negro Romance on a bi monthly schedule between June and October of 1950, with the second issue being reprinted by Charlton as Negro Romances # 4 dated May 1955.
During the early 1950s Fawcett also produces a series of sports hero books that included issues of Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis comics with photo covers. In 1954 Famous Funnies produced an issue of The Amazing Willie Mays with a line drawn cover.
Bertram A Fitzgerald produced 16 issues of Golden Legacy Black History comics between 1966 and 1976, and 7 issues of Fast Willie Jackson, an integrated teen comic in 1976 -7.
The last American edition of Classics Illustrated, number 169 was titled Negro Americans, the early years, and was released in 1969
All text Copyright Tom Christopher.
All Copyrights 2002.
All Rights Reserved.