Ollie Harrington's dark humor and overlooked, remarkable life on display at OSU

'Dark Laughter Revisited: The Life and Times of Ollie Harrington' is on view at Ohio State's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, and it's a must-see

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Ollie Harrington's “Practice Makes Perfect,” from Eulenspiegel, 1980. Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Walter O. Evans.

Ollie Harrington’s sixth-grade teacher, Miss McCoy, inspired him to be a cartoonist, but not because she recognized his artistic talents. Rather, as Harrington recounted later in life, McCoy would call Ollie and another Black student to the front of the class and say, “These two, being Black, belong in the waste basket.” 

The young Harrington was powerless to combat his teacher’s vicious racism. There was nothing a Black sixth-grader could publicly do at a primarily white school. But he could draw.  

Harrington began making unflattering cartoons of Miss McCoy in his notebooks. “That actually was the impetus for his art, and it led to the work that we are surrounded by now,” said Kay Clopton, Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian at Ohio State and co-curator of “Dark Laughter Revisited: The Life and Times of Ollie Harrington,” on view at OSU’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. (Due to staffing shortages, the Billy is currently closed but will open this weekend on Saturday and Sunday from 1-5 p.m. and next week from Tuesday to Sunday with the same hours; the exhibit runs through May 8.)

The remarkable exhibition highlights the work of an artist whose incisive satire and unapologetic activism intersected with the Harlem Renaissance, World War II, the Red Scare, the Civil Rights era and more. And yet, few people are familiar with Harrington’s cartoons. “He was completely shut out of the mainstream press because of his race, so he worked as he could for the Black press for the first part of his career,” said co-curator Jenny Robb, an associate professor at Ohio State and longtime curator at the Billy. “His work is not very well known, not even within the cartooning community. We're hoping to change that with this exhibition.”

Ollie Harrington's "Here, Brother Bootsie, take this extra hammer I got here in case the gentlemens of the law decides that this demonstration is too peaceful!" From "Bootsie," June 29, 1963. Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Walter O. Evans.

Harrington was born in 1912 in Valhalla, New York, near White Plains. He graduated from high school in the Bronx and then moved to Harlem at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, crossing paths with Langston Hughes, who later wrote, “As a social satirist in the field of race relations, Ollie Harrington is unsurpassed.”  

In 1940, Harrington graduated from Yale University with a fine arts degree. “This is probably why his editorial cartooning is so detailed and so lush. He actually is a trained artist,” Clopton said. “It's the immaculate detail that he always puts into his work that is just so fascinating to me.” 

In the mid-1930s, Harrington created the series “Dark Laughter,” which he later renamed “Bootsie” after the popular main character. The strip ran for over 35 years in publications such as the People’s Voice (where Harrington served as art director), the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. Along the way, Harrington took aim at white supremacy without Bootsie ever uttering a word. 

“Things happen to him, but he never is the voice. He’s just the silent participant, the silent witness. We never get his perspective. We just get perspectives on what people think of him,” Clopton said.  

By giving voice to those around Bootsie, Harrington creates a lifelike world of fully realized characters. “He tried to show real people. They were three-dimensional. They weren't one-dimensional stereotypes. They were flawed, and he wasn't afraid to show that. That was part of what he was trying to do, which is show the Black community and show people of color as they really are,” Robb said. “He's from the community, speaking to the community.”

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“He’s showing that we, as African-Americans, are also human beings,” Clopton added. “We are not creatures that don't feel. We try to enjoy life. We try to live life, and he shows how difficult it is to exist in a world that is working against you.”

Ollie Harrington. "Officer, what Alabama bar was you holed up in back in '44 when I was in Normandy protectin' your civil rights?" From "Bootsie," Aug. 8, 1964. Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Walter O. Evans.

Often, that caustic world can look quite dark. In one panel from 1942, a white man stands next to the corpse of a Black man being dragged behind a car and speaks to two German soldiers standing over the body of a woman and child: “You Nazis are pretty good, but we Texans don't do so badly ourselves!” In another World War II-era panel, a Black soldier holds up a sign titled “War Aims” with text below: “Freedom not only for people of the ravished Europe, but also for the millions of terrorized colored people of the USA.” 

“This exhibit starts early and often with the heavy punches,” Clopton said. 

In the early 1950s, Harrington moved to Paris and joined the Black émigré community there. “They felt that they couldn't live full lives in the United States because of the systemic racism and the lack of opportunity, and they were treated differently in France,” Robb said. 

Plus, Harrington got a tip from a friend that the FBI was investigating his Communist ties, and that he would be called before the House un-American Activities Committee. “To be fair, he did have Communist sympathies,” said Robb, noting that the People’s Voice was associated with the communist cause. “He did feel that socialism would actually help the Black cause, but during the Cold War, that was a very dangerous thing. … People lost their livelihoods. They lost their jobs.”

As it turns out, the FBI was, indeed, investigating Harrington, and some pages of those heavily redacted files are on display in the exhibition. (Despite his sympathies, Harrington was not a member of the Communist Party.) “It's not paranoia if they're actually out to get you,” Clopton said. “Having the FBI investigate you, that's just the icing on the cake of, ‘I don't really want to be here.’” 

The investigation was also part of a wider attempt to discredit the Civil Rights Movement by imposing a connection between Communism and the struggle for racial equality, Robb said.

Ollie Harrington. "Long as they was whippin' on the brothers it was called Law an' Order. But it got so good to 'em that they started whippin' everybody an' now they screamin' about violence!" From "Bootsie." Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Walter O. Evans.

In 1961, Harrington moved to Berlin in East Germany and ended up getting stuck behind the Iron Curtain as a result. From there, he continued making cartoons until his death in 1995, publishing in U.S. and East German outlets, including the magazine Eulenspiegel. His work commented on international issues like famine in Africa and apartheid in South Africa, often with “imagery that, for mainstream Americans, would have been quite shocking,” Robb said.

His work in the 1960s touched on issues of police brutality toward African Americans, as evidenced in one rough sketch that may or may not have seen publication. In it, two policemen point a gun at a child cowering in a corner. “We could say he threatened us with a knife... if we had a knife,” one officer says to the other. 

“That really grabbed me when we first received these, because it looked like something you could have just published today,” Clopton said. “This is the kind of work that I want people to look at and realize: what you see now has been an issue for a long time. If we want change to happen, we have to do something. We can't just sit by. Because when you sit by, it keeps coming back. And he wanted to change that.” 

Other rough drafts and sketches on display reveal the painstaking lengths to which Harrington went to bring his detailed characters to life. That artistry is the biggest takeaway for Clopton. Yes, Harrington has been overlooked. Yes, he brought important issues to light. “But we need to also recognize that this man was a fantastic artist,” she said.

On the wall of the exhibition space, Clopton and Robb included a quote from Harrington in large type: “For, you see, we are not people who despair — we are people who, having lived on the edge of life, want simply to live life fully, to live life without barriers, to be all that we can be and a little of what (like you) we hope to be.”