I Solved a Literary Mystery That Nobody Knew Existed
Reader, I think I have found the answer to a literary mystery! That is good news. The bad news is that I seem to be the only person that cares. However, in spite of that, I will present to you why I think I have found the real Vivian Morris. Without saying much else I am going to present the original story I published back in September of 2018 and that will be followed by an update and the reason why I think I have found the true identity of this great writer from the 1930s and 40s.
Who Was Vivian Morris?
During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s New Deal included a program called the Work Projects Administration. It was launched to ease the pain of unemployment that the depression was inflicting on Americans. The program spanned from 1935 to 1943. As part of that New Deal, the Federal Writers Project was created in that same year. This project provided employment for writers, teachers, and historians, and was directed by Henry Alsberg.
The task was for the writers to create the American Guide Series for every state (except Hawaii). The information from those guides combined essays on geography, architecture, history, travel, ethnic studies, and folklore. The project employed more than 6000 writers and the names include a who’s who of 20th-century writers such as Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, Phillip Roth, Suds Turkel, Margaret Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston among many others.
But among those literary giants stood another great writer who was just as good and in most cases, better than those writers mentioned above. Even now, after years of exhaustive research, her real identity is unknown. The name of this great writer is Vivian Morris, one of the African American writers hired to collect information and folklore in Harlem.
After the Federal Writers Project ended in 1943, Morris disappeared, never to be heard from again in any form. There are no records of her at all. It is as if she never existed. But what she left behind was an absolutely incredible collection of interviews and essays about life in Harlem and the Bronx. Her writing does more for revealing the everyday life of Harlem residents during the depression than a million stuffy textbooks would ever hope to do.
The Harlem she paints is the underbelly of the Harlem Renaissance that took place after World War I and lasted until at least the stock market crash of 1929. You will not find Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Aaron Douglass or James Van Der Zee on her pages. Instead, we visit unemployed workers, conjure men, union leaders, hookers, domestic workers, and regular people in the street. From their own words, we see the unpleasant results of the post-renaissance Harlem; racism, unemployment, and the rise of American socialism among the African American population.
Her writing and interviews bring to light the soul-crushing effects of racism. No matter who the person she is interviewing, the specter of racism and the effect on her interviewees is almost painful to read. Whether it is people in an employment agency, a sailor on leave, a patient in Harlem Hospital, or labor leaders, the common thread that runs through their tales is racism and the consequences it inflicts on their lives. She sheds light on interesting subjects and people that you would never find in history books or fiction novels; her description of the working conditions of laundry workers, “Shirts, thousands of white shirts that produced such a dazzling glare that the women who work in this department wore dark glasses to protect their eyes.” Or a conjure man that lived in a dilapidated, stench riddled shack in the middle of the city, “The thing about him that compelled my attention the most, however, was his large bloated stomach that rose and fell at intervals like some giant toy-balloon.”
She uncovered what was then called a slave market in the Bronx, where women stand on the corner to be picked up by rich people and literally toiled as domestic workers for pennies a day. She attended meetings of the Workers Alliance, where black and white workers came together to fight the poverty they both faced. She went into great depth and detail about the culture surrounding black beauty parlors in Harlem. And then there were the-man-in-the-street interviews; a sailor talks about his life traveling the world, and another man who laments that he’d be better off in Africa, then to face the everyday struggles of living in America.
Vivian Morris’s writing was lyrical. It felt very personal, even though it was written in an objective point of view. The empathy she displayed in her writing did nothing to diminish objectivity. I wonder what type of education she received. She would be a top journalist if she were around today. I also wonder where did she go after the program ended.
In the documents found on the Library of Congress Website, she has an address of 225 West 130th Street. This address is on all of her original documents. In his book, A Renaissance in Harlem, editor Lionel Bascom noted; “…every attempt made over a series of years to profile Vivian Morris has failed. In one instance, a librarian who was unaware of these stories told me after an exhaustive search that Ms. Morris simply did not exist in Harlem as a writer, at least not under this name.” The dates of her original papers at the Library of Congress Website suggest she only worked in the project for approximately a year and a half, from January of 1938 to July of 1939.
References to her WPA writing can be found in dozens of other books. My search turned up nothing of a Vivian Morris as a writer. She has totally vanished. I was hoping to find a first-hand account of her. With her talent and subject matters of her pieces, it is just difficult to grasp that someone would willingly walk away from their own talent. It can be that she was not interested in writing at all. Maybe she did it during a bad time and just wanted to receive assistance. Unlikely, but who knows? There are stranger literary mysteries out there.
But what we know is this: A very talented writer opened a door to a world that only its inhabitants knew existed. The information she collected is an important piece of the American landscape and even though she didn’t stick around to receive our doting adulation, she left something with us that adds an unapologetic, potent reality to our knowledge of history.
I hope you read the original story above. Through sheer serendipity, I was studying the history of Theodore Roosevelt High School in search of my mother’s ( a graduate of Theodore Roosevelt High School) class. Instead, I found something curious on the Wikipedia page:
One of Roosevelt’s students during this era was journalist Thelma Berlack-Boozer, class of 1924.
I had never heard of this person and was curious so I clicked on the link of her name which took me to another Wikipedia page. The first thing I noticed was she was African American but nothing clicked as of yet. But as I read on, this woman led a remarkable life.
Thelma Berlack Boozer was born in Florida in 1906 but moved to New York in 1920 where she attended Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. She was the valedictorian for Roosevelt High School, which was a remarkable achievement for an African American girl at the time in a school that was predominately white.
While a student at Theodore Roosevelt High School she won a citywide writing contest. This is what really drew my attention.
According to the American Child Magazine, the New York World Newspaper was encouraging high school students in New York City to take an intelligent interest in the news of the day. The newspaper awarded $20.00 each week to the student who wrote the best short essay and give reasons for the choice. Another award, this time $50.00, was given to the best essay of the month. Thelma Berlack Boozer won both awards.
She was only 16 and wrote about the importance of the Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution. When the Child Labor Committee asked why she wrote about child labor, her 7 reasons were as moving as the essay itself;
1. Contestants are supposed to write a news scope from Monday through Sunday. The proposed Amendment on Child Labor appeared in the Sunday World of February 24
2. Having come from the South just about five years ago, I still have vivid pictures of conditions that exist there as far as child labor is concerned.
3. Most of the school terms are from five to eight months in length. Some children are obliged to be absent from school from one to three days a week regularly to work in the cotton fields, orange groves, bean fields, etc. Others do not get the full benefit of five to eight months’ term even at the rate of two or three days a week. Why not? Because there is no compulsory education law.
4. Of course, in my particular case, it was different, because I went to boarding school. In fact, I have always had every opportunity for intellectual advancement offered to me; therefore, I have had the time to consider and pity the conditions of other children my age and size.
5. My grandmother has told me many times of the hardships she endured while a mere child. Twice a week she did not go to school at all (Monday and Wednesdays). Besides having to prepare breakfast, clean the house, go to school, work in the field after school hours, she was stopped from going to school at the age of 13.
6. This is but one case, still, I know of other actual ones.
7. My education has taught me that the American ideal is sharing. Are we sharing opportunities equitably it 1,000,000 children and 1,000,00 minds in the making are taxed, burdened, overworked, and ruined for life? Are we fair to nature, to our country, and to ourselves if we permit such heart rendering conditions to exist? No!
Wow! This was my reaction when reading this last passage. Reason number 7 alone seemed to be taken from today’s headline only the numbers can change. And this writing coming from a 16 you old Black girl in the 1920s!
Since I am not the sharpest tool in the toolbox, a connection to Vivian Morris was not made yet, so I had to continue my research on this most interesting African American woman.
She attended New York University, graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in commercial science in 1924 and a master’s degree in journalism in 1931. Her thesis was “The Evolution of Negro Journalism in the United States”. In 1926, she was honored into the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at the annual banquet held at the Hotel McAlpin. She was the first African American to be honored so at New York University. She was a professional journalist for the Pittsburg Courier and a journalist as well as managing editor with the New York Amsterdam News from 1926 to 1942. She was also the acting Dean of Journalism at Lincoln University from 1942 to 1944.
She wrote the column “The Feminist viewpoint” in 1949. She became the chief of the New York City office of Civil Defense, Director of Public Relations at Harlem Hospital, and director of the greater New York Alumni Division of the United Negro College Fund. Boozer was the 2nd highest paid African American Employee in the State of New York at the time of her appointments. She was friends with and support both W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King during her lifetime.
So…what’s the connection?
In the late 1930s, there was labor unrest at the Amsterdam News, which was at the time, the largest African American newspaper in the country. During this time, Boozer was the managing editor of the Amsterdam News. The paper was accused of exploitation of black journalist. The black journalist was not able to get jobs with white newspapers and was basically subject to the whims of black publishers, who made their money through advertisements. Many of the black journalists received low wages and were not salaried. It was the first time in history that Black workers boycotted Black management. Thelma Berlack-Boozer, along with six other editorial staff was dismissed. She along with the other journalist were reinstated as negotiation were worked out.
For some writers, the Federal Writers Project was a form of Welfare. After all, it was designed for unemployed writers. One of the things about the mystery of Vivian Morris was why would she work under an assumed name? Why would someone with that apparent journalistic training and talent not want to be known? I had assumed that the name Vivian Morris was fake from the very beginning. It may be intriguing that a talented writer would disappear after only a year and a half of writing. But it did not seem practical to me. Morris only worked in the project for approximately a year and a half, from January of 1938 to July of 1939.
During that time, Thelma Berlack-Boozer was still the managing editor of the Amsterdam News. The WPA Writers Project was not made for people like her. She was already employed. However, her relationship with the management of that newspaper was rocky. As stated, she helped to organize a union and was swiftly dismissed by the newspaper until negotiations were reached. A talented woman, working for low wages and a hostile boss, she would find another outlet for her talent and that would come in the form of the WPA Writers Project. She would be paid and at the same time, continue her work covering the things that were important to her, which happened to be the same things her alter-ego was interested in; feminism, and working conditions of African American women.
In the book, “A Renaissance In Harlem”, Lionel C. Bascom wrote this about Thelma Berlack-Boozer, whoops! I mean Vivian Morris:
“Vivian Morris, an obscure but prolific writer, collected a wide array of Harlem stalwarts that even Dickens would have envied. In this anthology, she profiles street hookers, washerwomen, and swing dancers, and documents in stunning historical remembrances by the people she encountered, including one from Marcus Garvey, the would-be King of Harlem.”
These are the exact same people and themes Berlack-Boozer wrote about before and after the WPS essays written by Vivian Morris.
Further along in the book, Bascom states;
“The craft of this unsung Harlem writer speaks for itself and tells me the name of Vivian Morris should have become part of the Renaissance literary folklore. For reasons I am unable to explain here, that never happened.
In fact, every attempt made over a series of years to profile Vivian Morris failed. In one instance, a librarian who was unaware of these stories told me after an exhaustive search that Ms. Morris simply did not exist as a writer, at least not under this name. All sorts of speculation followed.
But what remains is the solid work this woman produced in just a few years. It takes us into the nooks and crannies of this community rarely seen by outsiders. It is where the nitty meets the gritty. Her ability to capture these varied, rich voices alone speaks volumes about her talents as a writer and an unknown biographer of this time and place.”
Vivian Morris was a talented writer. And again, her real name was Thelma Berlack-Boozer.
Vivian Morris’ essays covered the Bronx and Harlem. Berlack-Boozer, of course, attended Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. The address listed for Vivian Morris was 225 W. 130th Street. Berlack-Boozer’s address during that time was 479 W. 152nd Street, less than 1.5 miles apart. Those addresses represented Sugar Hill and Strivers Row. There are many examples of Berlack-Boozer’s handwriting, as letters to Martin Luther King and W.E.B. DuBois can be found on the internet. But for the documents of Vivian Morris, many of which can be found in the Library of Congress, there is not one example of her handwriting on any of the original documents. Most of the other WPA writers had signed their documents, but not Vivian Morris for some reason.
Berlack-Boozer did not have to go far for her stories as Vivian Morris. Many of the stories actually took place in her Sugar Hill neighborhood. Most of the essays, (besides the ones from the Bronx, which were less than a mile from Sugar Hill) took place at the two address for each identity. Some of the address of the essays took place just around the corner.
When comparing the writing of Vivian Morris and the life of Thelma Berlack-Boozer, it is not taking a leap to assume they were the same person. Vivian Morris seemed to be concerned about the working class and working conditions, especially women. She wrote about attempts at unionization in the workplace. Berlack-Boozer dedicated her whole life to these causes. She helped form the writer’s union at the Amsterdam News. She was also a feminist who wrote columns for women and championed birth control.
Both identities did not hesitate to criticize religion. Vivian Morris was not afraid to deeply criticize not only Harlem religious leaders such as Father Divine, Daddy Graces, and Prophet Costonie but their follower also. Morris stated in her essay “Deities and Their Dusenbergs” about Father Divine; “If black and white members of these cults would turn their money and energy to gainful enterprises, an amazing difference would be seen in their personal economic status.” When writing about writer Nella Larsen for the Amsterdam News, Berlack-Boozer stated joyfully that Larsen; …is a modern woman, for she smokes, wears her dresses short, does not believe in religion, churches and the like, and feels that people of artistic type have a definite chance to help solve the race problem.”
I was very excited about all of this. But no one I spoke with ever heard of either of these women. On June 24 of 2019, the Thelma Berlack Boozer Scholarship Luncheon was held at Lenox Hill Hospital. I contacted one of the organizers and shared my research and findings. She sent me an email and stated that she will contact the family and they get in touch with me..if they are interested. No one contacted me. I wrote to Henry Louis Gates Jr, seems he is the type of person who would be interested in this type of thing. I was wrong, he never wrote back. I wrote an author, a Michigan professor who wrote a book about women in New York City during that time, and she did write me back! She told me she was unfamiliar with those women, even though both of them are mentioned in her book. (that is how I found her in the first place).
So, I’m dealing with figures that are not household names, with little to no interest. But the story itself is an analogous one. The blurring of history and the thin shards of memory that disappears into oblivion is part of a living process. Life, no matter how substantial, always flirts with obscurity. For me, the process of solving a literary mystery is the real reward. Even if I am wrong, shedding light on extraordinary forgotten figures and letting even a small amount of others aware of them is the real payoff. If you have read this entire piece, you are now enlightened.