Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony magazine, where he worked for 52 years, and arguably the 20th century’s foremost African American “people’s historian,” died Feb. 14 in Chicago. Bennett, 89, was suffering from advanced vascular dementia.
“He has authored books and short stories examining the history of Blacks in the United States — as well as Chicago — and their struggle for equality,” Cheryl Pearson-McNeil wrote in 2010 for the Chicago Defender. She was describing Bennett’s participation in a documentary about the story of black people in Chicago, where he lived for 35 years.
Bennett’s seminal work from 1963, “Before The Mayflower,” traced Black history from its origins in Western Africa through the trans-Atlantic sojourn that would be slavery, the Reconstruction, and the upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement. A 2008 exhibit about Bennett at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History called him “the people’s historian.”
Bennett co-wrote 1989’s “Succeeding Against the Odds: The Inspiring Autobiography of One of America’s Wealthiest Entrepreneurs,” the story of John H. Johnson, co-founder of Johnson Publishing Co., publishers of Ebony and Jet magazines.
“We helped create the foundations of this [African American] struggle in the forties and fifties when the ground was hard and there were few laborers,” Johnson wrote in the book. “. . . we anticipated the changes and gave focus and form to them. In 1959, for example, I detected a growing interest in Black history and authorized a pathfinding Black history series. The response was so enthusiastic that we published a book, Lerone Bennett’s “Before The Mayflower,” which became one of the most widely read Black History books ever. This marked the beginning of the Johnson Publishing Company Book Division. . . .”
Bennett’s association with Ebony, which he helped make the nation’s leading African American publication, ended in 2009 when the publication forced his daughter Joy from the editorial staff. Her father demanded that his name be removed from the masthead, where Bennett was listed as executive editor emeritus. The magazine complied, adding that “his wise counsel will always be appreciated.”
Bennett was born in Clarksdale, Miss., and grew up in Jackson. One of his proudest moments came in 2007, when he was honored by the Mississippi State Senate. He said he never thought he’d live long enough to see a black man so welcome in the state Capitol.
“I’m 78 years old. I thought I would die before I saw this,’ Bennett said. ‘Thank you for making it possible for me to see the great dream that could be realized in this state,’ “
Former President Bill Clinton appointed Bennett to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Former President George W. Bush appointed him to the Presidential Commission to study the proposed National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Bennett was reportedly too ill to attend the museum’s 2016 opening.
Bennett is survived by three daughters, Courtney and Constance Bennett of San Diego, and Alma Joy of Chicago. Their brother, Lerone Bennett III, died in 2013; their mother, former Johnson Publishing Co. journalist Gloria Sylvester, died in 2009. He also leaves three granddaughters.