Oxford AASC: Commodore, Chester, Sr.

Commodore, Chester, Sr.

(22 Aug. 1914–10 Apr. 2004),

political and editorial cartoonist, was born Chesterfield Commodore in Racine, Wisconsin, the fourth of five children of Elizabeth “Bessie” Fite and Pascal “Pat” Commodore, a Creole laborer and model maker from Louisiana. One Commodore ancestor, Peter D. Thomas of Racine, a former slave, was the first elected black official in Wisconsin.

The family resided with Bessie Commodore's mother, Della, in her Racine boarding house until 1923 when the three girls and their parents moved to Chicago where Pat could pursue better employment opportunities. Chester, as he was known, remained with his grandmother and his older brother until 1927 when he joined his parents.

Commodore grew up in a culturally stimulating environment. Because of its convenient proximity to Chicago and Milwaukee and because black entertainers, in pre-integration years, were not allowed above the first floor of the Chicago and Milwaukee hotels where they appeared, Della Fite's house provided temporary respite for many entertainers such as the Will Mastin Trio with Sammy Davis Jr., Ethel Waters, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (“Bojangles” taught Chester and his siblings some dance steps.)

John Prophet, called Uncle John, a nontransient resident of Della's boarding house, was an artist who first saw Commodore's primal talent. Drawing his first cartoon at age five, Commodore spent hours with Prophet at his grandmother's dining room table, learning techniques that matured into his immense talent.

Observing performers through his ingenuous although perspicacious eyes, Commodore developed an ability to isolate distinguishing features. With the help of his mentor, he honed his exceptional abilities. In 1927 in Chicago, Commodore enrolled in Tilden Technical High School, holding no doubt that he would pursue an artistic career. Much to his chagrin, however, he discovered that black students were only given domestic and manual training to prepare for the only employment areas opened to them. Although Commodore was denied access to art classes during his high school years, he turned each class into an art course, drawing rather than doing class-related assignments.

Growing up, Commodore viewed black cartoonists such as expatriate Oliver Harrington and Jay Jackson as his inspirations. Part of the artist's young life was spent in Minneapolis, where he formed a friendship with photographer Gordon Parks Sr.

By fifteen years old, frustrated by limited opportunities, Commodore made a prophetic decision. He gathered his drawings into an improvised portfolio and took the first step on his eventual career path. Without an appointment, Commodore crossed the CHICAGO DEFENDER threshold to naively request an audience with publisher Robert S. Abbott. Mr. Abbott's secretary, whether through empathy for the scrawny teen or out of amusement, convinced Mr. Abbott to see him.

Inside the office, Commodore steeled himself to meet the imposing figure. Taking a seat, he advised the publisher of his desire to draw for the Defender. Respecting the fortitude of the youth, Mr. Abbott perused the novice's makeshift portfolio. Once finished, Mr. Abbott, after a protracted gaze into the young, imploring eyes, asked whether Commodore had completed high school. In response to the student's “no,” the publisher instructed him to go back, finish, and then come to see him. Unfortunately, Abbott died in 1945, three years before Commodore began his half-century at the Defender, becoming the most recognized African American political cartoonist of the time. (Before he was hired at the Defender during a printers' strike, Commodore held a number of menial jobs, culminating at the Pullman Company.) During his years at the Defender (1948–2004 with a break in the 1960s), Commodore drew up to seven strips per day, including the Ravings of Prof. Doodle, So What!, the Sparks, and Bungleton Green, the oldest black strip in the country. Commodore's works were published in several other newspapers.

In the 1930s while pursuing work as a cartoonist, Commodore was summoned to the Minneapolis Sun's publisher's office where he had been hired, over the telephone, as an illustrator. When he arrived, however, after examining the color of Commodore's skin, the publisher told him there was no job.

With his pen, Commodore became a crusader for civil rights, decrying ethnic, racial, and economic prejudices. (His hammer/anvil cartoon of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision against school segregation became an iconic representation for integration.) Commodore described himself as a “champion of the little guy,” drawing attention to injustices against all ethnic groups and the disenfranchised, both at home and abroad. His work garnered many awards, including the National Conference of Christians and Jews' National Media Medallion, and seven Best Cartoon awards from the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Nominated twelve times for the Pulitzer Prize that eluded his grasp (although he received twelve honorable mentions), Commodore and his white peers, including Dick Locher, Herblock, John Feschetti, and Bill Mauldin, were baffled and angered by this blatant slight.

Commodore's cartoons were often predictors rather than testimonial as he often had visions or premonitions, dictating his days' illustration. The cartoon subject would amazingly become a news item within a day or two.

A talented railroad model maker, Commodore created train engines, cars, and diorama from discarded items: beer and coffee cans and shirt cardboards. His exceptionally accurate models (in tandem with his cartoons) were displayed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, the Library of Congress, and other repositories.

Married three times, Commodore had two sons, Chester Jr. and Phillip, with his first wife, Marie Bazel (1937?). Little is known of his second, short-lived marriage. His third wife, Marcia Buchanan (1955), came into his life with two children, William B. Hutchins and Lorin Nails-Smooté, both of whom he helped raise. He was a dedicated grandfather to their seven offspring. (Marcia's sister was Dr. Gloria B. Evans.)

Marcia became Commodore's muse. In each of his cartoons, beginning about 1968, he drew a stylized “M,” honoring their union. Although Marcia died fourteen years before Commodore, he never developed another relationship, beginning each day in communion with her spirit.

A very compassionate man, Commodore had few enemies, but he did antagonize Chicago's Sheriff Joe Woods. The artist drew Woods in Klan clothing, with “Woods' Vigilantes,” suggesting law enforcement contributed to Chicago's 1960s unrest. Woods accused Commodore of yellow journalism.

President Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover were among many who requested his cartoons for their archives. A number of younger cartoonists credit Commodore as having drawn them to the art form.

Commodore semi-retired and he and Marcia moved to Colorado in 1981. However, he continued to submit cartoons to the Defender and other papers until four days before his death in Colorado Springs.

Noting that through the mid-twentieth century the white press drew black faces as solid black cue balls with big white lips, big noses, and circular eyes, Commodore strove, successfully, to change that image. Civil rights activist Julian Bond credited Commodore as one of the “pioneers in reversing this trend” of negatively stereotyping blacks in the press (Julian Bond, narrator, Pleading Our Own Cause: The Black Press in America).

Bibliography

    Further Reading

    • Brooks, Charles. The Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year (1974–75, 1995–98, 1999–2001, 2003).
    • Burns, Ben. Nitty Gritty: A White Editor in Black Journalism (1996).
    • Goldstein, Nancy. Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist (2008).
    • Nelson, Stanley. The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords (1998).
    • Waters, Enoch P. American Diary (1987).

Bibliography

    Obituary:

    • Chicago Tribune, 14 April 2004.
Sign up to receive email alerts from African American Studies Center
Highlight any word or phrase and click the button to begin a new search.