Oliver "Ollie" Wendell Harrington (February 14, 1912 – November 2, 1995), of multi-ethnic descent, was called by Langston Hughes, "America's greatest African-American cartoonist," an assessment that has stood the test of time. An outspoken advocate against racism and for civil rights in the United States, Harrington requested political asylum in East Germany in 1961. He lived in Berlin for the last three decades of his life.
Born to Herbert and Euzsenie Turat Harrington in Valhalla, New York, Harrington was the eldest of five children. He began cartooning to vent his frustrations about a viciously racist sixth grade teacher and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1929. Immersing himself in the Harlem Renaissance, Harrington found employment when Ted Poston, city editor for the Amsterdam News became aware of Harrington's already considerable skills as a cartoonist and political satirist.
In 1935, Harrington created Dark Laughter, a regular single panel cartoon, for that publication. The strip featured the debut of his most famous character, Bootsie, an ordinary African American dealing with racism in the U.S. Harrington described him as "a jolly, rather well-fed but soulful character." During this period, Harrington enrolled in Fine Arts at Yale University to complete his degree, but could not finish because of the United States entry into World War II).
During World War II, the Pittsburgh Courier sent Harrington as a correspondent to Europe and North Africa. In Italy, he met Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. After the war, White hired Harrington to develop the organization's public relations department, where he became a visible and outspoken advocate for civil rights.
In that capacity, Harrington published "Terror in Tennessee," a controversial expose of increased lynching violence in the post-W.W. II South. Given the publicity garnered by his sensational critique, Harrington was invited to debate with U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark on the topic of "The Struggle for Justice as a World Force." He confronted Clark for the U.S. government's failure to curb lynching and other racially motivated violence.
In 1947 Harrington left the NAACP and returned to cartooning. In the postwar period his prominence and social activism brought him scrutiny from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hoping to avoid further government scrutiny, Harrington moved to Paris in 1951. In Paris, Harrington joined a thriving community of African-American expatriate writers and artists, including James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and Richard Wright, who became a close friend.
Harrington was shaken by Wright's death in 1960, suspecting that he was assassinated. He thought that the American embassy had a deliberate campaign of harassment directed toward the expatriates. In 1961 he requested political asylum in East Germany. He spent the rest of his life in East Berlin, finding plentiful work and a cult following. He illustrated and contributed to publications such as Eulenspiegel, Das Magazine, and the Daily Worker.
Marriage and children
Harrington had four children. Two daughters are U.S. nationals; a third is a British national. All were born before Harrington emigrated to East Berlin. His youngest child, a son, was born several years after Harrington married Helma Richter, a German journalist.
- Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington, ed. M. Thomas Inge (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993).
- Why I left America and Other Essays, ed. M. Thomas Inge (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993).
- Laughing on the Outside: The Intelligent White Reader's Guide to Negro Tales and Humor (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1965). [With Philip Sterling and J. Saunders Redding].
- Bootsie and Others: A Selection of Cartoons (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958).
- Hezekiah Horton (Viking Press, 1955). [with Ellen Tarry]
- Terror in Tennessee: The Truth about the Columbia Outrages (New York: "Committee of 100", 1946).
- "Cartoons by the late Ollie Harrington tell it like it was - and is," Ebony Magazine, February 1996
- Greene, Larry A. and Anke Ortlepp (eds.) (2011). Germans and African Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange, Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press. ISBN 978-1-60473-784-4. p. xiv.
- "Harrington, Oliver W.". American National Biography. Oxford University Press. Subscription needed.
- "Oliver W. Harrington." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 9. Gale Research, 1995.
- "Oliver W. Harrington." Notable Black American Men. Gale Research, 1998.
- PBS The Black Press biography
- The African-American Registry
- Spartacus biography
- Oliver Harrington Biography, The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany
- Bibliography at The Comics Reporter