The Catholic University of America

March 12, 2008

1960s Comic Book in Archives Depicts Black Presidential Nominee

The final page of the 1964 comic book series on Gov. Pettigrew's campaign to become president of the United States. (Photo: The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.)

Should Sen. Barack Obama win the nomination of his party and be elected president, he will be the first African-American to hold that office. That prospect has led some to try to single out the film or work of literature that first depicted a black president, and that search has led … to The Catholic University of America.

According to a National Public Radio blog, it seems that the first depiction of a black person being nominated for president by one of the major political parties was in 1964, when a Catholic biweekly comic book called Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact published a comic book drama from January to June about the presidential campaign of Gov. Timothy Pettigrew of New York.

The comic book was distributed to millions of Catholic school pupils.

Catholic University was central to the genesis of the comic book. CUA's archives hold 500 of the biweekly's 511 issues, and all 10 of the Pettigrew-related issues.

The back story on CUA's involvement in the comic book begins amidst the geopolitical turmoil of the pre-World War II years. In 1938, Pope Pius XI foresaw the coming of war and wrote of his grave concern about the breakdown of liberty, political morality and belief in the dignity of the individual in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and other countries, according to CUA archivists W. John Shepherd and Maria Mazzenga.

The pope saw the United States as a place where political freedom and the Christian principles of justice and charity could continue to be nurtured in order to maintain a light of hope for the future, says Shepherd. Accordingly, the pontiff wrote to the U.S. bishops, asking that Catholic University start an initiative to enrich the education America's Catholic school children receive in civics, the social sciences and economics.

In response, a new educational publishing initiative, the Commission on American Citizenship, was begun at Catholic University, organized by the university's rector, Bishop Joseph Corrigan. As part of this initiative, which continued from 1939 to 1970, CUA professors wrote textbooks that were used in nearly all U.S. Catholic elementary schools and many high schools, according to reports of the commission during the 1950s.

Because so many children of that day read comic books, the commission also requisitioned the George A. Pflaum company of Dayton, Ohio, to publish the Treasure Chest comic book. Illustrated by professional artists, some of whom went on to draw for Marvel Comics, the educational comic book emphasized ideals of patriotism, faith, equality and anti-communism.

In the issues about his campaign for president, Gov. Pettigrew's features are shown only in silhouette and his comments often emanate from somewhere just outside the comic strip panel, so it was not until the final page of the last installment - when he has just won the nomination of his party - that readers saw and understood he was a black man. Throughout the series, which is set in 1976, readers get an impression of Pettigrew as a principled, kind and wise politician - and then they face their own potential biases when they learn he is African-American.

In 1964 when the comic strip was published, blacks in many Southern states still couldn't eat at their cities' lunch counters, much less run for president.

The last panel of the series left open the question of whether a black man could be elected in 1976.

MEDIA: For more information about the comic book, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.