Behind the Byline is a blog series that profiles significant newspaper journalists in American history.
What started out as a reference question led me to explore the career of sports journalist and cartoonist Burris Jenkins Jr.
A researcher asked about a series of illustrated articles Jenkins started in 1943 that was published by the New York Journal-American. The title of the series is “Back from Hell,” and it features personal narratives from American soldiers returning from World War II battle fronts. Each narrative is accompanied with a large illustration, often with smaller scenes drawn into the central image.
The New York Journal-American is the newspaper most associated with Jenkins’ work, though his work also appears in other Hearst Publications and in other newspapers through syndication. The Journal-American is not digitized, and so scrolling through microfilm remains the way to access the title. However, the Detroit Evening Times (a Hearst title) also published the “Back from Hell” series, and some years of that title are included in Chronicling America.*
The World War II series was perfect comic book content. Issues 8, 9, and 10 of the series War Heroes feature stories contributed by Jenkins from his interviews with U.S. soldiers. Though Jenkins himself did not illustrate the comic books, the staff artists were inspired and influenced by his work to convey the stories in vibrant color. Each issue is an anthology of stories, with 4-6 pages dedicated to each narrative. The Library has two of the three issues by Jenkins.
Looking for more of Jenkins’ career in Chronicling America, he wrote an earlier series during World War II titled “In Britain with Burris Jenkins, Jr.” Jenkins was stationed in London to cover the Blitz, and his articles and illustrations can be found in the Detroit Evening Times throughout March 1941.
The earliest items by Jenkins in Chronicling America can be found in the Evening World (New York, N.Y.). Jenkins started his career at the World after working at his hometown papers in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1921, Jenkins did a travel series on Jewish immigration in Jerusalem and then found steady work by 1922 as the college sports journalist for the Evening World. His sports illustrations would become his mainstay once he moved to the Journal-American in 1931 after the World closed.
Jenkins’ work from the 1930s can be found in the Washington Times (a Hearst Publications) in Chronicling America, with his large illustrations and accompanying articles on all kinds of sports – deep sea fishing, horse racing, baseball, and boxing.
Jenkins formed a lasting friendship with boxer Joe Louis, and was friendly enough with Babe Ruth to be named an honorary pall bearer at Ruth’s funeral in August 1948.
It is important to include the “jr” of his name when searching because content about his father is also plentiful in newspapers. Reverend Burris A. Jenkins was a newspaper man at one time: war correspondent for the Kansas City Star during World War I and, later on, editor of the Kansas City Post. Dr. Jenkins was a renowned preacher deeply involved in local and national politics.
According to the Pulitzer Prize Archive, Burris Jenkins Jr was short-listed for the prize for editorial cartooning in both 1945 and 1957, but the jury never selected him as winner.
Later in his career, Jenkins partnered with Jim Bishop, author and journalist, to provide accompanying illustrations for several article series that involved traveling and reporting from various locations. One series titled “Thunder Over Dixie” covered desegregation in the South. The series started on March 18, 1956 and ran in the Washington Post and Times Herald and other papers through syndication. Another series in the 1960s found them reporting from Cuba for the Sarasota News (Sarasota, FL). There’s always more to discover, and with his easy-to-spot signature (the “J” in “Jenkins” doubling up for the “J” in “Jr”), his art work can be easily identified.
Jenkins wrote and illustrated a book about one of the men featured in his “Back from Hell series.” You can read “Father Meany and the Fighting 69th” online.
Who Was Who in Journalism 1925-1928. Originally compiled by M. N. Ask and S. Gershanek (1978).
“Editorial Cartoons Awards 1922-1997.” The Pulitzer Prize Archive. Edited with general and special introductions by Heinz-Dietrich Fischer (1999).
Find Burris A. Jenkins Jr. in the Prints and Photographs collections at the Library of Congress.
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities.