No discussion of Detroit’s Black history is complete without consideration of the contributions made by Fred Hart Williams. Memories of him were summoned during a recent meeting I had with the Detroit Study Club that included the presence of Leslie Williams, president of the Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society. Although Fred Hart Williams deserves a profile in this column, I was reminded of one of his protégés, Hoyt Fuller. What Williams did on a local level, Fuller broadened to a national and international level as a writer and editor.
My association with Fuller began in the late ’60s when he was the editor of the Black World, which was originally the Negro Digest, a Johnson publication. Fuller became the editor of the Negro Digest in 1961, after a three-year sojourn in Europe, and gradually converted the journal into a more militant, Black nationalist format.
Born Hoyt William Fuller in Atlanta, Ga., Sept. 10, 1923, he went to live with an aunt in Detroit in 1927 because his parents were unable to care for him.
Fuller’s literary skills first showed promise while he was a student at Wayne State University, where he majored in literature and journalism. It was during this period that he began a long and fruitful relationship with Fred Hart Williams, who provided him the guidance in African and African-American history, both at home and abroad.
After graduating from Wayne State, Fuller began working as a journalist with several Black publications, including the Detroit Tribune (1949-1951), the Michigan Chronicle (1951-1954), and Ebony magazine (1954-1957).
With an increasingly active interest in the emerging Civil Rights Movement and the Black liberation struggle, Fuller became frustrated when Ebony was too slow to adjust its pages to the nation’s growing political intensity.
He quit his job at Ebony but was able to land another as the West Africa correspondent for the Amsterdam Haagse Post. This assignment was propitious because the winds of change were blowing across the African continent, and the fight against European colonialism was gaining momentum.
But by 1960, having fully absorbed the political climate of Africa, Fuller returned to the states with the intention of informing American readers about the developments in the motherland. At first he was hired by Collier’s Encyclopedia before returning to Chicago and resuming his connection with Johnson publications as editor of the rejuvenated Negro Digest.
A “new Black spirit is wafting gingerly across the land,” Fuller wrote in one of his first editorials, and this statement was his first shot across the bow, and the theme of Black militancy and consciousness would be the lodestone of the publication.
Among the writers Fuller commissioned to carry out this mission were LeRoi Jones, later Amiri Baraka; the poet Gwendolyn Brooks; and literary giant Toni Cade Bambara. Suddenly, the Negro Digest was all the rave in Black radical circles and attracted a coterie of aspiring writers excited by the possibility of getting articles more relevant to the struggle for Black liberation, although they still registered complaints about the magazine’s “Negro” title.
By 1970, Fuller acceded to the wishes of his writers and readers, and the publication became the Black World. This change induced a flood of other writers, all of whom aligned themselves with Fuller’s charge of promoting a new Black aesthetic. Although the concept was developed by other writers, including Addison Gayle, perhaps the most notable of the thinkers, Fuller authored his own article entitled “Towards a Black Aesthetic.”
“In Chicago,” Fuller wrote, noting the location where the major source of writers under his charge were, “the Organization of Black American Culture has moved boldly toward a definition of a Black aesthetic. In the writers’ workshop sponsored by the group, the writers are deliberately striving to invest their work with the distinctive styles and rhythms and colors of the ghetto, with those peculiar qualities which, for example, characterize the music of a John Coltrane, or a Charlie Parker or a Ray Charles.”
Fuller’s gathering army of writers and commentators were not well-received by John Johnson and he warned of suspending the magazine, which only aroused Black activists and sparked a series of demonstrations outside the publisher’s office. To offset the brewing discontent, in 1975 Johnson ceased publishing Black World and Fuller left and launched First World to provide a new platform for his legion of writers.
From his home now in Atlanta, Fuller poured all of his meager resources into the publication. He had hoped to finance it from teaching at various colleges in the region, but he was unable to secure any appointments until Cornel University in distant New York hired him.
Meanwhile, Fuller, along with pumping his salary into First World, found time to write “Journey to Africa,” a book published by Third World Press that in many ways preceded Alex Haley’s “Roots” in its recounting his travels and particularly his participation in the Pan-African movement.
A year after First World folded, Fuller died of a heart attack in Atlanta. Robert Harris said about him in his obituary, “He challenged us to document and to preserve Afro-American culture, the bedrock of our experience in this country and informed at its source by Africa.”