Mapping the History of African Americans

Glen Creason, Librarian III, History & Genealogy Department,
Map of the USA

To commemorate African American Heritage Month, Central Library offers two maps that exemplify the struggles and triumphs of African-Americans in this country. The first is “Americans of Negro Lineage” by the great Louise E. Jefferson, published by the Friendship Press in 1946. Louise Jefferson is one of the truly remarkable cartographers who used their graphic arts skills to create pictorial maps, painting landscapes that continue to bring insights into the social history of America.


This map celebrates the considerable achievements of Black Americans in all walks of life: writers, artists, scientists, educators, entertainers, athletes and the men and women who worked the land and built the country from the ground up. Even Jackie Robinson is mentioned as a member of the Montreal Royals minor league team, just one year away from breaking the color barrier in major league baseball.

Miss Jefferson was the daughter of a calligrapher for the U.S. Treasury and learned drawing as a small child. She studied art and attended both Howard University and Hunter College in New York. She was a part of the Harlem renaissance that helped found the Artists Guild in 1935. Eventually, she gained steady employment with the Friendship Press, sponsored by the National Council of Churches where she created a series of superb pictorial maps of Africa, India, China, America, and several versions of “Americans of Negro Lineage.” She did many magazine covers, book illustrations and was a photographer who compiled a literal who’s who of the Black community of her day.


The second map, far less spectacular and worlds away in human dignity is a Home Owners' Loan Corp. (HOLC) map that details the “residential security” in Los Angeles. These HOLC maps had a legitimate purpose but were soon used to redline ethnic groups and place racial covenants on certain neighborhoods. These maps categorized specific areas in cities according to four color-coded categories based on racial and economic desirability of residents and potential home buyers. These maps were created in the years from 1933 to 1951 and limited Blacks and other minorities to areas outside of the established cityscape. The difference in the years is telling since the HOLC map is from 1939 and Louise Jefferson’s map is from 1946, after World War II which helped to loosen racial segregation when Black soldiers returned from the fighting overseas. To see these maps or any of the more than 100,000 maps in the library’s collection, visit the downtown Central Library’s History Department or view a selection of the collection online.