Project gives new life to Chicory, a forgotten Baltimore literary magazine

Chicory, a popular Baltimore literary magazine in the '60s-'80s, has been mostly forgotten -- until now.

Buried deep in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's archives, the literary magazine Chicory has been mostly forgotten. But the artwork, poetry and prose that fill the discontinued publication's pages address topics that still resonate: love, poverty, black pride, racial discrimination.

"If you look over the course of these issues, you'll find the concerns and the insights and the topics ... that were being addressed during that time period are still relevant today," said Melvin Brown, 66, the magazine's longest-tenured editor.

"There were a whole lot of contributors of various walks of life in the city, and many whose lives were touched."

Published from 1966 through 1983 by the Pratt Library, Chicory was particularly popular among Baltimore's youth and African-American community, and included works by everyday Baltimoreans. Now, decades after being discontinued, an effort is underway to breathe new life into the publication.

Mary Rizzo, a professor of American studies at Rutgers University-Newark, has teamed up with the Pratt to digitize Chicory, making the 1960s publication available to anyone with internet access on the statewide Digital Maryland website.

"As a document — for scholars, for historians, for people who study literature and poetry —Chicory is this amazing resource because it's so rare that we have access to regular people's words. It's much easier for us to get access to people who are elite and important, but ... Chicory really gives us this access into how regular people in the neighborhoods were thinking about big issues," Rizzo said.

Rizzo stumbled across the magazine in 2014 while doing research at the Pratt for a book project on cultural representations in Baltimore. She was surprised that she had never heard of Chicory before.

"No one had thought of this magazine in decades. ... Nobody was using it," Rizzo said, and "[the Pratt] didn't really realize what they had."

Realizing there was no way she could read the 100-plus issues in one sitting, Rizzo took pictures of every page so she could read them outside of the library. She found that some contributors had their works published numerous times, a sign of how Chicory "became a real part of the community and how it helped folks develop as writers, whether they go on to do that professionally or not," Rizzo said.

Born from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration's War on Poverty legislation, Pratt and its founding editor, poet Sam Cornish, published the magazine starting in 1966 as a part of the Office of Economic Opportunity's Community Action Program. The magazine, which was originally federally funded, was created to engage African-Americans, inner city youth and those from lower-income neighborhoods in the literary world and to reduce poverty.

Cornish did not respond to requests for comment from The Baltimore Sun.

For Brown, who became Chicory's editor in 1971 at age 21 after contributing to the magazine, it was "a job of a lifetime."

"When I took over as editor, the stated mission was that it was a magazine to capture the music and language of ordinary people and ... in a raw and unpolished way," said Brown. The magazine published the writers' work as is, without any editing.

Chicory was largely an avenue for African-Americans to express "their hopes and aspirations and frustrations," Brown said.

"It did have a very pointed critique of what was seen as oppressive forces. It spoke to racism and discrimination," said Brown. It was his goal to strike a balance between regular, "non-literary" people, and those for whom poetry, writing and art were career aspirations.

Since uncovering the issues, Rizzo has tried getting in contact with writers and former editors, which has proved challenging, she said. One who has been identified is author and former Baltimore Sun reporter Rafael Alvarez, 58, who had one of his first works published by Chicory, a poem in the 1976 issue.

"I wince when I look at it, but what it did was it validated that 'Hey, I guess I'm a writer if someone's publishing me,'" said Alvarez, who was in high school at the time.

The magazine was discontinued in 1983, largely due to lack of funding. Brown had left for a new job two years earlier, and still has regrets about it. Maybe if he'd stayed at the magazine longer, it'd still be around today, he said.

"I wish that Chicory still existed in some form or fashion today," said Brown.

Rizzo hopes to give back to Brown and the rest of the community who created the magazine, she said.

Around a year ago, she connected with the Pratt to launch the digital version of the project, helping raise money through Rutgers University, Newark. The digitized issues were placed on the Digital Maryland website a couple weeks ago.

Though many of the Pratt employees who were involved with Chicory no longer work at the library, spokeswoman Meghan McCorkell said the library is proud of its historical significance and importance to the Baltimore community.

"We hope that by offering it up on Digital Maryland, a whole new generation gets to see the works of budding writers during that time period with fresh eyes," McCorkell wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

Rizzo hopes to use the digital release to connect with Chicory's contributors and former editors to engage in dialogue about the magazine, enabling young people in Baltimore and beyond to read, write and respond to past works.

"My hope is that [this project] will spur all sorts of new, creative output and conversation with what's already there," she said.

Brown said he believes the digital versions of Chicory will garner a large response.

"I think it's going to be great," he said, especially since "the poems and the writings that were in [Chicory] ... are on the minds of people today."

bbritto@baltsun.com

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Find out more

To view issues of Chicory, visit collections.digitalmaryland.org, or see them in person at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. prattlibrary.org.

If you were involved with Chicory as an editor or contributor and would like to share your story, please contact Mary Rizzo: mary.rizzo@rutgers.edu.

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