Growing up in Baltimore, Walt Carr used to spend hours in his room, lying across his bed and doodling in his notebook. He said he was in his room a lot on account of being punished frequently.
Carr said his mother, Hannah Carr, once told him she would crack his bedroom door open and watch him draw, thinking to herself about taking away his notebook and pencil because he “wasn’t suffering enough for her,” he said with a laugh.
Carr, 87 and a Columbia resident, still has those bedroom drawings. His mother saved everything, including Carr’s report cards with comments from teachers: “Walt’s always doodling in his notebook or sketching or what have you and talking too much.”
However, his parents encouraged their son to pursue art.
That support led Carr to where he is now, with his recently self-published book, “JUST US!” Its title is a play on the word “justice.”
The 193-page book, printed in July, features more than 180 political cartoons from a black perspective.
“Over the years, I realized you seldom saw people of color in political cartoons on the editorial pages of mainstream press unless there was some catastrophic event or something negative,” Carr said. “And you never saw our spin, our perspective, our take on the world or national issues.”
So Carr set out to change that.
In 1993, he began drawing political cartoons exclusively for black newspapers, including the former Negro Digest, renamed to Black World before ceasing publication, and Ebony magazine, which suspended its print edition in May.
Carr still draws weekly cartoons today for black newspapers across the country, including The Washington Informer, New Pittsburgh Courier and Michigan Chronicle. He has a studio in his home where he works each day.
He said he has drawn more than 1,200 cartoons for black newspapers and publications.
Carr’s next “JUST US!” signing, where people can also purchase the book, is at 10 a.m. Oct. 23 at St. John Baptist Church, 9055 Tamar Drive in Columbia.
Growing up ‘Balti-delphian’
Born in Baltimore in 1932, Carr and his family were some of the first residents of the Gilmor Homes, a public housing complex in the neighborhood of Sandtown. Portions of Gilmor Homes are slated to be demolished in November.
Carr describes himself as a “Balti-delphian,” growing up in Baltimore and then moving to Philadelphia in the seventh grade when his father, Walter Carr Sr., landed a job working at the Philadelphia Afro-American newspaper as the circulation manager.
However, due to circumstances unknown to the younger Carr, his father left the paper rather quickly. He then spent a few years working various jobs, including as a movie usher, bartender, car salesman and, finally, as a cabdriver, which he did for 13 years.
“There were some rough periods in Philadelphia, a span of about three-and-a-half years we were up against it,” Carr said.
Through it all, Carr Sr. found his place back in the newspaper industry, this time as an editorial writer for a weekly tabloid.
Carr said his father began writing weekly editorials for a Philadelphia tabloid called The Nitelifer that advertised bars, nightclubs, cabaret parties, concerts and dances.
“I remember as a kid there was something special about seeing him sitting at the typewriter with his pipe,” Carr said of his father. “He used the editorial space to comment on issues of importance to blacks.”
In 1960, Carr Sr. brought The Nitelifer idea to Baltimore, where he continued writing weekly editorials until his death in 1993. Carr Sr. was known as “The Godfather of Nightlife,” according to his obituary published in The Sun.
“He was very, very much the activist and he lived to write that editorial each week, staying on black folks’ case about what we needed to do to improve our lives as a people,” Carr said.
Carr moved back to Baltimore in 1950 after high school to attend Morgan State University, where he majored in art education. He then moved to Columbia in 1977.
Transition to political cartoons
While he began drawing political cartoons in 1993, Carr said he’s been a cartoonist for 50 years.
“I’m a cartoonist that just happens to be black,” he said.
Growing up, he drew a lot of cartoons based on 1940s comic books, including Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel.
For two years, when living in Philadelphia, Carr spent his Saturday mornings taking art classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He had books of lined drawings with professional renderings that would have a piece of tracing paper over each. The class would then trace the drawings, all the while learning about human features, proportions, folds, wrinkles and more. He would retain those skills as he would later freelance drawings on his own.
Carr spent almost 30 years working for the Social Security Administration as an illustrator for the visual graphics section. That section operated all printed materials about Social Security, including brochures, training materials and exhibits. When he retired, he had spent his last six years as chief of the section.
It was then when he turned to political cartoons. He became a staple for Ebony’s Strictly for Laughs page, which is how he said people became aware of his work.
His political cartoons reflect his personal journey through life, he said, and allow him to vent about his past experiences and what is happening in the present day.
Carr has experienced segregation, like having to use colored restrooms and water fountains, being forced to be at the back of a public bus and not being able to try on clothes in a department store.
In 1941, Carr’s parents were arrested in Baltimore for protesting police brutality against black people.
“For these reasons, blessed with a gift [of art], I feel an obligation to illuminate, with images, those injustices when they arise,” Carr said.
As a cartoonist, he said, he has an artistic license because it’s not a realistic drawing, allowing him and other cartoonists to style and create people however they see fit.
For his entire career, Carr has used a small watercolor brush. Most people today use felt-tipped pens, he said.
When drawing a political cartoon, the strength of the visuals and the concept behind it is really important, he said.
“You really hit a home run if you can do it with visuals alone, having no commentary,” he said. “I try to minimize words and that’s not always easy to do.”
Carr realizes he can’t get a chuckle out of all of his cartoons, but he hopes that they at least inspire, educate or inform people.
For example, he discussed the cartoon that appears on the cover of his book.
It depicts two court proceedings side by side, one where a white man receives an 18-month sentence at a “medium security facility” for possession of 6 to 7 kilos of cocaine, and the other where a black man, with possession of “one packet of crack,” gets five years in “the state penitentiary,” Carr explained.
The cover cartoon “says it all, about the title and the content” of the book, he said.
“JUST US!” has nine categories: former President Barack Obama, the Republican Party, racism, transition, youth/education, sports, police, entertainment and crime.
Before each section, Carr wrote a narrative to explain what readers would be seeing and why he included those series of cartoons.
The GOP section focuses predominantly on President Donald Trump.
“We have a president who keeps on giving. He is a cartoonist’s dream, a smorgasbord of ideas,” Carr said.
However, in the past year or so, he has had “to put on the brakes” with drawing Trump cartoons.
“I can’t be dealing with him every week. I need to address some other issues that impact the black condition,” he said.
In the sports section, he focuses on the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the “exploitation of college black athletes.”
“The fat cats in the NCAA have been pimpin’ off these kids for years” by making money off the athletes, with the students not receiving any monetary compensation, Carr said. California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a first-of-its-kind bill to allow college athletes in that state to hire agents and make money from endorsements.
One sports cartoon in the book is of a black basketball player who is hunched over and sitting on his back are the NCAA, coaches and colleges with the phrase “Slaving Away for the NCAA.”
In transitions, Carr features black icons of the past, including from sports, politics and entertainment, and pays tribute to them.
Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of The Washington Informer, said Carr has been drawing political cartoons for the publication for nearly 20 years. He began when the newspaper was developing its own editorial page, and considered it important to feature political cartoons, Rolark Barnes said.
The weekly newspaper was founded in 1964 to “highlight positive images of African Americans,” according to its website.
The cartoons “give us another dimension,” she said, along with their regular editorials and letters to the editor. The drawings “keep us current” through a different means, she added.
The experience of publishing his book has been gratifying for Carr, and he said he is humbled by all the support from his family and friends.
He’s not in it for the money, but he said with a laugh that some money helped fund a screened-in porch to build for his wife, Queen.
Next steps for Carr include trying to get “JUST US!” in the gift shop of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Rolark Barnes said Carr’s weekly cartoons have received great feedback from readers and other national news organizations, and she enjoys how he is consistent and timely with his drawings.
“If anything, I think his book and the cartoons will serve as an inspiration to others to do what he’s doing,” she said. “I think we need people who can articulate opinions on issues from an ethnic [standpoint], either black, Hispanic or whatever. We can’t do this forever, and we are looking for that next group to come out.”
All those years ago, Carr had an idea.
“I had a vision that I could make a contribution doing political cartoons and make an impact on the black community, and I haven’t regretted it.”