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John. L. (John Louis) Spivak:

An Inventory of His Literary File in the Photography Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Spivak, John L. (John Louis), 1897-1981
Title: John. L. (John Louis) Spivak Literary File, circa 1931
Dates: Circa 1931
Extent: 1.5 document boxes (146 photographs)
Abstract: The Literary File of American journalist and author John L. (John Louis) Spivak consists of photographic prints and negatives primarily of African American prisoners, their abuse by wardens, and their living conditions in rural Georgia. All photographs were made by Spivak and used as documentation for and illustration in his 1932 novel Georgia Nigger.
Call Number: Photography Collection PH-281
Language: English and
Access: Open for research. Please note: Negatives cannot be accessed without curatorial approval, but access prints are available for negatives which were not accompanied by original prints.

Acquisition: Internal transfer
Processed by: Susan McClellan, 2006; Kait Dorsky, 2015

The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center

John Louis Spivak was born on June 13, 1897, and grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. After a series of factory jobs, Spivak began his career in journalism as a police reporter for the New Haven Union. His antipathy for the patriotic hysteria of the late 1910s, coupled with an interest in socialism, politicized Spivak, who investigated and exposed corruption and venality in American business and government. By 1919, Spivak was working as a freelance reporter for the American Socialist Party's paper, The Call, where he covered labor unrest in the West Virginia mines, going so far as to personally ask the White House to investigate the murders of unionizers and the Sacco-Vanzetti murder trial.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Spivak travelled around the country and the world investigating corruption and inequality. He successfully proved that a New York police commissioner's "evidence" of labor unions receiving funds from the U.S.S.R. was forged. He also investigated living conditions in Georgia prison camps and chain gangs, which he revealed in his 1932 novel Georgia Nigger. This book caused a sensation, and it is credited with curtailing the chain gang system in the South.
In the 1930s, Spivak investigated the rise of fascism, working with several anti-fascist and Jewish groups to expose German and Japanese propagandists and spies. His 1934 book, Plotting America's Pogroms, investigated Nazi groups in the United States. He continued his investigations and interviewed members of the anti-Nazi underground in Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw, and Prague. He published these reports as Europe Under the Terror (1936). Spivak also exposed a group of fascist sympathizers who were trying to foment a revolution in Mexico in order to divert American attention from Germany and Japan. His 1940 book, The Shrine of the Silver Dollar, led to the downfall of the anti-Semitic broadcaster, Father Charles Coughlin.
Spivak retired from journalism in the early 1960s and published an autobiography, A Man in His Time, in 1967. Two years later, he became consumer affairs editor at a Pennsylvania newspaper. There he exposed a corrupt magazine sales scheme which eventually led to a new state consumer protection law.
Spivak died on September 30, 1981, in Philadelphia.

The Literary File of American journalist and author John L. (John Louis) Spivak consists of 146 photographs (81 prints, 65 negatives), primarily of African American prisoners in Georgia circa 1931. The images depict wardens' abuse of prisons, prisoners' living conditions, chain gangs, and the rural environment. All photographs were made by Spivak and used as documentation for, and illustration of, his 1932 novel Georgia Nigger. While the majority of the photographs are small in size, approximately nine by twelve centimeters, several enlargements are also included. A few of the photographs have black and white paint applied to either mask or enhance the image, and several show printer's crop marks.
Descriptions in this finding aid are based on Spivak’s inscriptions on the photographic print versos, where available. The images are arranged based on their original order, with negatives at the end of the collection.
This file forms a part of the Ransom Center’s Literary File photography collection, which is comprised of photographs and albums withdrawn from the libraries and/or papers of literary figures and businesses, and generally include portraits and images taken or collected by and/or of those people and businesses.

Additional material, much of it related to Georgia Nigger, is located in Spivak’s personal papers, which are also held by the Ransom Center.


Williams, J. D. (Prison warden).


African American prisoners--Georgia--1930-1940.
Chain gangs--Georgia--1930-1940.
Convict labor--Georgia--1930-1940.
Prison wardens--Georgia--1930-1940.
Prisoners--Abuse of--Georgia--1930-1940.


Georgia--Pictorial works--1930-1940.

Document Types

Gelatin silver prints.
Nitrate negatives.