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Thurman, Wallace 1902–1934

Wallace Thurman 19021934

Writer, journalist, playwright

At a Glance

Pilgrimage to Harlem

Wallaces Harlem Circle

The Publication of Fire!!

Literature And Interracial Prejudice

Harlem Playwright

Obituary Of The Harlem Renaissance

Selected writings


One of the most gifted editors and critics of the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman, though an initial supporter of the flourishing African American art scene of the 1920s, became one of its most virulent critics. Arriving in New York in 1925, during the second phase of the Harlem Renaissance, he helped launch two short-lived periodicals dedicated to black artists and wrote three novels and several plays. The leading bohemian figure of Harlems literary circle, Thurman envisioned an African American literary movement owing itself, not to the patronage of elitist black intellectuals and white philanthropists, but to the individual genius whose art reflected images of everyday life of Black America. Disillusioned by the cult of the Renaissance and the New Negro movement, Thurman and his colleague Zora Neale Hurston deemed their fellow African American intellectuals and writers as Niggeratti, and scorned them for creating mediocre works filled with exotic images which attracted white critics and publishers. Thurmans critical view of his own workswhich never lived up to his expectations or high standards of literatureled him to drink incessantly, and contributed to a self-destructive path which ended in his death of alcoholism and tuberculosis at the age of thirty-two.

Wallace Henry Thurman was born the son of Beulah and Oscar Thurman in Salt Lake City, Utah, on August 16, 1902 (Thurman claimed to have met his father once during the early 1930s). Though he lived in several citiesincluding Boise, Idaho and Omaha, Nebraskaunder his mothers care (she married six times), Thurman expressed a closer affection for Ma Jack, his maternal grandmother Emma Jackson. A sickly child, Thurman spent many hours of his youth reading a wide variety of literature and watching Saturday matinee films which inspired him to write his own Hollywood scenarios. Thurman later satirized his early years in Utah by writing, as quoted in Black Writers in America, that there has been and is certainly nothing about him [the Utah Black] to inspire anyone to do anything perhaps drink gin with gusto, and develop new technique for the contravention of virginity.

In 1919 Thurman worked for a short time at the Utah Hotel Cafe, and, the following year, became a premedical student at the University of Utah. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he transferred to the University of Southern California and entered a program preparing him for medical school. Without finishing his education, Thurman turned his attention to writing the column Inklings for a black Los Angeles newspaper, and founding the short-lived magazine Outlet a publication intended to initiate a literary movement on the West coast like that of New York Citys Harlem Renaissance. In the early 1920s Thurman divided his time between journalistic endeavors and working as a part time postal clerk. In Harlem Remembered, Arna BontempsThurmans co-worker at the post officeadmitted that his literary-minded friend was more knowledgeable about current writing and more worldly wise, than he

At a Glance

Born Wallace Henry Thurman, August 16, 1902, in Salt lake City, Utah; son of Oscar and Beulah Thurman; died December 21, 1934, in New York City; married Louise Thompson August 22, 1928 (separated); Education: attended University of Utah 1920-1922; University of Southern California 1922-1923.

Worked as writer and assistant on the periodical The Looking Class, 1925; in 1926 became managing editor of the Messenger, and launched publication Fire!!; m 1927 served as the circulation manager of World Tomorrow, and wrote articles for the New Republic, The Independent, and Dance; published novel Blacker the Berry, 1929; on February 20, 1929, play Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem debuted at the Apollo Theatre; in 1932 published novels Infants of the Spring, and The Interne, 1932; wrote Hollywood screen-plays Tomorrows Children, 1934, and High School Girl, 1934, released by studio in 1935.

and his colleagues.

Pilgrimage to Harlem

Thurman arrived in New York City in 1925 and lived with Bontemps in a rooming house. Initially, Thurman sought work at the New York Customs House, but instead found employment as an elevator operator a few blocks from Harlem. Despite his interest in pursuing a writing career, he gained notoriety as a talented editor who could read several lines of copy at once. In New York City he worked as a reporter and editor for the magazine, The Looking Glass, published by noted Harlem theater critic Theophilus Lewis. Around this time, he also served as a reader for Macauly Publishing Company which, according to Langston Hughes, made him the only African American of the Harlem Renaissance to hold such a position.

In 1926 Thurman temporarily replaced George Schuyler as managing editor for the Messenger, also known as The Worlds Greatest Negro Monthly. Though founded as a radical magazine, the Messenger had become, by the time Thurman joined its staff, a bourgeois society publication, a periodical dependent, as Thurman cynically told Langston Hughes, in his colleagues memoir The Big Sea, on the policy of whoever paid off best at the time. Along with works by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, the magazine featured several of Thurmans essays, reviews, and short stories. Thur-mans Messenger short story Grist in the Mill, dealt with Colonel Charles Summers, a racist Southern aristocrat who is haunted by the realization that his life had been saved by a transfusion of blood from a black man. In the fall of 1926, Thurman left the Messenger to become circulation manager of a white religious magazine, World Tomorrow, and eventually he supported himself by writing short stories for True Stori, under the pseudonyms Ethel Belle Mandrake and Patrick Casey.

Wallaces Harlem Circle

The leader of the Harlem Renaissances bohemian inner circle, Thurman gathered around him such luminaries of the period as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, Rudolph Fisher, and Dorothy West. At his rent-free apartment at 267 West 136th Street, known as Niggeratti Manor, Thurman and his coterie mocked the older African American intellectuals and the Victorian values imitated by blacks who seemed, according to Thurmans circle, more intent on the show finery and cultivated manners than of integrity and originality. As David Levering Lewis pointed out, in When Harlem Was In Vogue, Wallaces gatherings were the cradle of revolt against establishment art, and Thurman its leading spokesman for immoral independence. Thurman also befriended an odd assortment of characters, those who had little in common with the talented and respected artists of his Harlem group. As Richard Bruce Nugent stated in Before and Beyond Harlem, Thurman had a fascination for people that only the devil could havean almost diabolical power.

The Publication of Fire!!

In 1926 Thurman and several members gathered to plan the publication of Fire!!, an avant garde periodical dedicated strictly to black literary works. Sweltering nights we met to plan Fire!!, recounted Langston in his autobiography The Big Sea. Each of us agreed to give fifty dollars to finance the first issue. Thurman was to edit it, John P. Davis to handle the business end, and Bruce Nugent to take charge of distribution. The rest of us were to serve as an editorial board to collect material, contribute our own work, and act in any useful way we could, he continued. Each of the seven members of the board were to contribute fifty dollars each, but only Hughes and two others provided money. Undaunted, Thurman advanced a large portion of the publication money, causing him to fall in debt to the point that his co-workers at the World Tomorrow had to loan him money for a winter overcoat. He spent hours meeting with writers Richard Bruce Nugent, Zora Neale Hurston, and visual artist Aaron Douglas, laying out the magazine. The debut issue featured the work of Hughes, Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, and a play by Hurston. Thur-mans literary contribution, the short story Cordelia the Crude, centered on a rebellious sixteen-year-old Southern migrant girls path to prostitution. Despite the fact that the publication contained some of Thurmans finest prose, Fire!! received mediocre reviews and was harshly criticized by black intellectuals. Despite its negative reception, the publication represented a bold and rebellious venture, what David Levering Lewis described, in When Harlem Was In Vogue, as a flawed folk-centered masterpiece.

Thurmans growing cynicism of the Renaissance was reflected in an article, Negro Artists and the Negro, written for the August issue of The New Republic in 1927. As quoted in Jervis Andersons work This Was Harlem, Thurmans article strongly denounced the moving forces behind the Harlem Renaissance, When the Negro art fad first came into being and Negro poets, novelists, musicians, and painters became good copy, literate and semi-illiterate Negro America began to strut and shout, Negro newspapers reprinted every item published anywhere concerning a Negro whose work had found favor with critics, editors, or publishers. Negro journals conducted contests to encourage embryonic geniuses. Negro ministers preached sermons, Negro lecturers made speeches, and Negro club women read papersall about the great new Negro art. Everyone was having a grand time. The millennium was about to dawn. Thurman rejected the celebratory literary prize dinners held by the Urban League and awards bestowed by NAACPs publication, Crisis; contrary to these organizations leaders he did not ascribe to the idea, as did race leaders like Charles S. Johnson, that art could open the door to assimilation and respectability for the Negro in America. Such a faddistic movement, as Thurman alluded in his novel Blacker the Berry, could do nothing more than entertain the white races Explore Harlem; know the Negro crusade.

In the fall of 1927 Thurman contributed the pieces Nephews of Uncle Remus to The Independent and Harlem Facets to the World Tomorrow. In the following year, he wrote the essay Negro Poets and Their Poetry for the Bookman, and contributed a piece for Dance Magazine. In the same year, he launched the publication Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life. Broader focused than Fire!!, the magazine contained discussions of art and politicsracial and non-racialand sought a cross generational readership. The first volume contained works by philosopher Alain Locke, George Dunbar, Hughes, Schuyler, and theater critic Theophilus Lewis. Unfortunately, Harlem experienced the same fate as Fire!!, and never saw a second issue.

In the fall of 1928, Thurman embarked on another short-lived venture. On August 22, 1928, he married educator and writer Louise Thompson who, like Thurman, grew up in several Western towns and cities. Upon discovery of her husbands homosexual proclivities, and frustrated by his excessive use of alcohol, Thompson soon sought a divorce. The couple fought over an alimony settlement. Despite an offer of twenty-five hundred dollars and a Reno divorce, Thompson declined the offer in order to be with her ailing mother so the two separated, but never divorced.

Literature And Interracial Prejudice

In March of 1929 Macauly published Thurmans first novel, Blacker the Berry, which he dedicated to his grandmother Emma Jackson. Despite its journalistic tone and loose plot development, the book was one of the earliest American novels which dealt with the subject of interracial prejudice. As David Levering contended, in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, the book although talky and awkward in spots, (Thurman had hoped to write the Great African American Novel), was a breakthrough novel. As Lewis added, For the first time in African American fiction, color prejudice within the race was the central theme of a novel. Emma Lou, its heroine (like the author very dark and conventual unattractive), is obsessed with respectability as well as tortured by her pigment, for Thurman makes the point on every page that Afro-Americas aesthetic and spiritual center resides in the unaffected, unblended, noisome common folk and the liberated, unconventional artists. In describing the novels main character, S.P. Fullinwider observed, in The Mind and Mood of Black America, She was too black. She tried the various expedientsskin cream, the hair straightener, etc.but all failed her. It finally dawned on her (as it apparently had dawned on Thurman) that her problem lay not with her color but with her psyche. The only viable solution was to accept herself for what she was, an individual possessed of pride, education, and beauty.

Harlem Playwright

On February 20, 1929, Thurmans play, Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem, (originally titled Black Belt) opened at the Apollo Theatre, and eventually completed a successful run on broadway. Loosely based on Thurmans short story Cordelia the Crude, Harlem was written in collaboration with Thurmans white associate and lifelong friend, William Jourdan Rapp. Harlem centered on the experiences of a migrant family who, coming to New York with bright hopes of a better life, discover further hardship in adjusting to city life and the problems of unemployment. In his 1930 work Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson noted the impact of the play on the Harlem scene: It was a portrayal of life in a Harlem railroad flat, of rental parties, of the sweetback, of the hot stuff man, of the number king, and the number racket. And it also portrayed a distracted migrant mother from the South caught in this whirlpool and struggling to save herself, her husband, and her children from being submerged. The play depicted a low level of life, but it had vitality and power. The cast was large, sixty in number, all Negroes except one.... It was a success. In 1930 Thurman again collaborated with Rapp to write the three-act play Jeremiah, the Magnificent. It remained unpublished and received only one posthumous performance. Among Thurmans other unpublished plays were the 1931 work Singing the Blues, and Savage Rhythm, written in 1932.

Obituary Of The Harlem Renaissance

Thurmans satire of the Harlem Renaissance emerged in his 1932 novel, Infants of the Spring (a title taken from Shakespeares Hamlet). The books Niggeratti Manor (modeled after Thurmans former place of residence) is filled with thinly disguised portrayals of his Harlem circle: Thurman Raymond Taylor (Thurman) Sweetie Mae Carr (Zora Neale, Hurston), Dr. Parks (Alain Locke), Tony Crews (Langston Hughes), Cedric Williams (Eric Walrond)none of whom escaped his criticism as mediocre artists. The book received mixed reviews and continued to be judged variously by scholars. In his work Harlem Renaissance Irvin Huggins considered it one of the finest bits of prose writing to come out of Harlem, and likened Euphoria Blakes [the fictitious owner of Niggeratti Manor] story to a good sermon. In The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader David Levering Lewis considered the books prose generally disappointing, but also stressed that the ending was conceptually poignant. Infants of the Spring, however, remains an important workone that Amritjit Singh wrote, in The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance, deserves a close look for its value in indicating the aesthetic and critical milieu of the Harlem Renaissance. In The Mind and Mood of Black America, S.P. Fullinwider considered Infants of the Spring a polemic which treated the Renaissance as an exercise in self-delusion. It was not necessarily that the Negro writers were barren of talent, but that they were so busy posing at being literary that there was little time left for writing.

Thurmans third novel, The Interne written with a white colleague Abraham L. Furman whom Thurman met while working at Macaulyssaw publication in 1932. Centering on the corruption in an urban hospital, The Interne, unlike Thurmans earlier works, dealt with white characters and did not address the subject of race. After the books commercial and critical failure, Thurman traveled to California in 1934 and wrote screen plays of the adults only variety. His screenplays included two Bryan Foy Productions: the 1934 film Tomorrows Children a controversial work banned in New York for its use of the term vasectomy in the explanation of the procedure of male sterilizationand the studios 1935 release High School Girl. Thurman found screenwriting dull and artistically unrewarding, and continued his path of heavy drinking which, along with the effects of tuberculosis, forced him to seek medical treatment. Upon his return to New York in May of 1934, Thurman, as Faith Berry wrote in Before and Beyond Harlem, had wasted away to skin and bones. A month later, he collapsed during a drinking spree with Harlem friends and was admitted to the charity ward of City Hospital on Welfare Island. On the evening of December 21, Thurman sat up in his hospital bed, and according to Berry in Before and After Harlem, laughed in tragic mockery, during a toast to his demise, and then suddenly died.

Thurmans long-time friend and fellow writer, Arna Bontemps stated, in Harlem Renaissance Remembered, that Thurmans life resembled a flame which burned so intensely, it could not last long, but quickly consumed itself. In his short story Grist in the Mill, included in the work Black Writers of America, Thurman revealed an autobiographical sense of fatalism, This is indeed an accidental cosmos, so much so, that even the most divine mechanism takes an occasional opportunity to slip a cog and intensify the reigning chaos. And to make matters intriguing, more terrifying, there seems to be a universal accompaniment of mocking laughter, coming from the ethereal regions as well as from the more mundane spheres, to each mishap whether that mishap be experienced by a dislodged meteor, a moon-bound planet, a sun-shrunken comet, or a determined man. Thurman lived and died a talented and determined man whose mocking laughter failed to shield him from his own sense of failure and self-hatred.

Selected writings


The Last Citadel, Opportunity, August, 1926.

Confession, Messenger, June 1926.

Gods Edict, Opportunity, July 1926.


Blacker the Berry (novel), Macauly, 1929.

Infants of the Spring, Macauly, 1932.

The Interne, Macauly, 1932.

Short Stories

You Never Can Tell Part 1, Outlet, 1924.

You Never Can Tell Part 2, Outlet, 1924.

Grist For the Mill, Messenger, 1926.

Cordelia the Crude, Fire!!, 1926.

Non Fiction

Eugene ONeills All Gods Chilluns Got Wings, Outlet, October, 1924.

Quoth Brigham Young:This is the Place, Messenger, August, 1926.

Singers at the Crossroads, Greenwich Village Quill, March, 1927.

Negro Artists and the Negro, New Republic, August 31, 1927.

Nephews of Uncle Remus, Independent, September 24, 1927.

Harlem Facets, World Tomorrow, November 1927.

Negro Poets and Their Poetry, Bookman, July 1928.

Harlems Place in the Sun, Dance Magazine, May, 1928.


Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem, co-written with William Jourdan Rapp, 1928.

Jeremiah the Magnificent, co-written with W.J. Rapp, 1930.

Savage Rhythm, 1932.

Singing the Blues, 1932.

Motion Pictures

Tomorrows Children, Bryan Foy Productions (screenplay), 1934.

High School Girl, Bryan Foy Productions (screenplay), 1935.



Anderson, Jervis, This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait 1900-1950, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982.

Berry, Faith, Before and Beyond Harlem: Langston Hughes, A Biography, Citadel Press, 1983.

Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology, edited by Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee, pp. 604-611.

Fullinwider, S.P., The Mind and Mood of Black America, Dorsey Press, 1969. Gloster, Hugh M., Negro Voices in America, Russell & Russell, 1965, p. 168-172.

Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays Edited with Memoir, by Arna Bontemps, Dodd Mead & Co., 1973, (contains Mae Gwendolyn Hendersons essay, Portrait of Wallace Thurman).

Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea, An Autobiography, Hill and Wang, 1940.

Johnson, James Weldon, Black Metropolis, Da Capo, 1930.

Lewis, David Levering, The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, Penguin Books, 1994.

Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Oxford University Press, 1981.

Ramapersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I 1902-1941, I Too Sing America, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Singh, Amritjit, The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers 1923-1933, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976, p. 2-36.

John Cohassey

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Thurman, Wallace

Thurman, Wallace

August 16, 1902
December 22, 1934

Writer Wallace Thurman was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. His literary career began shortly after he left the University of Utah to study at the University of Southern California. Although his intent was to study medicine, Thurman soon rediscovered an earlier enthusiasm for writing. According to Arna Bontemps, whom he first met during this period, Thurman "lost sight of degrees" and began to pursue courses related to his interest in literature and writing. In Los Angeles he also wrote a column called "Inklings" for a local black newspaper. Having heard about the New Negro movement in New York, Thurman attempted to establish a West Coast counterpart to the Harlem Renaissance and began editing his own literary magazine, the Outlet. The publication lasted for only six months but was described by his friend Theophilus Lewis, the Harlem theater critic, as Thurman's "first and most successful venture at the editorial desk."

Dissatisfied, Thurman left for New York where, as he put it, he "began to live on Labor Day, 1925." Later he became known for his declaration that he was a man who hated "every damned spot in these United States outside of Manhattan Island." In New York Thurman secured his first position, as an editorial assistant at the Looking Glass, another small, short-lived review. His first important position was as temporary editor for the leftist Messenger, published by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen. When the managing editor, George Schuyler, went on leave,

Thurman's role provided him with a forum not only for his own work but for that of other nascent Renaissance talent, including Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West.

When Schuyler returned, Thurman became associated with a white publication, the World Tomorrow, and at the same time joined a group of young black writers and artistsHurston, Hughes, Aaron Douglas, John P. Davis, Bruce Nugent, and Gwendolyn Bennettto launch "a new experimental quarterly," Fire, in 1926. The purpose of Fire, according to its founders, was to "burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past, épater la bourgeoisie into the realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists." Yet Thurman's enduring ambition to become editor of "a financially secure magazine" seemed ill fated. Fire itself became a casualty of a real fire in a basement where several hundred copies had been stored, and the disaster led to its demise after the first issue. Thurman's next editorial venture came two years later, when he began publishing Harlem, a Forum of Negro Life. Although the magazine lasted a little longer than its predecessor, it too folded due to a lack of funds.

Thurman also wrote critical articles on African-American life and culture for such magazines as the New Republic, the Independent, the Bookman, and Dance Magazine. The black writer, he contended, had left a "great deal of fresh, vital material untouched" because of his tendency to view his own people as "sociological problems rather than as human beings." Like Hughes, he criticized those writers who felt "that they must always exhibit specimens from the college rather than from the kindergarten, specimens from the parlor rather than from the pantry." He exhorted black writers to exploit those authentic and unique aspects of black life and culture ignored by writers who suppressed the seamy or sordid or low-down, common aspects of black existence.

Thurman published his first novel, The Blacker the Berry (1929) while on the staff of MacFadden Publications. Although the book was acclaimed by the critics, the author remained characteristically skeptical of his own efforts. Doubtless invoking some of his own experiences, Thurman's novel deals with the problems of a dark-skinned woman who struggles with intraracial schisms caused by colorism. Later that same year Thurman collaborated with a white writer, William Jourdan Rapp, on the play Harlem, which opened at the Apollo Theater. Thurman based the plot and dialogue on his short story "Cordelia the Crude," which was originally published in Fire. The play was described by Hughes as "a compelling study of the impact of Harlem on a Negro family fresh from the south." After its production Thurman continued to write prolifically, sometimes ghostwriting popular "true confessions" fiction.

In 1932 Thurman published his second novel, Infants of the Spring, an autobiographical roman à clef, documenting the period from a contemporary perspective. The novel is a biting satire and poignant critique of the Harlem Renaissance. For Thurman, the failure of the movement lay in the race consciousness emanating from the literary propagandists on the one hand and the assimilationists on the other, both undermining any expression of racial authenticity and individuality.

His final novel, The Interne, written in collaboration with Abraham L. Furman, was also published in 1932. It was a muckraking novel exposing the corrupt conditions in City Hospital in New York. Both of these novels were published by Macaulay, where Thurman became editor in chief in 1932. Two years later he negotiated a contract with Foy Productions to write scenarios for two films, High School Girl and Tomorrow's Children. But the strain of life in Hollywood took its toll on Thurman, who became ill and returned to New York in the spring of 1934. Not only had he been marked by a certain physical fragility, he had also been plagued with chronic alcoholism. Shortly after his return Thurman was taken to City Hospital, the very institution he had written about in The Interne. After remaining for six months in the incurable ward, he died of consumption on December 22, 1934.

Thurman had arrived in New York in 1925 at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, whose rise and ebb paralleled his own life and career. He early became one of the leading critics of the older bourgeoisie, both black and white; his lifestyle and literary criticism were calculated to outrage their sensibilities and articulate a New Negro attitude toward the black arts. His importance to the Harlem Renaissance can be measured in terms of both his literary contributions and his influence on younger and perhaps more successful writers of the period. His criticism also set a standard of judgment for subsequent scholars of the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps his evaluation of Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925), a collection inaugurating the movement, best summarizes his own life and contribution: "In [The New Negro ] are exemplified all the virtues and all the faults of this new movement." Thurman's life itself became a symbol of the possibilities and limitations of the Harlem Renaissance.

See also Bontemps, Arna; Harlem Renaissance; Hughes, Langston; Hurston, Zora Neale; New Negro; Owen, Chandler; Randolph, Asa Philip; Schuyler, George S.; West, Dorothy


Beckman, Wendy Hart. Artists and Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2002.

Bloom, Harold, ed. The Harlem Renaissance. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Huggins, Nathan I. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Huggins, Nathan I., ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Vintage, 1981.

mae g. henderson (1996)
Updated bibliography

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"Thurman, Wallace." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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