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American Newspapers’ Long History of Violence Against Minorities

By Heather Chaplin | June 16, 2020

For a long time now, I’ve argued that those of us concerned with journalism’s future should not be trying to save the newspaper industry – so much as re-imagining its future. Not only won’t we succeed in saving it, but plenty of it isn’t worth saving. Like, for example, its long history of instigating violence against people of color. 

I’m not talking about stereotyping that may lead to violence. I’m talking about actual calls to violence. I’m talking about newspaper publishers personally joining -if not leading – violent mobs.

I wish it weren’t so, but it’s a long history filled with stories so similar it’s simultaneously mind-boggling and mind-numbing.

At this moment, with people around the world protesting police brutality and racism, it seems worth a short journey down memory lane. – memories that give the lie to the past being a golden age for journalism.

The examples that follow are pulled from Juan Gonzalez’ and Joseph Torres’ excellent News for All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. (All mistakes mine.)

The First Newspaper in the New World

Publick Occurrences came out in 1690 and is widely considered the first newspaper of the “new world.” It was only three pages long but it mentioned Native Americans five times. They’re referred to as “barbarous Indians” and “miserable savages,” and they’re kidnapping white children and murdering white adults. Publick Occurrences does not, however, mention the invasion of the country by Europeans, the atrocities of settlers, nor the numerous broken treaties.

Massachusetts Historical Society / Public domain

The Summer of 1835

In 1835, Utica, New York, was gearing up to host an Anti-Slavery Society meeting. James Watson Webb, owner of the powerful Courier and New York-Morning Enquirer — along with other newspaper owners — urged the break-up of the meeting. Webb wrote that if the laws of New York wouldn’t stop the meeting, then the “law of Judge Lynch” would.

James Watson Webb, between 1855 and 1865. Photo by Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.

Watson’s calls were echoed in the Albany Argus and both the Utica Whig and Utica Observer. (On another note, yes, there used to be lots of local newspapers.) A mob broke up the Anti-Slavery Society meeting and even tore the clothes off one delegate. Then they decimated the offices of one of the few newspapers that had been in favor of letting the convention proceed, the Oneida Standard and Democratic

The Morning Courier and New York Enquirer

On that same day in 1835, James Homer – publisher of Boston’s Commercial Gazette – offered a $100 reward to the first person to lay “violent hands” on abolitionist George Thompson, who was scheduled to speak that evening. Homer wrote that Thompson should be “brought to the tar kettle before dark.” Defending the anti-abolitionist riots that ensued were the Boston Atlas, the Patriot, and the Commercial Advertiser, among others.

That summer in Cincinnati, the Daily Evening Post and the Cincinnati Whig recommended that anyone working on behalf of abolitionist Arthur Tappan be lynched. And later, when a mob set fire to a house where Black people lived, the Cincinnati Republican defended the arsonists. 

And that’s just one summer. Between 1833 and 1838, there were over 200 mob attacks on Black people by groups of white men in the North alone – many of them instigated and supported by local newspapers.

The Wilmington Coup

Fast-forward a few decades to 1898 and you have the Wilmington Coup, instigated in no small part by the Raleigh News & Observer.

In a pivotal moment for Jim Crow laws, a mob forced the mayor and city alderman out of office — these elected officials were part of the Fusion party, made up of whites and Blacks — and drove other Black leaders from town. After appointing their own mayor, they fired all Black city workers and went on a murdering spree. Historians sometimes say as many as 60 Black Wilmington residents were killed. But others point out that records of Black murders weren’t kept so it’s impossible to know the actual number.

The armed white mob standing outside the remains of The Daily Record after the 1898 massacre, Colliers Weekly, November 12, 1898.

The mob also burned down Wilmington’s local Black paper, The Daily Record. Its publisher, Alex Manley, had angered local white residents with an article suggesting some alleged rapes of white women by Black men may actually have been consensual.

The Daily Record, October 1898, courtesy of The Schomburg Library.

Raleigh News & Observer publisher, Josephus Daniels, was one of the mob’s main organizers and participants. He proudly referred to his paper as “the militant voice of White Supremacy.”

Daniels went on to work in President Wilson’s administration, where he helped segregate federal departments in Washington, D.C. He was also a mentor to a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Until recently, the coup was referred to as a “race riot.” And newspaper accounts at the time described it that way. Here are a couple images of cartoons that ran. One shows Black men shooting at whites. The other, Black leaders as vampires.   

Left: A Scene at the Race Disturbance in Wilmington, N.C.,’ published in COLLIERS WEEKLY, Nov. 26, 1898. It inaccurately depicts Blacks as killers, rather than as victims of the violence. Right: “The Vampire that Hovers Over North Carolina,” Raleigh News & Observer, 1898, Norman Jennett.

Violence Against Black Press

Just two of the many, many Black-owned papers to be burnt down by mobs: David Ruggles’ Mirror of Liberty (Ruggles was also known for taking in fugitive slaves, including Frederick Douglass) and Ida B. Wells’ Free Speech. (Like Manley in Wilmington, Wells suggested some alleged rapes of white women by Black men might have actually been consensual.)

Ida B. Wells, photo by Mary Garrity, 1893. Creative Commons.

A Few Good Apples

There are examples of white-owned newspapers acting otherwise. For example, the Chicago Tribune published in favor of anti-lynching laws in the early 20th century. And when Josephus Daniels’ son, Jonathan, took over the Raleigh News & Observer, he became one of a handful of southern newspaper publishers to support the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. 

Jonathan Worth Daniels, 1958, courtesy North Carolina Museum of History.

Calls for Violence Against Other Minorities

In this post, I haven’t even skimmed the surface of the history of anti-Chinese, anti-Japanese and anti-Indigenous newspaper rhetoric. Really, each one of those is its own story.

Just one example: in 1871, a group of settlers from Tucson, Arizona slaughtered more than 100 sleeping Aravaipa Apaches in the Camp Grant Massacre. Just before the massacre, the Weekly Arizona had written, in response to the federal government’s calls for peace talks with the Apaches, that citizens should “receive [the Apaches] when they apply for peace, and have them grouped together and slaughtered as though they were as many nests of rattlesnakes.”

courtesy of Arizona Historical Society

After the massacre, The Arizona Minor wrote that they “applaud and glorify the deed,” and The Citizen’s publisher confessed to knowing about the attack beforehand but choosing to withhold the information from the local army commander.

Reckoning with this History

Reckoning with this hideous history surely has to be part of today’s fight to rebuild the free press. 

People talk about the glory days of newspapers, but they’re really talking about the glory days of newspaper profitability.

If you pretend that people of color either don’t exist or don’t deserve the same rights as other citizens, then, sure, the lack of trust in American newspapers and their lack of resilience in recent years is a mystery. But once you realize the actual history, the failure of people to rally around newspapers in their time of need starts to make a bit more sense.