Northern Journalism in the Promotion of the Lost Cause

This post is part of our forum on “The Books, Archives, and Monuments That Shaped Me.

Scenes in the First Reconstructed Legislature (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division)

Since the age of the European Enlightenment, white supremacists used racist literature and pseudoscience to not only justify imperialism, colonization, and slavery, but also falsely cast Africans as racially inferior beings whose supposedly child-like and animal-like nature made people of African descent incapable of self-sufficiency. Pro-slavery advocates argued that enslavement served as a civilizing force for Black people who required food, clothing, conversion to the religion of Christianity, and forced labor under a white enslaver. For many capitalists in the South and North, slavery was a “social good” because Southern plantations could utilize enslaved people as a cheap and reliable labor force, while Northerners “promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery” as New England and Mid-Atlantic states rose economically as merchants, shippers, and financiers of goods produced by slaves. The Civil War eventually divided the North and South, and when the Confederacy lost the war, Southerners crafted the Lost Cause Myth describing how although the Southern traditions of slavery and white supremacy were dismantled, there was still hope that those institutions would be reinstated in the future.

During the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Eras, the American public was bombarded with media that dehumanized African Americans to maintain white supremacy and build a bridge of peace between Northerners and Southerners. Thus, the historical and political legacy of the Lost Cause Myth was the reunification of the North and South. As historian Alan T. Nolan explained, “the virulent racism that the North shared with the South, in spite of Northern anti-slavery views, was a premise of the Lost Cause and the principal engine of the North’s acceptance of it.” This cultural “reunion” left African Americans marginalized, stigmatized, and criminalized nationwide despite the passage of Reconstruction era federal legislation that abolished slavery, promised all citizens equal protection under the law, and granted all men voting rights regardless of their race and color.

However, African Americans were not silent observers to this “reconciliation of northern and southern whites” that also inspired “the nationalization of Black consciousness” and resistance to racist stereotypes in media and everyday life. In fact, as Black historian and Howard University professor Rayford W. Logan argued in his 1954 book, The Betrayal Of The Negro From Rutherford B. Hayes To Woodrow Wilson, “It is not surprising that Northern newspapers frequently repudiated the application to the Negro of the American Creed…For newspapers generally mirrored the views of Big Business the principal engineer of the Compromise of 1877 and the subsequent determination to leave the South alone.” Moreover, Logan’s book is a seminal work in the study of how the Lost Cause Myth circulated in Northern journals, magazines, and newspapers during the Reconstruction era and beyond paved the way for a cultural reunion between the North and South.

When Logan conducted research on the Lost Cause Myth in at least twelve major Northern papers that included the New York Times, Detroit Tribune, San Francisco Examiner, The Washington Star, Philadelphia’s The North American, and the Boston Evening Transcript, he discovered that Northern writers overwhelmingly approved of many racially-exclusive, North-South alliances: Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes’s withdrawal of federal troops from the South; white supremacist protests, riots, and blockades against African American migration from the South to the North;  Northerners’ friendships with Southerners; the promotion of Northern business interest and opportunities in the South; the South’s handling of the “Negro Question”; the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in favor of racial segregation; and the disenfranchisement of Blacks. Nevertheless, Northern media outlets rarely published Black authors and those who fit the “acceptable” Black narrative according to the standards of white supremacy, such as Booker T. Washington, were usually celebrated. White authors who were published in these texts rarely challenged or offered any counter-arguments regarding the depiction or treatment of African Americans in the press.

Additionally, derogatory epithets, stereotypes, and racist interpretations of formerly enslaved people’s dialects and speech patterns proliferated Northern magazines that glorified the plantation tradition, condemned Reconstruction, and justified lynching as an appropriate extralegal punishment for African Americans who upset the racial hierarchy in a white-dominated society. In Logan’s survey of magazines geared largely toward Northern readers like Forum, Scribner’s Atlantic Monthly, Century Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, and the North American Review from 1901-1918, he discovered that “most of the authors of fiction and poetry” concerning Black people were Southerners, while “most of the essays in all five magazines,” however, were written by Northerners. The publisher of the largest number of short stories, Century Monthly, had countless variations of the slurs “nigger” and “darkie,” more than any other magazine. The racial epithets also appeared frequently in Harper’s Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly. These racist poems and stories sought to bolster the Lost Cause Myth with fictional narratives of cultural and intellectual inferiority that portrayed African Americans in stereotypical tropes like the Jezebel, the tragic mulatto, Sambo, the Mammy, and Sapphire, effectively casting Black people as dimwitted enough to desire a return to the Old South. Moreover, as sociologist and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery David Pilgrim explained, “all racial groups have been caricatured in this country, but none have been as often or in as many ways as have Black Americans.”

The Atlantic Monthly and Century Monthly led the charge in stereotypically portraying African Americans as speakers of an unintelligible dialect. In Century Monthly, authors like Thomas Nelson Page popularized the literary tradition of plantation lore and Confederate bitterness over the Union victory in the Civil War that later appeared in his historical fiction and Lost Cause-themed books, like Two Little Confederates and The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem. Famed novelist Mark Twain wrote short stories like “Forty-Three Days in an Open Boat” and “Old Times on the Mississippi” for Harper’s Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly respectively that not only promoted racist stereotypes about African Americans, but also presaged the racist tropes that would appear in his novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Countless articles, stories, poems, and cartoons, portrayed Black people as lazy, immoral, criminals, thieves, liars, ignorant, and inarticulate with hardly any positive narratives of African Americans to counteract those stigmatizing tropes in mainstream media. Furthermore, as Logan argued, articles focused on serious subject matter “probably did more harm” to the reputation of the Black community than “poems, drawings and short stories.”

Additionally, when public figures published articles ridiculing African Americans, American readers took notice. In January 1901, the Atlantic Monthly published an article by Princeton University’s president (and later president of the United States) Woodrow Wilson in which he used his credentials as a historian to denounce the abolition of slavery and offer a grave warning about the consequences of granting citizenship rights to African Americans:

An extraordinary and very perilous state of affairs had been created in the South by the sudden and absolute emancipation of the negroes, and it was not strange that the southern legislatures should deem it necessary to take extraordinary steps to guard against the manifest and pressuring dangers which it entails. Here was a vast “laboring,  landless, homeless class,” once slaves, now free; unpracticed in liberty, unschooled in self-control: never sobered by discipline of self-support, never established in any habit of prudence, excited by a freedom they did not understand, exalted by false hopes; bewildered and without leaders, and yet insolent and aggressive; sick of work, covetous of pleasure, —a host of dusky children untimely put out of school…They were a danger to those whom they had served, and now feared and suspected; and the very legislatures which had accepted the Thirteenth Amendment has hastened to pass laws  which should put them under new constraints.

By 1906, the president of Massachusetts Historical Society, Charles Francis Adams, Jr. reinforced the false narratives about Black inferiority in an article for Century Monthly, stating that people of African descent “contributed nothing to civilization” and “Africa stood at its highest development because of the presence of the white man.” Interestingly, one African American who frequently appeared in mainstream articles was Booker T. Washington. In these media outlets, the narratives consisted of Washington: arguing that Blacks fared better in the United States than in other countries; discussing how segregation help spark the proliferation of Black businesses; cautioning African Americans to delay their protest for universal voting rights; and mildly condemning convict leasing and lynching perpetrated by white supremacists. Nevertheless, his writings were weaponized by white supremacists to bolster the principles of the Lost Cause Myth. Overall, the few articles written by African Americans in white journals and magazines were not enough to counter the onslaught of negative, racist depictions that helped proliferate the Lost Cause narrative throughout the country that justified lynching, violence, segregation, and second-class citizenship for Blacks.

Mainstream newspapers and magazines played an important role in the unification of the North and South and the nationwide acceptance of the Lost Cause narrative, all at the expense of equality and safety for African Americans. Rayford W. Logan’s research on this racism-driven reunion between the North and the South was part of an ongoing resistance movement that occurred simultaneously with the proliferation of the Lost Cause Myth in American media. Many other Black scholars and activists like William Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Frances Harper actively pushed back against the negative characterizations of African Americans through protest, literature, academic scholarship, and public speeches. In response, prominent African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell, and Archibald H. Grimké wrote articles that appeared in journals geared toward African Americans and their allies, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s magazine, The Crisis and historian Carter G. Woodson’s Journal of Negro History that covered topics on education, voting, civil rights, and lynching. It is this Black legacy of resistance that drives so many Black historians like Rayford W. Logan to expose the damaging racism of America’s past and create antiracist histories for future generations to come.


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Marvin Walker

Marvin Walker is a Ph.D. student of African American History at Morgan State University. He has over 33 years of teaching experience on the secondary and college level, teaching and writing curriculums for African American History, United States History, and Introduction to Philosophy. Marvin is currently working on his dissertation related to African Americans in Golf and serves as an adjunct instructor at Rutgers University, LaSalle University, and Ramapo College of New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @Heruk55.

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