Protest, Property, and the Black Press

Combination image of Freedom’s Journal co-editors Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm, the Freedom’s Journal masthead of March 14, 1828 (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

The centennial of the Tulsa Massacre earlier this year provided a moment to reflect on perhaps the worst single incidence of racial violence in the modern history of the United States. Over several days in late May and early June 1921, white mobs laid waste to the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a thriving African American community better known as “Black Wall Street.” White mob violence was hardly an uncommon occurrence – just two years earlier, race riots had gripped towns and cities across the nation during the “Red Summer” of 1919. However, both in terms of destruction of life and destruction of property, the scale of the Tulsa massacre was arguably unique. Thousands of Black residents were left homeless, and while the official number of deaths was recorded as 36, the real number likely ran into the hundreds. In its 2001 report, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot noted that practically the entirety of Greenwood, “had been reduced to a wasteland of burned out buildings, empty lots, and blackened trees.”

Among the first Black business offices targeted by whites during the assault were those of the Tulsa Star, one of the state’s most prominent African American newspapers. Founded in 1912 by Black attorney A.J Smitherman, the Star’s emphasis on Black rights helped the newspaper to secure a loyal following but sparked backlash from local whites. In turn, its offices in Greenwood became an important community hub and a symbol of Black protest – one that, depending upon the racial identity of onlookers, engendered pride and loathing in equal measure. After a local white paper printed allegations that a Black youth had assaulted a white elevator girl in the downtown Drexel building, it is no surprise that Black Tulsans descended on the Star’s offices to debate a suitable response and await further news. Similarly, the burning of the Star’s offices by white mobs was a predictable manifestation of white opposition to its editorial content. In a final act of resistance, local journalist Theodore Baughman salvaged the Star’s equipment and printing press from its burned-out offices and used them to found the Oklahoma Eagle, which endures today as one of the oldest Black newspapers in the United States.

This intimate relationship between protest and property can be traced back to the founding of the Black press during the early nineteenth century. If, as documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson asserts, Black journalists were “soldiers without swords,” then the buildings they inhabited were both fortress and refuge. When the Christian Recorder moved into a new building in Philadelphia in 1866, Eric Gardner suggests that the offices provided “some protection from the outside world.” At the same time, the building helped to link “physical space and metaphysical mission,” demonstrating to its readers that the newspaper’s offices, and by extension the Recorder itself, were “something to be proud of.” As significant landmarks within the geography of Black urban life, Black press buildings provided tangible evidence of the press’ growing power and its enduring significance as a voice of protest. Some Black newspapermen embraced this performative function, with John Mitchell, the livewire publisher of the Richmond Planet, making sure that his newspaper’s iconic masthead – a clenched Black fist holding a lightning bolt – was replicated on the exterior of its building. Just as the buildings of mainstream papers used their buildings as “a hook on which to hang some news about the media itself,” so too did Black publishing concerns utilize the built environment to raise awareness of racial injustices. During the 1920s and 1930s, the NAACP hung a flag outside the New York offices of The Crisis on Fifth Avenue every time a Black person was lynched.

The importance of Black press buildings as public rallying points and symbols of racial protest also contributed to their spatial precarity and their consistent targeting by white racists. As scholars such as C. Eric Lincoln and Christopher Strain have documented, the civic and community significance of Black religious institutions throughout American history have seen Black churches repeatedly bombed, vandalized, and set ablaze. From a similar perspective, the role of the Black press as an outlet for community expression and organization has meant that, since the founding of Freedom’s Journal in 1827, Black press buildings have come under sustained attack. In 1853, the offices of Henry Bibb’s Voice of the Fugitive were burned to the ground. Although a suspect was never identified, Bibb was convinced that the fire was the result of an arsonist who opposed his outspoken attacks on the institution of slavery. In 1887, Jesse C. Duke, the editor of the Montgomery Herald, was forced to flee Alabama after a white mob descended on the newspaper’s offices in an attempt to lynch him – a bitterly ironic response to an editorial written by Duke criticizing the lynching of a local Black boy. Five years later, Ida B. Wells was run out of Memphis and the offices of the Memphis Free Speech in similar circumstances. In 1898, the destruction of the Daily Record offices was the catalyst for the Wilmington insurrection, a white terrorist attack that foreshadowed the destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street.”

Even when Black press buildings were not severely damaged or destroyed, their visibility prompted public displays of white intimidation. Just weeks before the offices of the Tulsa Star were razed, the Reverend R.N Hall, the editor and publisher of the Birmingham-based Baptist Leader, was accosted in his offices by Alabaman members of the Ku Klux Klan. Such displays were not confined to the South: Robert Abbott, the editor of the Chicago Defender, was confronted in the paper’s State Street offices on multiple occasions by southern lawmen who objected to its coverage of continued racial violence. Abbott’s biographer Roi Ottley recalls that in one instance, Abbott had to be rescued by George Cleveland Hall, a local Black civic leader and a far more imposing figure than the diminutive Abbott. When a “huge, red-faced white man wearing a wide-brim Stetson” barged into Abbott’s office and mistakenly served Hall with an arrest warrant, the physician dramatically tore the document to pieces, informing the southern sheriff that “this is Illinois…You can’t get away with that in this town!” As civil rights activism, and accompanying white backlash, gathered pace during the decades following World War II, the offices of publications such as the San Francisco Sun Reporter were similarly targeted. By the late 1950s, white opponents were regularly calling editor Edith Austin to warn that “if you don’t stop writing those articles on racial integration, don’t be surprised if you find a burning cross in front of the newspaper or the plant burned down.”

Such acts of violence – threatened or realized – reflect the often-fatal consequences of documenting racial injustice and fighting for the Black community for African American journalists. Attacks on Black press buildings have come alongside and have contributed to the countless deaths of Black journalists, editors, and newspaper vendors who have dared to push back against American racial apartheid. Yet many Black publishers and publications have also used such attacks as opportunities to reassure readers that their enterprises would endure, to reinforce the historic role of the Black press as a voice for protest and to remind readers of its continued relevance in the present. After his offices were burned to the ground, Henry Bibbs declared that the Voice of the Fugitive would “come forth from the fire, phoenix-like, and much improved.” In response to ongoing threats during the 1950s, the Sun Reporter published an editorial contending that “this renewed threat of violence doesn’t frighten us. We see it as evidence that our fight against prejudice, segregation and discrimination is slowly being won.” After the headquarters of the Carolina Times were severely damaged in a 1979 fire, other Black publications rallied around the stricken newspaper and celebrated the ability of publisher Vivian Austin to get that week’s issue out on time. As a Jet editorial proudly noted, “bombs and fire still can’t still the voice of the Black press.”

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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.