The News Orleans daily newspaper the Times-Picayune, since its founding on January 25, 1837, and throughout 1914, when it merged with the Times-Democrat, regularly referred to African Americans as nigg*rs. As a result, the newspaper’s journalists demeaned, insulted, and trivialized the existence of Black people in their news and commentary. In the process, the Picayune reinforced supposed notions of Black “inferiority” and white supremacy. The white editorial staff attempted to reduce African Americans to a perverted caricature that white people need not take seriously.
The author of this small historiography extracted it from his larger work in progress. This study focused on the Times-Picayune between the years 1837 and 1914. The Picayune is the subject because it was a major southern newspaper published in New Orleans, a city that historically housed a substantial number of enslaved people as well as free African Americans. In 1840, Black people accounted for 42,674 or 42% of a total of 102,193 New Orleanais. By 1910, the Black population doubled to 89,262 despite the percentage dropping to 26% of 338,665 total residents. As well, Africa Americans awakened the city culturally and politically. Despite enslavement its provision of limited opportunities to Black people, the ancestors of Africans gathered on Sundays in Congo Square where they fused music, dance, and rhythmic traditions. They laid the foundation for the late 1800s development of jazz music and their creativity also preceded the jazz funeral, Mardi Gras Indians, and the rise of gospel, funk, and rhythm and blues music. New Orleans was also the birthplace in the late 1950s of the precursor to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
In spite of, or maybe because of, the city’s substantial population Black population, the Picayune revealed blatant disrespect against Africa Americans. Scholarship on racism in mass media examined content that portrayed black people as negative stereotypesor focused on mass communication that erased African Americans from the day-to-day societal affairs. Studies, however, failed to examine mass media’s use of the nasty, vitriolic concept nigg*r. This author discovered the slur in an issue of the Picayune and searched for content that contained nigg*r. The author found the word readily and surmised that its use supported the brutal treatment of Black people and was detrimental to African Americans who agitated for equal legal protection.
In the North during the period of enslavement, free Black people accessed educational and employment opportunities that were unavailable to their counterparts in the South. On August 7, 1855, the Picayune published a short report titled “The Nigg*r Insolence.” In the article about white exclusivity in Sarasota Springs, N.Y., the reporter said a lawyer brandished a gun and said he would “shoot the first nigg*r” who attempted to drink from white-only beverage glasses. Apparently, white lips were better suited for drinking glasses than those of free Blacks.
Back in the South, two months before the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment that ended slavery, the Picayune in a crime-story brief published October 24, 1865, said police officers arrested a young “nigg*r” on Canal Street, the main thoroughfare in the central business district in New Orleans. The paper said the “nigg*r boy” was trying to sell an officer’s breastpin. A year later, a Picayune reporter wrote on December 16, 1866, that Black people appeared in court records accused of breaking laws disproportionally more than whites. The reporter quoted an unidentified Black man as saying, “De fact is, a nigg*r, what is a nigg*r, out and out, can’t manage himself: dis freedom is death to him, and he can’t control himself no how.” The reporter quoted a Black man whose comments reinforced racist stereotypes.
Reporters most often chose the story topics, the people whom they interviewed, and the comments individuals uttered. Editors typically wrote the headlines. On May 1, 1870, the headline, “A Scotchman in a Nigg*r Church” appeared on a letter to the editor. The text said,
Before leaving my country I had heard a good deal about the nagger [sic] but never saw many until I crossed the Atlantic…I was curious to see whether those religious fits would have any lasting effect on the nigg*r woman.
In 1875, twelve years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which purported to abolish slavery in the Confederate states, the Picayune published a story with the headline: “Pennsylvania as a Slave State.” The report on October 4, told a story of a bullfight. As a bull lied dying on the ground in the ring, a drunken man named Landers shouted from the audience to the blood thirsty crowd that he had a “nigg*r” to sell for use in the ring to keep the fun moving. “The crowd received this announcement with yells of satisfaction, and ordered him to bring the “nigg*r” on, assuring him that they would bid on the animal.”1 The Picayune editors concluded, apparently, that their readers would find the story interesting and amusing.
Again, the Picayune found the “nigg*r” reference appropriate, this time in a sobering passage. On September 13, 1877, the paper reported the heart-toughing moments before authorities lynched a Black man in Rockport, Arkansas:
He came out of his cell singing the song, ‘I am traveling to my grave,’ and he traveled firmly, remarking that the day was beautiful, different from another day he had seen, because the leaves looked so green, and the birds sang so sweetly; and then he wondered why so many people came out to ‘see a poor nigg*r hung.’ Before the Sheriff gave the drop to the condemned man, religious services were held on the scaffold.
In a few paragraphs published January 15, 1895, the Picayune said the Natchez (Mississippi) Democrat advocated in favor of a pork packing plant to locate in the city. Hog raising had not been profitable since slavery ended because “the nigg*r and the hog or the hog and the nigg*r” were interwoven. 2
Two days later, in a separate article, a red neck referred to a Black worker as a “nigg*r.” “This year I made four barrels of molasses, 1,100 bushels of good corn, five bales of cotton, … Me and one nigg*r did this.”3
According to Franklin, Louisiana, banker Wilson McKerrall, “nigg*rs” were in short supply. On August 7, 1900, a Picayune story said Hawaiian planters needed field workers and that Blacks in Louisiana could travel to Hawaii to work on plantations. McKerrall strongly objected and reportedly said,
I think any movement of negros to the Hawaiian Islands from Louisiana ought to be stopped. Our plantation nigg*rs are scarce. We can’t get enough to run our sugar plantations. Let the Hawaiian planters now in the city go to Mississippi and other southern states. Those commonwealths probably have a surplus stock. Or here in New Orleans you have a lot of nigg*r dudes you can spare. Ship them over the sea.
Notwithstanding, racial segregation in public transportation resided at the center of an item published in 1900. The Picayune, on October 17, said the New Orleans Public Order Committee discussed separate rail cars to divide Blacks from whites. A railroad representative said the measure was impractical. On October 18, the Picayune reported that F. P. Hawes, secretary of the Central Trade and Labor Council, said at a meeting that he “saw a big fat negress,” on a street car trying to squeeze into a seat between two white men. One of the men shoved her “clean across the car.” His rationale: “…he would have no nigg*r sitting next to him in a street car.”
All the same, on May 6, 1911, a Picayune editor inserted the racial slur in a subhead of a long news story concerning a campaign speech by Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman, who sought a seat in the U.S. Senate. The subhead read: “As to the ‘Nigg*r Question’ and the Fifteenth Amendment.”
In a horrific story about a lynching of a young Black man, the paper on April 20, 1915, waved the headline, “Lynching Indicated: Body of Negro Found Near Fayette with Rope Wrapped about Neck.” White men in a Mississippi town lynched a 20-year-old under the pretense that he was crazy. An eyewitness to the lynching is said to have written a letter that anonymously came into the possession of the sheriff, who gave it to a Picayune staffer. “You will find a nigg*r lynched if you go to the Forest Dent place.”
In an overview of this abbreviated study, the Picayune casually published stories historically that callously referred to Black people as “nigg*rs.” The news organization’s leaders apparently believed that Black people were “inferior.” The use of the term “nigg*r” suggested that the referent should not be taken seriously. If the Picayune generalized “nigg*r” to all Black people, an explanation exists of why it waited 133 years from its founding in 1837 until 1970 before it hired its first Black journalist. Nevertheless, further study is needed to explain whether relationships existed between white exclusivity in the newsroom and the portrayal of Black people as “nigg*rs.”