In 1896, black readers accused the Washington Post of bias
This entity? The Washington Post.
You can find the resolution inked with a neat hand in the paper archives of Bethelwhich are housed at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center (and are available online).
The treatment of black Americans by the white-owned press is a long and twisted story, ranging from basic neglect to outright racism. Since its founding in 1877, The Post has flipped between these poles. But what motivated this resolution? Was it a specific item? Was this a reflection of the Post’s general tenor toward African Americans? Answer The man dug.
The Bethel Literary and Historical Association takes its name from the building in which it met: Bethel Hall, on M Street NW, next to the AME Metropolitan Church. The society was founded in 1881 by the bishop of the AME church Daniel Payneone of many such groups created as black literacy rates rose during Reconstruction.
The church’s location – in the “Athens of America” and just blocks from the White House – made it an important center for African-American cultural and political thought at a time when the question of what citizenship meant for black Americans was still unsettled, said William H. Lamar IVthe current pastor of the Metropolitan AME
Bethel’s weekly gatherings usually began with a performance—a piano recital or a poem—followed by a lecture that tapped into a myriad of topics: history, literature, science, medicine, politics. The meetings were designed for both “grassroots enjoyment and height of spirit,” said Dana Williams, dean of the Howard graduate school and an African-American literature professor (who happens to be married to Reverend Lamar).
What prompted this group to criticize The Post? It was an editorial that appeared in the newspaper on February 2, 1896, under the headline “Color Line in Massachusetts.”
The Post editorial was inspired by recent events in Boston, where a black cleric named Bishop Arnett was refused hotel accommodation while attending a convention. “Of course, this incident caused the usual explosion of excitement,” The Post wrote, dismissively.
The Post editorial chastised newspapers such as the Boston Post for focusing on the incident and treating it “as if it were a novelty”.
The Post added, “Why keep this ridiculous semblance of amazement and soar in great commotion every time the expected and the inevitable happens?”
The columnist explained that some white people — whether in Mississippi, South Carolina or even Massachusetts — didn’t want to share hotels or theaters with black people. Wrote The Post: “The social recognition of the Negro is [as] impossible in one part of the country as in another.
After reading the editorial at her home on P Street NW, an African-American Post subscriber named Mary E. Nalle composed a letter to the editor. While praising the Post’s fundamental “liberality”, the schoolteacher noted that the paper lately seemed to place more emphasis on incidents involving bias. It wasn’t the increased coverage that bothered her, though. That was something else: the Post didn’t seem very critical of this bias.
Nalle wrote, “If, in reporting these incidents, where color bias plays such a large part, the Post feels called upon to make any comment, would that not be in keeping with the high moral plane on which the newspaper stands? once stood to point? the narrowness, the injustice of such a prejudice?
You can tell what The Post thought of Nalle’s letter from the headline it chose to run above: “Unwarranted Accusation That This Document Promotes Racial Bias.”
The same day it printed Nalle’s letter – February 4 – the newspaper published an op-ed in defense, writing on its cover of African Americans: “[We] have always rejoiced in all evidence of their advancement and applauded every step in the direction of their ambitions.
According to The Post, the problem was that black people were too quick to make race an issue: the whole breed. They forced society to treat them as a class and not as individuals.
The editorial argued that “Jews, Slavs, Latins or Anglo-Saxons” had not been seen coming together when someone was kicked out of a theater for being unruly.
This editorial prompted more letters from Bethel members. J.L. Love wrote that while it may be true that unruly white men have been kicked out of theaters, “no one would ever be guilty of assuming it’s because they’re white, when when black men are ‘bounced’ “, the reason given by those who rebound is usually that they are black. He can still be as cultured or refined; indeed, he can even be attractive, but he is devalued simply because of the accident of color .
Like Nalle, Love criticized The Post for writing gratuitously about prejudice, in a way that “in no way tends to promote good feeling between the races, but on the contrary tends to disrupt that good feeling that already exists.” .
Another letter writer, Ida A. Gibbs, wondered if The Post was implying that Bishop Arnett was excluded for any reason other than color. “He is certainly not a desperado nigger, but an intelligent gentleman, whose appearance speaks for himself,” she wrote.
A modern reader might be struck by several things. One is the familiarity of the arguments. Another is what Williams to Howard calls “rhetorical practice.” The language is beautiful — and passionate. What stands out is the disappointment that must have fueled this Bethel resolve: We subscribe to this newspaper, and this is how our community is covered?
“Imagine how bad it would have been if the [editorial writer] had been black,” Williams said. “The story to be told would not have been ‘Why are they [Boston] newspapers claiming it’s news? Instead, the story would have been ‘Hip, hip hooray for the courage of those papers.’ ”
Williams noticed something else: The Post’s white columnist chastised black people for seemingly favoring the group over the individual. But going through life solely as an individual was no luxury for many African Americans. Succeeding on individual merit was not guaranteed in a country where you were automatically assigned to a group and then discriminated against because of the skin color of that group.
The Washington Post has not always covered itself in glory on race issues, especially during the racial unrest of 1919, when an irresponsible front-page story sparked a vigilante action that left about 40 people dead.
Williams said Bethel members who spoke out in 1896 wanted more from The Post. As she put it, “A functional newspaper really says, ‘Part of our job is to enact democracy or to make sure that the perspectives that would enable us to enact democracy are shared.’ ”