100 years ago today: It\'s as if it were part of their name

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

While glancing through the inside pages of some newspapers published a year ago today I couldn\’t help but notice how the \”race\” of the people in the news was marked. One sees the descriptor \”colored\” after many a name but seldom reads the descriptor \”white.\” This may have been one of the reasons why it seemed \”objectively true\” to people that African-Americans were disproportionately likely to be criminals–after all, you might imagine someone explaining, \”every time I read about crime or court cases story after story is about a colored man or woman\” [NOTE: Unfortunately the word that many a white American would have though in their head was far more offensive than \’colored\’ but I am not willing, even for the sake of exploring the internal self-justifications of the white American in 1911, to type it here]

Clearly the \”default\” human being in the mind of the writers (and most of the readers) was white. Certainly the default \’professional,\’ \’high achieving,\’ \’socially prominent,\’ or \’holder of political office\’ was white. Depending on the context and content of the article that white person was also usually a man. Since African-Americans had restricted opportunities in the American of 1911 and since most \”white\” newspapers gave limited coverage to the successes of African-Americans the reader reads only of \”presumably\” white people excelling and carefully marked \”not white\” people committing crimes.

Look, for example, at page 5 The Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA: Oct. 31, 1911). The only instance on that page of a person being specifically identified as white was the story of the young woman who was released (and indeed given a ticket to her desired destination) after having been taken into custody when she suffered a memory lapse while riding on public transportation. The detail of her race explains why she was \”given her freedom,\” as the article put it, with such care and consideration. As we look at the rest of that page we read about:

  • Jack Meyers, the young North Carolinian
  • Thomas Williams, a prominent druggist
  • James Easley. colored
  • Mary Shaw, colored
  • Charles Murray, colored, of Caroline county. a student (who was found overcome by gas in his hotel room by a porter)
  • George Robinson, colored, (who was kicked by one of the horses in the engine company)
  • David Johnson, colored (struck under the eye by a stone while working)
  • Daniel Tlmberlake, colored

The writers/editor use \’colored\’ where they would, for a white man, use a racially neutral descriptor, as in the case of Meyers and Williams. In one particular instance one can see how clearly that use and non-use of the racial descriptor indicates that the default presumption is \”white:\”

  • The hearing of William Brautigan, charged with pouring gasoline on Marshall Washington, colored

White the default is \”white\” the reader is not thinking, consciously, as they read each name, \”Jack Meyers, white\” or, more to the point \”William Brautigan, white\” and therefore falls easily into the misconception that the criminal class is overwhelming African-American.

How typical is this \”marking\” of African-Americans in American newspapers of the time? It is not strange to see it in a newspaper aimed at the white, middle-class of the one-time capital of the Confederate States of America but would one see it elsewhere? I turned to The Washington Times (District of Columbia, Oct. 31, 1911) to find the same phenomenon on the front page:

  • John Clark, colored, and his wife, Lilly, were held for action of the grand jury
  • For the assault she committed on her teacher In the National Training School, a colored Institution for missionarles and religious workers, Hannah Crawford, colored, was sentenced to serve six months

There were other stories about crime on that page but in no instance was the person charged with the crime, or suspected of having committed a crime, identified as \”white.\” And, as the quotes above indicate, institutions and places, as well as people, were marked as \”colored\” as for example, the Plymouth Congregational Church, colored, Seventeenth and P streets northwest, will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. [The Washington Times (District of Columbia, Oct. 31, 1911), page 4.] As was the case in The Times-Dispatch the one area of paper in which the descriptor \”white\” was used frequently was the \”Help Wanted\” columns.

Of course, in many ways Washington D. C. was culturally a southern city. Some of the differences in the level and type of racial prejudice in different areas of the country can be seen looking at a number of articles in The Sun (New York) of the same day. Instead of referring to African-Americans as \”colored\” in The Sun they are described as \”negro.\” In the page 5 story THEATRE BARRED A NEGRO And latter Causes Arrest of Lyric\’s Treasurer–A Test Case the reader learns that Baldwin, the African-American gentleman in question, had bought orchestra tickets to a performance only to have to be told that he and his guest could not be seated in the orchestra area. Indeed they were told that no New York theatre would seat them in the orchestra area because it would ruin the business. They were offered balcony tickets but Baldwin chose to press charges against the theatre manager.

While that story offers some hope (after all Baldwin was not attacked and was able to press charges) it also casts a bright light on the attitudes of theatre-going New Yorkers. There were enough of them who refused to be seated in an area that also seated African-Americans that theatres routinely practiced de facto, if not de jure, segregation.

Elsewhere in the newspaper stories routinely report that people are negro but never that people are white, for example: a Polish farmer and a Polish farmhand who does not speak English were fatally beaten by two negro [again, page 5.]

From reading the newspapers from the different areas one senses that there was less legal collusion with racial prejudice in some areas than others and that violence was used less often to support racial inequities in some areas than others. One senses that for all the appearance of a \”friendlier\” form of prejudice in one area than another the violence necessary to support and maintain the existing system was lying close to the surface ready to erupt if every the system was challenged.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s