By Sherrilyn A. Ifill for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on October 12, 2009
In July 2009, the Bay State Banner, one of the oldest black-owned newspapers in the country, announced that it was closing its doors. The story received little media attention, but it was not only a sad testament to the declining newspaper industry but a reminder of the historical significance of black papers.
It’s probably hard to imagine today how much influence and power black newspapers once had. The Boston paper and other black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, and the Amsterdam News in New York once played a critically important role in thousands of communities throughout the United States.
Reporting on the lives, triumphs, and struggles of the country’s black population, black newspapers provided an account of black life in America that could be found in no other contemporaneous publications. Stories on the black church, historically black colleges, and black women’s clubs and debutantes appeared alongside stories about racial murders and civil rights legal challenges to Jim Crow segregation. Black papers covered the full range and complexity of black life.
But the most important contribution made by black papers in the first half of the twentieth century was their powerful reporting on lynching. Known as “America’s national crime,” lynching took the lives of more than 4,000 African American men (and several dozen women) between the 1880s and 1960s. Lynching was a powerful tool of white supremacy, terrorizing blacks in communities from Alabama to Minnesota.
Black newspapers were a key source of information about lynchings, providing insight, detail, and perspective lacking in white newspapers. Black reporters courageously engaged in investigative journalism in towns where lynchings occurred, interviewing whites and blacks in the tense days following lynchings and often demonstrating the innocence of black lynching victims.
No reporter made a greater historical contribution to setting the standard for this kind of black investigative journalism than Ida B. Wells. Born in the final days of the Civil War to slaves in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells became a newspaper reporter and owner, and a fierce anti-lynching crusader.
Her news stories about lynchings captured the imagination and fueled the outrage of middle-class blacks and white activists from Scotland to New York. It was the lynching of her dear friends Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and William Stewart in Memphis, Tennessee—business owners whose successful grocery store aroused the jealousy of white competitors—that sparked her lifelong commitment to exposing the terror of lynching.
But Wells’s reportorial voice was also a distinctly feminist one (her byline later became Wells-Barnett after her marriage at age 33). She risked the violent anger of white southerners when she confronted and exposed the fallacy of arguments that lynching was the response of southerners to the rape of white women by black men. Wells put her life in peril when she reported that a number of white women alleged to be victims of sexual assault were involved in consensual relationships with black men.
Her own life was an ongoing struggle to forge an identity as an activist and reporter as well as a wife and mother. She struggled against black male leaders who were unwilling to credit Wells-Barnett ‘s independent and radical voice. Meanwhile, the ambition and cunning political skills of black and white women in the club movement, both in the U.S. and in Europe, often left the less adroit but passionately committed Wells-Barnett out of key leadership positions.
In the September/October issue of the Women’s Review of Books, I review two recent biographies of Wells-Barnett: Paula Giddings’s Ida: A Sword Among Lions and Mia Bay’s To Tell the Truth Freely. They give us the opportunity to examine the life of an extraordinary black reporter, feminist, club woman, and activist who helped to found the NAACP and launched one of the earliest legal challenges to segregated public accommodations at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Now black newspapers face increasing and perhaps insurmountable financial challenges. But what better time to reflect on the life of a woman who set the standard for fearless journalism? And here’s some good news: The Bay State Banner has accepted a loan and resumed publication.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law. Her book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, was published by Beacon Books in 2007. She is a regular contributor at The Root.