The Black Press is a Model for How to Cover Racism in the NewsRoundup
tags: racism, journalism, Ida B. Wells, Elaine Massacre, Black Press
Olivia Paschal is a PhD student in History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on land, economy and labor in 20th century rural America.
In the aftermath of the anti-racist uprisings of 2020 and the Trump presidency, many American newspapers are reckoning with how their coverage has made them complicit in racism and racial violence. Caught up in the unattainable and relatively recent ideal of journalistic objectivity, which did not take root until the 1930s, the traditional news media has struggled to cover the communities it now claims as its audience. While the historical and contemporary failures of mainstream, historically White newspapers have come to light, the path forward is not so clear.
But one historic model for how to do better can be found in Black newspaper coverage from a century ago. Amid a deluge of racist massacres in the aftermath of the First World War and the subsequent influenza pandemic, the massacre in Elaine, Ark., in 1919 was among the worst, with several hundred African Americans killed in two days of violence. While state officials sought to cover up the truth by promulgating lies through the local and national White press, Black reporters — working not just for truth, but for justice — told the more accurate story. They put the massacre in context, offered sustained coverage long past the headline moment and got specific about the systemic ills victims faced.
The Arkansas Delta region was dotted with cotton-producing slave plantations before the Civil War. After the war, many Black residents remained on the land, working as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Though a number of Black politicians held state and local office in the area during Reconstruction, the state disenfranchised its Black citizens by the late 19th century. Most remained tied to the land, trapped in the sharecropping system.
In the fall of 1919, however, Black sharecroppers in Phillips County organized a union. It was one of the earliest attempts to form a sharecroppers union in the Deep South, and its members hoped to leverage high demand for cotton into fair prices for their crops and remuneration for their labor. The county’s White political and economic elite feared the union would upend White economic and political power in the region, especially in the context of the ongoing Red Scare and labor unrest after World War I.
On Sept. 30, a White railroad guard died in a gunfight outside a church where Black unionized sharecroppers were meeting. A White sheriff’s deputy was injured as well. The Phillips County sheriff sent posses of White men to investigate. White mobs soon started traveling from within and outside the county as they heard rumors about a Black insurrection. The mobs indiscriminately shot Black people on the road, pillaged their homes and chased the Black population into hiding.
The mob terror lasted three days. Federal troops called in to quash it instead almost certainly participated in the slaughter. The gangs killed hundreds of Black people — the exact number is unknown because local White newspapers failed to report it. Five White people died in the violence and the White press covered their deaths in detail.