American Journalism’s Role in Promoting Racist TerrorRoundup
tags: racism, lynching, journalism
Channing Gerard Joseph teaches at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
I found my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side listed for sale in an old newspaper advertisement: “Stephen, 50, sawyer and sailor.” The announcement, headlined with the word “SLAVES” in bold capital letters, stated that he was to be auctioned off at Maspero’s Coffee-house in New Orleans on February 3, 1820, along with the other property that had belonged to Francis Cousin, a wealthy white plantation owner in St. Tammany Parish.
Cousin died the previous year, and the executor of his large estate placed a paid announcement in the January 4, 1820, edition of the Orleans Gazette and Commercial Advertiser that all of the planter’s earthly possessions would be sold to the highest bidder: the 4,000-acre farm, the furniture, the two sailing ships, and the 760 heads of horned cattle. Among the “moveables and immoveables” in the estate’s inventory were more than three dozen Black human beings—children, women, and men—including my ancestor, Stephen (or Etienne, as he was most often called in French-speaking Louisiana).
For the benefit of potential buyers, the ad provided a short description of each of the enslaved people in Cousin’s estate. They included: “Hector, a black lad of 14 and very sprightly,” “Charlottine, a black wench of about 32, and her three children, Cora, 6 years, Delphina, 3 years, Corma, 11 months old,” and “Friday, 40; woodcutter,” who “has had his thigh broke when he was young, but he can work.”
Stephen and the people sold with him spent their lives laboring without compensation from sunrise to sunset six days a week, solely for the economic benefit and comfort of their masters. They risked whippings or death if they attempted to escape, yet as they stepped up to the auction block before potential bidders, each of them knew—if they were old enough to be aware of what was happening—that they could be sold to a master who would permanently separate them from their loved ones. Prospective buyers looked in their mouths, felt their bodies—even groped the breasts of women and girls—as they inspected the “merchandise.”
Like most Black Americans, I trace my lineage to people who were kidnapped from Africa and forced to serve white masters, generation after generation. Over the years, I have made innumerable trips to parish courthouses and archives, and I have spent countless hours poring over records. Because of this work, I am fortunate to have been able to track down the forgotten names of a few of my shackled forebears. Stephen is one I have confirmed because he was the patriarch of a family of sailors in southern Louisiana, but in all likelihood several of the others listed in Cousin’s inventory were Stephen’s relatives—and thus also my ancestors.
As both a journalist and a descendant of slaves, these historical injustices are personal for me. I want my forebears to receive their proper respect at last. I also want my profession to acknowledge and atone for its racist roots. Yet of the 20 companies I reached out to for this piece, representing dozens of newspapers, only a handful saw fit to even acknowledge—let alone apologize for—their complicity in America’s racial terror.
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