When the Post was found wanting on race
When some of Washington’s leading Black intellectuals gathered near the AME Metropolitan Church in the spring of 1896, they were not in the mood to pull punches. Frankly, they had had enough.
And so the members of the Bethel Literary and Historical Association crafted a resolution that blasted a respected Washington institution. This institution, the BLHA proclaimed, had “been persistent in an attempt to create an ill feeling towards Coloured people by falsely and wickedly traducing them and belittling their claim to a full respect of their rights”. The stance of this organisation, the Bethel board declaimed, displayed “illy concealed hatred” towards African-Americans.
That entity? The Washington Post.
You can find the resolution inked in a neat hand in Bethel’s paper records, which are housed in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Centre at Howard University — 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 moved back and forth between those poles. But what prompted this resolution? Was it a specific article? Was it a reflection of the Post’s general tenor towards African-Americans? Answer Man did some digging.
The Bethel Literary and Historical Association took its name from the building it met in: Bethel Hall, on M Street NW, next to the AME Metropolitan Church. The society was founded in 1881 by Bishop Daniel Payne and was one of a number of such groups created as Black literacy rates rose during Reconstruction.
The church’s location — in the “Athens of America” and mere blocks from the White House — made it an important centre for African-American cultural and political thought at a time when the issue of what citizenship meant for Black Americans was still unsettled, said the Reverend William H. Lamar IV, the present pastor at Metropolitan AME.
Bethel’s weekly gatherings typically began with a performance — a piano recital or poem — followed by a lecture that drew from myriad subjects: history, literature, science, medicine, politics. The meetings were designed both for “basic enjoyment and the loftiness of the mind”, said Dana Williams, dean of the graduate school at Howard and a professor of African-American literature — who happens to be married to the Lamar.
What had catalysed this group to criticise the Post? It was an editorial that ran in the paper on February. 2, 1896, under the headline “Colour Line in Massachusetts”.
The Post editorial was prompted by recent events in Boston, where a Black clergyman named Bishop Arnett was refused accommodation at a hotel while attending a convention. “Of course, this incident caused the usual outburst of excitement,” wrote the Post, dismissively.
The Post editorial chided newspapers such as the Boston Post for focusing on the incident and treating it “as though it were a novelty”.
The Post added: “Why keep up this ridiculous pretence of astonishment and fly into a great fuss and bother whenever the expected and the inevitable happen?”
The editorial writer explained that some White people — whether in Mississippi, South Carolina or even Massachusetts — didn’t want to share hotels or theatres with Black people. “The social recognition of the Negro is [as] impossible in one part of the country as another,” the Post wrote.
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 commending the basic “liberality” of the Post, the schoolteacher noted that the paper seemed lately to be giving more prominence to incidents involving prejudice. It wasn’t the increased coverage that bothered her, however. It was something else: the Post didn’t seem very critical of that prejudice.
Nalle wrote: “If, in relating these incidents, wherein colour prejudice plays so prominent a part, the Post feels called upon to make any comment whatever, would it not be in keeping with the high moral plane upon which the paper formerly stood to point out the narrowness, the injustice of such prejudice?”
You can tell what the Post thought about Nalle’s letter from the headline it chose to run above it: “Unwarranted charge that this paper encourages race prejudice”.
The same day it printed Nalle’s letter — February 4 — the paper ran an editorial defending itself, writing of its coverage of African-Americans: “[We] have always rejoiced in any and every evidence of their advancement and applauded every step in the direction of their ambitions.”
As the Post saw it, the problem was that Black people were too quick to make race an issue: “If a Negro is refused admission to a theatre or a hotel, they band together to denounce the refusal as an insult to the entire race. They have forced society to treat them as a class and not as individuals.”
The editorial argued that you didn't see “Jews, Slavs, Latins or Anglo-Saxons” coming together as one when someone got tossed from a theatre for being unruly.
That editorial prompted more letters from Bethel members. J.L. Love wrote that while it might be true that unruly White men were ejected from theatres, “no one would ever be guilty of supposing that it is because they are White, whereas when Black men are ‘bounced’ the reason given by those who do the bouncing is generally that they are Black. He may be ever so cultured or refined; indeed, he may even be attractive, still he is discountenanced simply on account of the accident of colour.”
Like Nalle, Love criticised the Post for writing about prejudice gratuitously, in a manner that “in no way tends to promote good feeling between the races, but which on the contrary tends to disturb that good feeling which already exists”.
Another letter-writer, Ida A. Gibbs, wondered whether the Post was implying that Bishop Arnett was excluded for any other reason than for colour. “He certainly is not a Negro desperado, but an intelligent gentleman, whose appearance speaks for him,” she wrote.
A modern reader may be struck by several things. One is the familiarity of the arguments. Another is what Williams at Howard calls “the rhetorical practice”. The language is lovely — and impassioned. What comes through is the disappointment that must have fuelled that Bethel resolution: we subscribe to this paper, and this is how our community is covered?
“Imagine how different it would have been if the [editorial writer] had been Black,” Williams said. “The story to be told would not have been ‘Why are these [Boston] papers pretending like this is news?’ Instead, the story would have been ‘Hip, hip hooray for the courage of these papers’.”
Williams noticed something else: the Post’s White editorial writer chided Blacks for seemingly favouring the group over the individual. But moving through life solely as an individual was not a luxury many African-Americans had. Succeeding on individual merit was not guaranteed in a country where you were automatically assigned to a group, then discriminated against because of that group’s skin colour.
The Washington Post has not always covered itself in glory on matters of race, most egregiously during racial unrest in 1919 when an irresponsible front-page story spurred vigilante action that led to about 40 deaths.
Williams said the Bethel members who spoke out in 1896 wanted more from the Post. As she put it: “A functional newspaper really does say, ‘Part of our job is to enact democracy or make sure perspectives that would enable us to enact democracy are shared.’”
• John Kelly writes John Kelly’s Washington, a daily look at Washington’s less famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Washington Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section