Following is a “Primary Source Reaction Paper” written by David Flash for Dr. Rachel Ozanne’s Texas History 320R course at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Southern Negro Progress: What the race has done in wealth and education,” appearing in The New York Times on August 13, 1893, purports to inform readers on the “progress made by the race that was freed a generation ago.” Anecdotes detailing fortunes amassed by African Americans in the South are cited as evidence that “friends of the negro have no need fear for his success.”[1] However, the article’s message must be taken with a grain of salt and a heavy shot of cynicism, as it is disingenuous propaganda, concealing the true plight of the South’s black population. It is not at all representative of the journalism excellence that the modern Times editorial team is known for. [2] Conversely, this Times piece serves as a perfect example of why readers of historic media must take care and never automatically ascribe a publication’s current credibility to every volume in its archives.

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The article claims that “with the help of his white neighbor […] the negro has steadily advanced in intelligence and fortune.” The only evidence provided to back this assertion, however, are a handful of anecdotes about “negros [who] have thrived and acquired property.” In reality, for the vast majority of the approximately seven and a half million African Americans living in the United States at the time[3], life was far different than the rosy picture the piece painted. An 1891 Atlantic Monthly article offers a more even-handed assessment of the situation: “The colored race has emerged from civil bondage. The next step will be to come out of a bondage which is financial.”[4] The Atlantic article, detailing the writer’s 3,500-mile trip through America’s south, acknowledges successful African Americans, but notes two dominant trends throughout the “Black Belt” of the nation: “Aggregation of immense farms under white ownership, worked by Negro laborers; [and] the segmentation of the old plantations into small farms let out to Negro tenants.”[5] In 1883’s reality, far more prevalent than fantastical hopes of attaining the American Dream among the black population, were the very real fears of true American nightmares: Jim Crow and lynching. In 1882, the year prior to The Times’ puff piece on “Southern Negro Progress,” lynch mob deaths peaked in the U.S., violently ending 161 black lives.[6] Black farm laborers in constant fear of violent oppression are not merely downplayed in the 1893 Times piece, they are not mentioned at all.

The article’s propagandistic tone is palpable, radically different from the high-quality news content in today’s New York Times. Media Bias Fact Check’s profile of the modern Times calls its reporting “highly factual […] one of the most reliable sources for information due to […] well-respected journalists/editors.”[7] While today’s Times is an institution reaching 130 million monthly readers[8], research reveals the Times of 1893 was a small, partisan paper teetering on financial collapse, with circulation in the very low five-figures, serving a city of over 1.5 million.[9] While “Southern Negro Progress” is not credible journalism by today’s standards, it does provide valuable insight and perspective when read in context. Furthermore, its discernible divergence from the editorial work of the modern Times serves to illustrate the importance of contextual factors in gaining historical understanding from primary source documents.

[1] “Southern Negro Progress.” The New York Times, August 13, 1893.

[2] “Our History.” The New York Times. https://www.nytco.com/who-we-are/culture/our-history/#1835-1880 (accessed September 30, 2018).

[3] “African American Population Report.” BlackDemographics.com. (accessed September 30, 2018).

[4] Samuel Barrows. “What the Southern Negro is Doing for Himself.” The Atlantic, June 1891. (accessed September 30, 2018).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Douglas Linder. “Lynchings: By Year and Race.” Famous-Trials.com. http://www.famous-trials.com/sheriffshipp/1084-lynchingsyear (accessed September 29, 2018).

[7] “New York Times.” Media Bias Fact Check, updated June 18, 2018. https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/new-york-times/ (accessed September 29, 2018).

[8] Kevin Tran. “The New York Times soars past 3 million subscribers.” Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/the-new-york-times-soars-past-3-million-subscribers-2017-12 (accessed September 30, 2018).

[9] Elmer Holmes Davis. History of the New York Times, 1851-1921. New York: New York Times, 1821. p. 171

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