Editor’s note: The Baltimore Sun is committed to making amends for a history of failing Black communities in its coverage and, as part of a public apology, has asked area leaders and scholars to suggest a path forward. We will run the responses as an occasional series.
On Tuesday, as President Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act — an act that took more than 100 years to become law — I began to reflect upon the necessity of the work of historians as we traverse this current phase of the Black freedom struggle in the United States.
At some point, it becomes necessary for historians to become salvaging experts, understanding that we must first review the existing story, literature and research to determine what is missing. In reading The Baltimore Sun’s recent editorial apology regarding the newspaper’s role in perpetuating white supremacy and anti-Blackness, I began to reflect on the paper’s coverage concerning the lynching of Matthew Williams, specifically what was missing.
Matthew Williams Handy was a 23-year-old Black man who was lynched and set ablaze on Dec. 4, 1931, by a mob of white men in Salisbury, Maryland. His gruesome murder was part of a wave of white terrorism in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, which exposed Black laborers to white rage in response to economic anxieties.
For more than five years, I have devoted my life to investigating this case, which culminates in my recent publication, “Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State” and documentary series, “Hidden in Full View: A Story of Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation.”
As a historian and civil rights activist, I confront white supremacy by salvaging the narratives of the oppressed, in this case, the 91-year-old narrative of a 23-year-old young man and the impact of his murder on the Black community of Salisbury and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
In recovering these narratives, I have come to understand that archival institutions were not designed to preserve oppressed people’s stories and memories.
What I have found missing, then, is the lack of humanity in the treatment of the victims of anti-Black violence, including Matthew Williams.
Throughout the history of racial terror lynching in the United States, the press has played a significant role in shaping public perception concerning anti-Black violence. Much of what we know about the more than 6,400 documented cases of racial terror lynchings in the United States between 1865 and 1950 is because of newspapers — the vast majority of which were published by the white press.
In Maryland, The Baltimore Sun represented the white press, and its coverage reflected white-centered racist and paternalist attitudes that pervaded the majority of white media across the United States at the time.
When we think about the lessons that can be learned from the failures of the past, we must recognize and come to terms with how systemic racism and white supremacy appear within the practices and approaches that we take to narrative construction. In the case of The Baltimore Sun, its coverage throughout the years has given life to the lie of white supremacy by suppressing the narratives of Black and brown people, reducing them to their alleged crimes — to stereotypes — and all but erasing their humanity.
This failure is made plain when viewing the coverage regarding the lynching of Matthew Williams in The Baltimore Sun side by side with coverage that appeared in The Afro-American, and other Black newspapers throughout the nation. Like most white newspapers of the era, The Baltimore Sun printed cover stories that perpetuated myths of blackity, identifying black criminal victims of lynching only by their alleged crime. On the other hand the Afro centered the victim’s humanity, reporting on both the spectacle and lynching while the interviews with members of Williams’ family and his co-workers.
In the recent apology editorial, the authors write:
“In the 1930s, as the Democratic and Republican parties began the slow swap philosophy that would come to represent them today, it appeared as if The Sun had a moral awakening. It gave front-page news coverage to two horrific lynchings on the Eastern Shore, and took strong positions against them in editorials.”
But “strong” only applies if the measure is the paper’s previous coverage, which at times went so far as to endorse and encourage Lynching.
Put simply, The Baltimore Sun should look back and learn from the editorial leadership and the human and justice-centered journalism of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, of the Memphis Free Speech and of John Mitchell Jr. of the Richmond Planet.
The editors should learn from the examples set by brave Black women of The Afro-American, such as Levi H. Jolley, who took the time to interview members of Matthew Williams’ family and friends in 1931, salvaging their memories of him. Or Paul Henderson, the photojournalist, on the scene of the lynching of Matthew Williams, risking his life to bear witness to the truth of the Black experience in America. He chose to memorialize that moment for the sake of humanity, knowing that, in his day and time the truth of the Black experience, the truth concerning our trauma and triumphs would be reduced if not entirely eradicated.
Amid unending attacks on radical truth-telling, The Baltimore Sun must look back and learn from such noble practitioners, center the humanity of Black people and be unafraid of the stance that they take concerning issues of racial injustice.
The next 90 years should be different from the last 90 years, so that after 180 years this society will face another direction — one that will experience transformation in how we discuss, understand and respond to injustice. Let us not take this moment of racial reckoning for granted; take this opportunity to bequeath a different legacy for future generations than the one we have inherited.
Charles L. Chavis Jr. (Twitter: @Chavis4Change; web: charleschavis.org) leads the John Mitchell Jr. Program for History, Justice and Race at George Mason University, where he is also an assistant professor of History and Conflict Resolution at The Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution and director of African and African American Studies.