Editor’s note: The Cumberland Times-News and Allegany County Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Committee collaborated for this article as part of an ongoing series, and will team to facilitate upcoming community discussions on topics including the history of the press in reporting racial terror lynchings.
CUMBERLAND, Md. — In the early 1900s, newspapers across the country, particularly in southern states, not only advertised lynchings, but frequently and wrongly wrote of allegations as if they were fact.
According to journalism historians and experts on the subject, the press typically embellished cases that had been made by the public against Black people, particularly Black men.
Newspapers, which were white-owned and produced for white audiences, often promoted guilt, included lurid details of an alleged crime, and were seemingly written by a reporter, yet without a byline.
That was the case of an 18-year-old African American man known as William Burns, who was lynched by a large white mob in Cumberland in 1907.
“Negro Shoots Policeman” was a headline in the Baltimore Sun at the time, which was followed by inconsistencies in reporting by various newspapers.
While Burns awaited trial for the allegation, a mob entered the jail, abducted, beat and shot him to death.
No one was ever held accountable for the lynching of William Burns.
Connections between past, current judicial systems
Edwin Grimsley is a research professional working toward a Doctor of Philosophy focused in sociology from The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
His background includes roughly a decade of work for The Innocence Project, during which time he authored “African American Wrongful Convictions Throughout History.”
Between the 1870s and 1960s, “a significant number of Black defendant/white victim allegations never made it to trial,” Grimsley wrote.
“The Tuskegee Institute Archive estimates approximately 3,500 lynching deaths of blacks,” he wrote. “How many of the lynched were actually innocent will forever be a mystery.”
In a recent Cumberland Times-News interview, Grimsley talked of his research that pertains to lynchings in the early 1900s.
Vigilante lynchings were used by white audiences as a spectator sport.
“It wasn’t about justice,” he said.
Many states across the country “would sell postcards of a person lynched,” Grimsley said.
Prior to lynching in some cases of alleged crimes against a Black person, a court would try to get involved, but the white community had more power than the legal system, he said.
Grimsley talked of “a plantation way of business” where lynchings impeded justice.
“We see these cracks throughout the last say 150 years,” he said and talked of important connections that rose from the past and led to today’s judicial system.
“We can’t change our current system without understanding how it was built and some of its worst functions,” Grimsley said.
Alleged crimes that lead to lynchings
Inconsistencies are found in numerous 1907 reports about Burns, including his name, which was later determined to be Robert Hughes.
There was little to no accountability for accuracy of reporting at that time period.
“When we’re using white newspapers, we’re not really studying lynchings, we’re studying the story that the white newspapers told the white community about the lynchings,” Margaret Vandiver recently told the Cumberland Times-News. “It’s so frustrating because particularly some of the older cases, you may not be able to get any other sources of information.”
Vandiver is a researcher and retired professor of criminology and criminal justice for the University of Memphis.
With assistance from Melinda Meador, assistant district attorney for the 27th Judicial District in Union City, Tennessee, Vandiver wrote “A Brief Guide To Using Newspapers For Research On Cases of Lynching, With Notes On Other Sources.”
“One of my areas of major interest was capital punishment,” Vandiver said of her more than 20-year teaching career. “I began to work a lot on the history of the death penalty in the United States, particularly in the South.”
The deeper she dug into archival material, including old newspapers, the more she found “some of the legal executions began to appear with the illegal executions, with lynchings, to the point where it can almost be hard to classify whether what you’re seeing is an illegal mob or a quasi-legal court proceeding,” Vandiver said.
A few years ago, Vandiver started working with the Lynching Sites Project in Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee.
“We have documented 35 lynching victims in Shelby County,” Vandiver said of alleged crimes that led to lynchings that “range from horrific murders to asking a store owner for a receipt,” she said.
“There is still much that we just will never know about individual cases,” she said.
Lynchings were a form of entertainment in many white communities.
“There are instances where newspapers actually in advance wrote stories about where lynchings were going to be,” Vandiver said. “In effect they advertised them.”
“They also stirred up such violent racism in their description of Black suspects … calling them fiends and brutes and black devils and giving lurid physical descriptions of how they looked and how they spoke,” Vandiver said.
The killing of law enforcement officers and what was interpreted as sexual assault on white women seemed to be the two crimes that led to the most feverish kind of outrage, she said.
“Sometimes it seems that the people who were writing the stories were not even affiliated with the newspaper,” Vandiver said. “They would write a letter and mail it to the editor, and the editor would say, ‘my correspondent tells me that …’”
Alleged crimes were reportedly followed by alleged confessions of guilt.
“I think that the confessions are absolutely worthless,” she said.
“And this is a hard thing for people in the public to understand because you still hear people saying about modern cases in the criminal justice system, ‘Well, if he was innocent, why did he confess?’” Vandiver said. “They don’t understand the pressures of an interrogation, they don’t understand the confusion that people are experiencing, the terror that they’re experiencing, and if people think that saying something will improve their immediate situation they’ll tend to say it and worry about the consequences later.”
The Innocence Project has documented dozens of cases where people confessed to homicides they did not commit.
“And yet the public still tends to hang on to the confession as a proof that the person is guilty and it’s no such thing, especially for juveniles, especially for people with intellectual disabilities,” she said.
William Burns was murdered collectively by the community, Vandiver said.
“Collective violence particularly when it involves the defiance of the law like breaking into a jail or the collaboration of law enforcement officers, it is a breakdown of law and order, it’s a breakdown of the whole framework of justice that we have in society,” Vandiver said.
“Lynchings happened so frequently across the South,” she said. “If you open old newspapers say from the 1890s or the early 1900s and just scan the pages you’re likely to find a little report of a lynching maybe a couple times a week.”
The violence continued for decades, Vandiver said.
“There were periods of time when more people were dying at the hands of lynch mobs than were being legally executed,” she said. “It almost was like a parallel system of punishment that existed in the South and occasionally outside the South, too.”
‘Didn’t see Black people as being human’
Claire Rounkles is a doctoral student studying media history at the Missouri School of Journalism.
In her research, she found very limited studies on journalism’s role in reporting on lynchings.
“Most of the cases that I had was some sort of interaction between a white person and a Black person,” Rounkles said. “It’s really hard to fully understand what happened because in many cases these newspapers would sensationalize a lot of it during this time period. This is sort of when the idea of journalism as being a profession was being developed.”
Prior to 1908 when the Missouri School of Journalism, which is recognized as one of the first journalism schools, was founded, “there wasn’t really a set standard of practice for journalism at that time,” she said.
Some papers had ethics standards but in many cases, articles that described gruesome and detailed lynchings were used to promote business.
“It was purely just to beat out competitors,” Rounkles said. “They wanted to have the most scandalized of stories presented.”
Reporters were not named in the articles, she said.
“Bylines are not used during this time,” Rounkles said.
The white public “didn’t see Black people as being human,” she said and added many newspapers used racial slurs “and made Black people out to be demonic.”
Rounkles said she found ads for clothing companies that were having “lynching sales” and churches “that were letting out congregants early to go watch a lynching.”
Accusations that led to lynching ranged from murder to “looking at a white person the wrong way,” she said.
Some Black people were lynched because “they had better financial success,” she said.
Because of conflicting newspaper reports, there is no way to know what was “actually evidence and what was just created to sensationalize the story,” Rounkles said.
“I found that the Black press was more open to talking about how (lynching) was a race issue and not a crime issue,” she said. “They were really adamant in discussing the horrific nature of lynching and why it was being used.”
The Black press also discussed how lynchings were used to terrorize the Black community, she said.
“The act of taking souvenirs was a big discussion point,” she said.
Rounkles found descriptions of “body parts, pieces of clothing, pieces of root, pieces of the tree” associated with lynchings.
In southern areas “you would read more about body parts being taken,” she said.
“Lynching was a tool of racial terror,” she said.
“Talking about these cases is important,” Rounkles said. “These victims need to be recognized that they were brutally murdered and seen as being guilty without a fair trial.”