One of my first assignments at the El Dorado News-Times required me to read the old newspapers to find tidbits for “Today in History in El Dorado.” Since I am no longer in the office, I only have my impressions of articles and comments I read. I am unable to provide specic dates, but the following reflects my impressions of how racism touched the pages of newspapers through the first half of the 20th century.
For instance, around the 1900s, prior to an election, a writer urged his fellow party members to court the black population of the community in order to keep them from voting with the opposition. The writer acknowledged his adverse attitude towards the black community whom he wanted to vote for his party’s candidate while also acknowledging the party’s need for their votes. Prejudices and racism glared blatantly as I turned the brittle, aging pages of those huge, hard bound copies of old newspapers, I did not have to read between the lines to recognize the prevailing, accepted segregation and prejudices of the time.
The newspaper’s stories obviously emphasized racial differences by noting an arrested individual’s race. Black sports and activities clearly received much less coverage.
In the pre-World War I era, lynchings tarnished the country’s image. The vast majority of lynching victims were black, but they were not the only ones lynched prior to World War I, at least not according to the statistics I found one January. The story reported the national statistics on lynchings including how many died from each race or ethnic group. I studied the list. The lynchings involved many African-Americans with a scattering of Caucasians and Hispanics, and one man described as “Italian.” Such reports began the fueled a campaign against lynch mobs.
According to a biography about President Harry Truman, during his years in the Senate, Congress proposed laws to prosecute those who participated in lynch mobs. It failed to pass, as have 200 other proposed bills in the past 100 years. In the 1940s, after the federal government began prosecuting those involved, the lynchings began to decline.
One comment made at a school board meeting during segregation in the late 1930s caught my attention. The board looked at the yearly budget and raised the teacher’s salaries in the white schools but not the salaries in the black schools. One board member said he was sorry they did not have the funds to pay the black teachers. He really wished they had had the funds. I read that statement, yet in my mind I heard my husband saying, “People find money for what they think is important.”
Reading the El Dorado newspapers from the turbulent 1960s, I never saw any reports on the national unrest, riots, protests or sit downs. The local newspapers were silent about racial unrest while protests filled the land.
Another folder of papers, crossed my desk: The list of black and white schools’ superintendents and teachers before and after local school integration. A former black teachers summarized those lists best, “None of the administrators from the black schools retained their position.” All were demoted. Integration happened in the classrooms, not in the board room.
For some families, lessons regarding segregation began early. Twenty years ago, through my job, I met and interviewed a 70 year-old man who had lived in a logging camp back in the woods as a boy. Few children lived in the logging camp where he lived. One day he went to play with some black children in the camp. His parents’ reaction and discipline seared him forever. They would not tolerate that. Decades later, pain etched his voice as he told me his story. Things have changed in many ways since that man’s childhood. Still, racism remains an issue we must address with our attitudes, actions and willingness to think differently in how we will live together.