By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Looking back at bias in 1900
Out of the Morgue
otm_vlc_National Negro Business League members.jpg
Pictured here is the 1914 executive committee of the National Negro Business League. The NNBL was organized this week in 1900. It was led by Booker T. Washington, located in the front row, holding a rectangle of paper. This public domain photo is courtesy of US Library of Congress (LC-B2- 2053-15).

Around this time in 1900, the recent national conventions and the upcoming presidential elections were the main focus for local news. Nearly every report in our city’s papers was focused on politics. While there was also a plethora of advertisements and reports of the comings and goings of Barton County travelers, the odd hayride and public invitations to Labor Day picnics, newspaper readers, we imagine, were probably reaching burnout, just as we are today. Still, it’s a great chance to look back at the kind of media bias that had a firm foothold at the time. 

It was on Aug. 23, 1900, that the first meeting of the National Negro Business League occurred in Boston. It was led by Booker T. Washington, who worked for Black equality in the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s. His approach, to win over white acceptance of Black Americans gradually, was controversial among Black leaders even during his time. However, he gained a following from wealthy and powerful white business owners and politicians, which seemed to be a step in the right direction at the time. According to the website “Black Past,” the league predated the United States Chamber of Commerce by 12 years. After its incorporation, it grew to include hundreds of chapters all over the country. In 1966 it was reincorporated under the name National Business League, and is still active today. 

Its first meeting was not mentioned in The Great Bend Weekly Tribune, but rather in The Topeka State Journal as a brief under the headline “Negro Business League.” It offered no background, no context, just a few stated facts:

“The National Negro Business League, made up of delegates from about 25 states, assembled here today. The principal speaker at today’s session was Booker T. Washington.”

Sadly, it was overshadowed by the front page, bold print headline, “Blood Thirst,” about an unsuccessful attempt to lynch Lewis Peck, a Black man charged with “brutal assault” that occurred in Akron, Ohio. The story was reported in great detail, taking up two front-page columns, and jumped to an inside page where at least another third of the story was reported.

Peck was arrested and charged with assaulting Christina, the 6-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Maas, “industrious and respectable people who live on Perkins’ hill.” 

In a nutshell, accounts of the incident reported in Akron’s local papers inflamed residents of Akron, inciting a mob which came looking for Peck (who had been moved to Cleveland as a proactive measure) and accosted law enforcement and guards at the prison and the jail. Before the night was over, Akron’s city hall was blown up with dynamite and burned to the ground. Two children and one man were shot and killed in the riot, and many injuries tallied. According to The Ohio History Connection, the incident that happened on Aug. 22, 1900, is referred to as “the darkest night in Akron’s history.” 

The point here is, crimes committed by Black people typically received a lot more ink than the important civic engagements of law-abiding Black citizens. Both incidents were not local Topeka events, but the paper chose to highlight the Akron incident rather than report further on the one occurring in Boston. 

The National Negro Business League, now the National Business League, has had a much wider and more positive impact on the nation over time. It was unique and ground breaking, and the individuals taking part influential in their areas, but it was in large part ignored by the national press. This is one example of the part the press has played in shaping a racist narrative in this country.  Today, media companies and their journalists are gaining awareness of how editorial choices are influencing consumers of news.

Commentary on politics of the day

In 1900, Great Bend’s two weekly papers, the Barton County Democrat and the Great Bend Weekly Tribune, provided the city with two opposing political slants on the news. The Tribune openly endorsed the Republican ticket, headed by the incumbents, President Wm. McKinley and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrat supported challengers William J. Bryan and Adlai E. Stevenson. 

At issue was President McKinley’s policy of territorial expansion and “benevolent assimilation.” While Republicans supported the policy and hoped to employ compulsory military service during peacetime in order to further it, Democrats were against it, preferring to keep their sons home and helping on the farm. 

A guest commentary from the Pawnee Rock Correspondence summed up the Tribune’s assessment: “The daily newspapers nearly every day contain names of those who have flopped to the republicans. A list could be published from this precinct of the same kind. There are none who have flopped to Bryanism, however. 

Perhaps because in 1900, the Democratic party was working to undo rights for Black Americans that veteran members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the G.A.R., (of which there were locally many) had fought and died for over 40 years before. 

Work to eliminate rights for Black Americans in Southern states was also underway, according to the report, “The Negro in the South,” appearing in the Tribune that week. It spelled out the Democratic party’s efforts in six states, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, to “disenfranchise the negro,” and “eliminate” them from politics through changes to individual state constitutions. Georgia and Florida were expected to follow suit. 

“The new (Virginia) constitution will be the Democratic issue, and as the state is Democratic it need not be doubted that the convention will be called and the constitution adopted, in spite of the Republican opposition.”

The Tribune shared editorial comments from several Kansas newspapers concerning these issues, like this one from the Kansas City Journal:

“The eloquence of democratic spellbinders on the subject of “imperialism” is likely to be much marred by course shouts of “How about North Carolina?”

This goes to show that politics, then and now, have always been complicated. Parties change over time, and comparing today’s party to its counterpart of a century ago is a lot like comparing the newborn today to a great grandfather of the past. While there are similarities, they are their own traits, having endured circumstances unique to their times. 

otm_vlc_presidential wives.jpg
This line drawing of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates’ wives appeared in the Aug. 24, 1900 edition of The Great Bend Weekly Tribune. Note the subtle differences, the shape and prominence of eyebrows, the angle of noses, hair styles, even the direction from which the subject is facing. Can you guess which candidates were favored editorially by the Tribune? - photo by Tribune file image
Scrutinizing the wives

Reporting on candidates’ spouses and families has long been a point of interest. That’s because how voters perceive a candidate’s spouse also impacts how they perceive the candidate. 

That week in 1900, The Tribune provided readers a brief report on each of the presidential and vice presidential candidates’ wives, “Four Typical American Women: The wives of the four principal national candidates.” 

While the descriptions appear to be kind by today’s standards, there were certainly biases that in their time, as well as our own, stand out. While all of the wives were reported to have fine educations, the Republican wives were described to be more feminine and motherly, while the Democrat wives were described as less social. 

Mrs. Ida Saxton McKinley, after spending time with her father at his bank in Canton, Ohio, until the end of the Civil War, “was sent to Europe to finish her education, and upon her return made the acquaintance of Maj. McKinley, to whom she was married in 1871. The invalidism which has so strongly brought out President McKinley’s devotion to his wife did not attack her until after her marriage. The home life of the president and his wife is ideal, and despite her physical weakness Mrs. McKinley says she is the happiest of women.” 

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt was Miss Edith Kermit Carow when she was married to the now candidate for vice president in 1886, the report states. “She is careful to screen her children in all ways possible from photographers, and likewise shuns publicity for herself. She declares children, if promiscuously admired, become self-conscious, vain and conceited, and lose those traits of innocence and loveliness beautiful in children.” 

Mrs. W.J. Bryan, the report states, “attended the female academy in Jacksonville when Mr. Bryan was in another school at the same place, and graduated the same week that he was, and was also the valedictorian of her class. She studied law and was admitted to the bar without any idea of practicing, but simply to be more thoroughly companionable to him ... Mrs. Bryan has an immense amount of determination and aggressiveness, is studious and reserved. She does not care for fashion or society ... her tastes are essentially literary.” 

Finally, Mrs. Adlai E. Stevenson was daughter of the president of Center college, Danville, Ky. (where her now husband was attending school). They met there, but didn’t marry for another 15 years. “There are four children. Mrs. Stevenson went to Washington with her husband when he was elected to congress in 1874, again when he became postmaster general, and later vice president, and all together has lived 16 years in the capital. She is essentially a home-loving woman, devoted to her family, and entertained little in Washington. Her taste in dress is extremely quiet and she seldom wears jewels.”