Freep’s slave daze

Is the best use of Free Press resources digging out the racism of 1850, or digging out the racism that exists in Detroit and its surrounding area in 2001?” Detroit Freep Executive Editor Bob McGruder wrote in March. In the wake of a two-part series on the “long-forgotten history of slavery in Detroit,” McGruder — responding to what he described as a “discussion” within his newsroom — signaled that a lengthy examination of the paper’s racist roots wasn’t on the institutional agenda.

But a small, attentive audience dwelled on that history last week as the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists hosted Freep reporter Bill McGraw, who had produced the Detroit slavery series as part of the paper’s Detroit 300 coverage.

It wasn’t pretty. In its 22nd year, 1853, the paper became the property of Wilbur Storey, who, besides helping to pioneer yellow journalism, established the Freep, even in the context of its times, as “the most negrophobe sheet in the Middle West in the decade before the Civil War,” according to Storey’s biographer.

Post-Storey, it was a paper that bemoaned the Emancipation Proclamation (“Mr. Lincoln’s decision that niggers are American citizens”), contributed to a near-lynching and a subsequent 1863 race riot, and gave a platform for the blatant racial caricatures of columnist M. Quad (“the Mark Twain of the Midwest”).

In the next century, the paper would moderate its slurs, but blame blacks for inciting mob violence by moving into white neighborhoods. By the time of the 1943 race riots, the Freep’s coverage won praise from the NAACP, and finally in 1953 (six years after Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color line), hired its first black reporter, Collins George, a product of universities from Howard to Oxford. The paper won a Pulitzer for challenging police accounts of killings in the 1967 Detroit riot. (The Detroit News, dealt with less extensively in the presentation, hired its first black reporter circa 1960.)

Several in the audience said that McGraw’s research merits expansion and wider exposure. Some suggested a book; Wayne State University journalism school head Ben Burns said the material should be presented in a department newsletter, and that McGraw speak to journalism classes. News Hits thought giving this space would be a small contribution to the cause of history.

W. Kim Heron, MT's managing editor, contributed to News Hits, which is edited by Curt Guyette. He can be reached at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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