Once Upon a Time, The Liberal Free Press Really Disliked Black People

February 27, 2013, 2:34 PM by  Bill McGraw

This article contains language from the 19th Century Free Press that will offend readers.

Almost everything about the Free Press of 1863 was different than the Free Press of 2013.

The newsprint itself had a high rag content that, 150 years later, makes an 1863 paper feel like a thick coffee filter. The news sprawled across eight columns that were dense with type and devoid of photos. Headlines stretched vertically instead of horizontally. A list of names of people checking in to Detroit’s hotels ran on the back page.

And the news stories and editorials were filled with racial slurs, calls for white supremacy and crude depictions of African Americans.

Take the Free Press from Jan. 7, 1863, six days after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation: It published a bitterly sarcastic article about Detroit’s African Americans celebrating the freeing of the slaves. The writer uses the word “nigger” nine times; “darkey” four times and “pickaninny” once. He also guessed the prices young black men in the festivities would have fetched at a slave auction. (Below; "contrabands" was a term for slaves, especially fugitive slaves during the Civil War.)





While the Emancipation Proclamation was an uncommon news story, the racial insults were business as usual in the Free Press for much of the 19th Century. The venom spiked from the 1850s into the 1870s, as the national debate over slavery grew more impassioned and then erupted into the Civil War. During that period, the paper became increasingly strident and made a name for itself as one of the most aggressively racist journals in the country.

The Free Press once hinted that citizens should lynch a black man accused of sex crimes. In 1856 it ran an editorial that was headlined “Niggers—Niggers--Niggers.”

Matthew Kundinger, who studied stories published by the paper in 1863, wrote in the Michigan Journal of History in 2006: “The Free Press used any method it could to degrade blacks and scare its white readers.”

The origins of the Free Press’ racial crisis

Reading the Free Press from 150 years ago can be shocking, even beyond the sight of the racial slurs, because of what the paper would become a century later. By the 1960s, the Free Press had evolved into one of the Midwest’s most tolerant voices. Before it was widely accepted for white institutions to support causes important to African Americans, the paper endorsed Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, and backed such issues as equal housing, affirmative action and the need for racially representative juries. It won a Pulitzer Prize for its enlightened coverage of the aftermath of the 1967 riot.

The paper’s racism in the 1800s was the result of politics, the nature of journalism and the state of the country. The Free Press has existed for so long – it soon will be 182 years old – that assumptions about newspapers from a 21st Century perspective don’t help make sense of why, in the pages of the 19th-Century Free Press, African Americans were also “plantation savages,” “Ethiopians,” “American citizens of African descent,” “cannibals” and “Lincoln’s sable pets.” The paper constantly told readers black people smelled bad, looked ugly and were simultaneously inferior and threatening.

The Free Press published its first edition May 5, 1831, just as the national debate about slavery was picking up steam. The paper’s two principal backers, Joseph Campau and John R. Williams, had owned slaves when slavery existed in Detroit, prior to the 1820s.

The paper, like most of that era, was an organ for a political party. The Free Press supported the Democratic Party of President Andrew Jackson, and remained a party mouthpiece for decades. By the 1850s, it had also become a newspaper in the modern sense, combining its support for the Democratic platform and candidates – and antipathy for Republicans -- with reporting on crime, commerce and lifestyle.

At the time the Civil War broke out, the Free Press was Detroit’s leading paper. It was known as an advocate for workers and Catholics, and many of its readers came from among the growing number of Detroit’s working class Irish and German immigrants – many of whom were Catholic. The paper also fought attempts to outlaw alcohol, another major issue in the 1850s and one that many Free Press readers similarly opposed.

The Free Press’ anti-black fervor did not exist in a vacuum. Detroit today has chosen to memorialize its history as an abolitionist city whose residents helped slaves reach Canada through the Underground Railroad. Almost totally forgotten is that the city was a Democratic stronghold in an overwhelmingly Republican state.

In the 1864 election, after Lincoln had freed the slaves, he handily won Michigan’s electoral votes, but failed to carry Detroit. How much the readers’ beliefs influenced the paper and vice-versa is impossible to know, but, clearly, the Free Press had a ready-made audience for its views.

When it came to the war itself, the Free Press was a so-called “Copperhead” paper: It supported the Union Army’s efforts only as a way of keeping the nation together. Even though they loathed blacks, the editors maintained they did not support slavery; they believed in states’ rights, saying Washington had no standing to force its will about slavery on the nation. And they detested abolition.

According to the Free Press, the United States government was “made by white men, for the benefit of white men, to be administered by white men in such manner as they should determine.” But even whites came under attack if they dared to support black rights or the end of slavery. The paper despised Lincoln, calling him “a crude, illiterate, barroom witling.”

The Free Press is not eager to explore its past

In recent times, the Free Press’ bigoted past lurked in bound volumes of old papers stored in basement at the Detroit Public Library and in various microfilm collections, waiting to be discovered. Few staffers knew about the paper’s history, and the story never has been told in detail outside of esoteric academic journals. Free Press executives have shied away from examining the paper’s anti-black history or its role in forming attitudes in a region that has long been divided by race


In 1981, “On Guard,” a book published by the Free Press to celebrate the paper’s 150th anniversary, carried only about a dozen paragraphs that dealt with any aspect of the paper’s historic treatment of African Americans. The paragraphs were scattered among the book’s 279 pages.

It’s unclear if they were clumsily written or carefully crafted,

but they succeeded in vastly underplaying the dimensions of the paper’s
malevolent side. When the book summarized the career of Wilbur F. Storey, right, the Free Press editor identified by modern-day scholars as the paper’s most venomous racist, it said: “Storey left behind in Detroit an extraordinary journalistic heritage.”

In 2001, as the paper was publishing a series of stories about Detroit history in connection with the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding, several Free Press reporters told the management it was time to look into the paper’s notorious past and publish the results. The late Robert McGruder, the executive editor who was an African American, refused, writing in a column the paper was better off fighting the battle against racism in the present. One article in the history series, about the debate over slavery in Detroit, carried several carefully edited paragraphs at the bottom of the story about the paper’s pre-Civil War persona.

The Free Press’ reluctance to re-examine its history is a sharp contrast to the paths taken over the past decade by many venerable corporations, churches and other institutions that have gone out of their way to come to grips with their involvement in the horrors of the past.

A number of other newspapers have conducted investigations into their relationships with slavery or, in some cases, for their neglect of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The Hartford Courant apologized in 2000 for having carried ads for runaway slaves; the Tallahassee Democrat apologized for having sided with segregationists, even though the paper “is a far different organization from what it was 50 years ago,” the Democrat’s top two executives wrote in 2006.

Banks, insurance companies and universities also have taken steps to set the record straight when it comes to how their corporate forbears interacted with slavery. When executives of the Aetna insurance company learned it had written policies on slaves, they were “deeply disappointed and embarrassed,” the chairman and CEO said in a statement in 2002.

The Free Press, though, never shies away from exploring the histories of other institutions. The paper has delved into the pasts of, among others, Ford Motor Co., for the anti-Semitism of Henry Ford and the company’s cooperation with the Nazi regime in Germany during World War II; the Archdiocese of Detroit, for its tolerance of the anti-Semitic Charles Coughlin, the infamous radio priest of the 1930s; and Dearborn and the Grosse Pointes, for their histories of segregation. 

Calling for a lynching

The Free Press was hardly the only 19th Century newspaper that was anti-abolition and abrasive toward black Americans. Others in the Midwest include the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the long-defunct Chicago Times.

But experts who have studied American journalism of the 1800s say the Free Press was perhaps the most racist paper in the north. Many papers, including the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune, supported the freeing of the slaves and black rights and wrote about African Americans in neutral terms. The Advertiser and Tribune, in fact, believed Lincoln was too conservative.

Justin E. Walsh, a biographer of Storey, the Free Press owner and editor from 1853 to 1861, concluded that the paper was unique in the harshness of its portrayal of African Americans.

“No other newspaper in the North was more persistent or violent in its condemnations,” Walsh wrote in 1968. “The Negro was a savage,” Storey felt, “beyond the pale of civilizing influence.”

Walsh continued: “It is apparent that Storey’s policy on the race question bordered on obsession. Even if considered in the terms of the 1850s, it would be difficult to find another northern editor who so frequently and consistently reached so low to discredit the Negro. Even southern journals which defended slavery rarely engaged in such unremitting assaults upon the Negro as a human being.”

The Free Press’ anti-black policy started before Storey arrived, and it continued after he left.

In 1862, as Lincoln made it known he was preparing to free the slaves, the Free Press day after day hammered home to its working class readers that freed slaves would come north and steal their jobs. “They will swarm upon us like the locusts of Egypt, devouring the whole land,” the Free Press editorialized.

Almost precisely 150 years ago, on March 6, 1863, the Free Press essentially urged white Detroiters to lynch a black man, William Faulkner, who was on trial for sexual improprieties with two young girls. (At left.)


As soon as charges had been filed, the Free Press began calling the defendant a “fiend” and “monster.” Two weeks before a jury decided his fate, the paper suggested the proper punishment for Faulkner would be the guillotine or the gibbet, a gallows-like structure from the Middle Ages on which a dead or dying body was displayed.

“Every instinct of humanity cries out for vengeance,” the paper said. “There is no punishment on the statute books of Michigan which would, in a hundredth part, atone for the heinous crime.”

Kundinger, who researched the riot for Michigan History Today, wrote that the Free Press seemed to be “screaming for a lynching.”

Historians fault the paper for fomenting the hatred that led to a post-trial riot during which two people died and white mobs attacked black residents and torched their homes.

John C. Schneider, a historian who has studied 19th Century Detroit, concluded that “much of the blame for the violence must rest on the Free Press” for its inflammatory reporting.

The Free Press took every opportunity to demean black Detroiters. One day in 1863, for example, the police blotter contained an item, written partially in dialect, about a “low, filthy groggery down on Lafayette Street, kept by a genuine specimen of the Ethiopian race” who serves his “culled bredden” and their gushing wenches” bad whiskey, which results in a “genuine nigger breakdown.”

Later in 1863, as discussion grew about allowing black soldiers into the Union Army, the Free Press was aghast that the country would arm black men and force white men to salute black officers. “We shall not be surprised if Ft. Wayne is garrisoned with niggers and a provost guard of them is detailed to keep the white people peaceable,” it said. “Truly, ‘American citizens of African descent’ are flourishing in these days of republican rule. Is this a white man’s country?’”

The black community strikes back

Sex between black men and white women was one of the Free Press’ chief preoccupations.

The term in use then to denote race mixing was “amalgamation,” and it appeared frequently in the Free Press. “Amalgamation dens,” for example, was the Free Press’ term for Detroit saloons frequented by both black and white clients.

“ANOTHER AMALGAMATION CASE,” screamed a headline in 1863. It ran above the story of a white woman and a black man, who, the paper said, had eloped. He was described as “Pontiac Joe,” an “ebony lord” with a “black, wool-covered skull…a genuine Ethiopian head.” The woman, 18, was “forever lost to decency and respect…who disgraced her sex and common decency by consenting to become the wife of a black, ugly looking, disgusting negro.”

Pontiac Joe was arrested on a larceny charge, but the Free Press believed he should have been charged with associating with a white woman, though the paper acknowledged there was no such law. “This is but another instance of the folly of treating negroes in any respect as equals,” the Free Press story said.

In the 1860s, African Americans made up less than three percent of Detroit’s population and possessed little clout, but they refused to take the Free Press abuse in silence. In November 1863, a mass meeting of black citizens passed a resolution against “the unscrupulous pro-slavery newspaper.”

The resolution said, in part: “We recognize the Detroit Free Press as the ancient and persistent enemy of the colored man – seeking by every means in its power to rivet upon him for all time the galling chains of slavery and consign him, if possible, to a lower level of degradation than he has heretofore occupied.”

Bigoted coverage continued after the Civil War

And the Free Press’ racism was not confined to only the 1850s and Civil War. During the postwar period and Reconstruction in the 1870s, the paper’s coverage of events in the South was filled with invective, taunts and slurs. “What glorious times we shall have when a full equality of the races is established!” the paper editorialized, sarcastically, in 1867.

The editorial continued: “When the racial millennium shall have reached its full meridian…Beautiful young lady in a street car, sandwiched between two very lusty American citizens of African descent -- a diamond set in ebony. Black mother and white father, with mahogany-covered picaninnies. Isn’t it pleasant to contemplate?”

Another historian who studied the Free Press’ performance during Reconstruction concluded the paper had the “unmistakable goal of arousing latent white racist sentiment.” He added: “By their words, if not their deeds, the editors of the Free Press revealed themselves to be racial bigots.”

Starting in 1877, Free Press staffer Charles Lewis wrote a column – under the byline M. Quad -- whose sole purpose was to make fun of African Americans. The column was called “The Lime Kiln Club,” and it became popular far beyond Detroit, giving the Free Press an international reputation as a paper that specialized in humor. The column consisted of stories about an imaginary society of older black men with silly names like Giveadamn Jones and Trustee Pullback doing demeaning things like debating about watermelons and buying snow shovels in summer.

And Lewis wrote the column completely in dialect, as in this example, in which the club’s leader, Brother Gardner, talks about how, despite the progress African Americans have made, they need to know “their places.”

The black man “have got al de rights the white man has, an’ dar’s no occashun for crowdin’ whar’ we am not wanted,” Gardner said.

Lewis was a celebrity in Detroit, the paper’s star employee. He was also an arch-segregationist who in 1884 called African Americans “a far worse problem than the savage Indian of the plains. The latter we can force with the bullet and the bayonet. The former can only be punished as a law breaker and he laughs at the penalty.”

The column ran in the Free Press until 1891.

A century later, everything had changed

As the 19th Century ended, the Free Press’ treatment of African Americans grew more temperate for several reasons: Society was changing; journalism became more professional and gradually began to define its mission as providing factual news coverage; the paper’s political affiliation faded and a new owner took control. If anything, in the early decades of the 20th Century, Detroit’s black community became mostly invisible to the Free Press and the rest of the mainstream media.

In 1940, the paper was purchased by a company headed by John S. Knight, a publisher from Ohio who promoted a progressive agenda in his papers. Three years later, after a race riot in Detroit claimed 34 lives, an NAACP report on the disturbance praised the Free Press for its efforts to cover the black community in the months leading to the riot. Afterward, when a city report blamed the riot on black Detroiters, the Free Press protested that city officials were biased.

In 1963, exactly 100 years after the Free Press had come within an inch of urging Detroiters to string up a black man, another black man was in the news: the Rev. Martin Luther Martin King Jr. At the height of the civil rights movement in the South, King came to Detroit June 23 to lead a march on Woodward Avenue. More than 125,000 people took part.

The day before, the Free Press urged Detroiters to march so they could protest “injustice against their fellow man.”

The paper that a century earlier had been filled with racial slurs, loathing and viciousness drew attention to the city’s diverse population and said Detroit could demonstrate to the nation “our unified support for equal rights for all” and determination to oppose “the purveyors of hatred and violence.”

Almost everything about the Free Press of 1963 was different than the Free Press of 1863.

Deadline Detroit provided top editors at the Free Press a copy of this story in advance of publication and invited them to comment. 

Editor and Publisher Paul Anger, who has headed the news operation since 2005, said: “The Free Press of today and in fact the Free Press of most of the last century is so far removed from that earlier repugnance. I have nothing to offer that could excuse the past, but the Free Press today stands for something far different.”

Graphics by Lauren Ann Davies


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