By: Joe Strupp
Why have two of North Carolina’s largest newspapers apologized in separate editorials for their part in the 1898 racial battles that occurred statewide, culminating in the Wilmington, N.C. race riots in November of that year?
The apologies, in The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh, last Friday coincided with a 16-page special report on the racial conflicts that boiled over 108 years ago. The tab section, jointly produced by both papers, chronicled events that led to the riots and anti-black activities, including efforts by local newspapers to support supremacists and seek the removal of anti-segregationists from office.
Editorial page editors at the papers, both currently owned by The McClatchy Company, said the timing for an apology was right. “We simply came to the determination that to fully acknowledge our role was appropriate,” Steve Ford, editorial page editor for the News & Observer, told E&P today. “Once you do that, it came to seem to us that an apology was a natural step to take.”
The News & Observer editorial, titled “A Painful Past,” noted that the paper’s part in the racist efforts of 1898 were “not a history we can undo.” But it stated “this newspaper was a leader in that propaganda effort under editor and publisher Josephus Daniels.
Although the paper is no longer owned by Daniels’ heirs, an apology for the acts of someone we continue to salute in a different context on this page and for the misdeeds of the paper as an institution is perfectly in order, so we offer that apology today.”
In the Charlotte Observer, a similar tone took place on its editorial page. “We apologize to the black citizens and their descendants whose rights and interests we disregarded,” the editorial noted,” and to all North Carolinians, whose trust we betrayed by our failure to fairly report the news and stand firm against injustice.”
Ed Williams, editorial page editor of the Charlotte paper, said he ordinarily is against “people who didn’t commit a wrong apologizing to those who were wronged and are long dead.” But he said this case was special given that the racist actions impact today’s residents. “I thought we just needed to get on the right side of history on that,” he told E&P.
Orage Quarles, the News & Observer’s publisher, agreed that apologizing for the acts of past owners may seem hollow. But he stressed that “it is part of our history and there are numerous employees here who had no idea of our role. It as like a giant shadow hanging over it, and we are done with it.”