By Khloe Quill
The Howard Center For Investigative Journalism
Breathlessly, the man scrambled along the railroad tracks, barely catching the next northbound train out of town. He bought his ticket onboard and tried to swallow a sense of foreboding.
Chaos was brewing behind in Phillips County, in the Delta region of Arkansas. Charles H. Brough, then governor of Arkansas, had raced from Little Rock to Elaine to hunt Black people during the Elaine Massacre of 1919, when as many as 800 Black people were killed by white mobs, according to historians.
A white mob heard there was a Black man posing as a white reporter and set out to catch him. Walter F. White, a Black man who looked white, later wrote in his autobiography, “A Man Called White,” that the train conductor told him the train would be delayed and that he was “about to miss some fun.” The conductor explained there was a Black man passing for white.
“What’ll they do with him?” White asked.
“When they get through with him he won’t pass for white no more.”
What the conductor didn’t know was the last-minute passenger he was talking to was the very man he was talking about. White later wrote in his autobiography, “No matter what the distance, I shall never take as long a train ride as that one seemed to be.”
The year was 1919, the city was Elaine, Arkansas, and the man was White, a fair-skinned Black man who reported, investigated and did field organization for the NAACP during some of the peak years of lynching in the South. He was White by name but not white by race.
“I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me,” he wrote in his 1948 autobiography.
In the peak years of lynching and at a time when the Black press was coming into its own, most of its reporters’ press passes were their faces, and they developed their own sets of survival skills to get the facts of the crimes and then get to a safe place to write the story — often a home or church in the closest Black community; other times, as far away from the scene as they could.
White-owned newspapers did not hire them, yet the reporters frequently used those newspapers’ broader circulation and impact, as well as their more plentiful resources, to develop and tell their stories. They welcomed and used personal connections to supportive white colleagues.
White’s entrée to the governor’s office was not only his skin but a credential given to him by the white-owned Chicago Daily News, and he shared the information he obtained with both Black- and white-owned newspapers.
Years earlier, Ida B. Wells-Barnett proved to be ahead of her time as an investigative reporter with her data-based exposition of the false narrative that most Black men were lynched because they had sexually assaulted white women.
White’s intense reporting not only supported in searing detail the truth of Wells-Barnett’s investigation. It also supported her insistence that Black people were more often lynched because they were better at business than their white counterparts, who expected less from formerly enslaved African Americans, according to “I Investigate Lynchings,” an American Mercury article written by White in January 1929.
His work gave added strength to the Black press, which since its founding a century before had proclaimed the need for Black voices to report critical Black affairs often under- or inaccurately reported by the white press.
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Born in Atlanta, White was a native son of the South, according to a 1955 obituary in The New York Times, “Walter White, 61, Dies in Home Here.” After graduating from Atlanta University in 1916, he went to work for a Black-owned insurance company, while becoming active in a local chapter of the NAACP.
In 1918, James Weldon Johnson, who had graduated from the same university 22 years earlier, recommended that the NAACP hire White as an assistant secretary in its national office, according to the Library of Congress.
The Emancipation Proclamation, the Great Migration and the end of World War I had profoundly affected the lives of the nation’s Black population, especially the large majority still living in the South, where they made up the workforce driving that region’s agriculture-based economy, according to historians.
Freed from enslavement and fleeing the tyranny of lynching as a way to enforce the old racial order, they left in droves, lured by the promises of better lives and better wages in the industrial centers of the Northeast, Midwest and West.
The end of World War I coincided with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Though white business owners throughout the United States competed for Black bodies to work for them, they were leery about the impact of socialist thought on Black minds, union organizing, and social and political militancy.
At the same time, Black soldiers returning from the war were more demanding of the full blessings of liberty that they had risked their lives and killed others to preserve, only to come home and be denigrated if they wore their uniforms in public and lynched for whatever reasons others could concoct, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative.
In the preceding half-century, the Black press had only begun to develop. Its readership and circulation bases were limited by the relatively small but growing number of African Americans who could read, have access to a newspaper and support the paper’s advertisers.
But the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th saw the birth of publications that in time would become titans of the Black press — The Afro-American in Baltimore, The Chicago Defender, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, The Pittsburgh Courier and the Amsterdam News in New York.
Another pillar of the anti-lynching Black press was The Crisis, the intellectual and news magazine of the NAACP, launched in 1910. Its founder and editor was W.E.B. Du Bois.
It was to that organization, to that publication and at that time that young White came and began his career as a journalist. He would prove to be a better than average writer, appropriately skeptical and an insatiable fact-gatherer.
His biggest asset in building sources and developing scoops: He simply didn’t look like who and what he really was, at a time when looks could make all the difference in the world — including, at times, the difference between life and death, according to his autobiography.
White’s maternal lineage included an enslaved woman who had been a concubine to the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison, according to Biography.com.
It was in 1919, the year that Johnson labeled “The Red Summer” of racial rioting and death, that White was assigned to gather information on events in Elaine, a small Delta town on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, a two-hour drive southeast of Little Rock.
The color of White’s skin was his ticket to talk with certain white people, including Brough, who had been re-elected the year before with the backing of the state Republican Party, running against a socialist-endorsed candidate, Clay Fulks.
After being interviewed by White, the governor gave the reporter an autographed picture of himself, as well as a letter that White could use to introduce himself to whites who would give him their side of the story.
Among those White spoke with were some who said the riots were not about an alleged conspiracy of Black people to attack white people, as some newspapers were reporting. Rather, it was rooted in economic competition between white land and business owners worried about the potential success of a Black cooperative seeking to end a sharecropping and tenant-farming system that some likened, along with voter suppression activities, to a second form of slavery.
“White interviewed a few … white residents who confirmed that undercutting black sharecroppers was typical. ‘If n—–s had gotten all they earned’ White later reported, ‘they would own the Delta by now.’
“He also reported a number of whites had told him that over one hundred blacks were killed despite the reported 25 and that the real fatality count would never be known,” wrote Adrienne Jones, an archivist for the Center for Arkansas History and Culture at the University of Arkansas Little Rock.
Undercover reporting was only one of the strengths White brought to the Black press. He also was a voracious collector of data and an analyst of it, able to make his case with irrefutable statistics. The Crisis, the NAACP’s publication, provided him the time and space on paper to write about events in Elaine in a way he could not for a regular newspaper.
“The center, Phillips County, Ark., has 692,000 square miles of land and its chief city is Helena. In 1910 there were 33,535 inhabitants in the country, of whom 26,354 or 78.6% were Negroes,” White wrote in a December 1919 edition of The Crisis.
“The county is predominantly a farming community with $9,000,000 worth of farm property, and two-thirds of the value of all its crops is represented by the cotton crop,” he wrote. “Of the 9,835 males of voting age, 7,479 are Negroes, and of these 5,510 could read and write; nevertheless, all the political power is in the hands of the 4,000 white voters, Negroes having no representation even on juries.
“The Negroes are the cotton raisers. Of the 30,000 bales of cotton raised in 1909, they raised 25,000. Most of the Negro farmers are tenants. In the whole county there were, in 1910, 587 colored owners and 1,598 colored tenants. The tenants farmed 81,000 acres of land and raised 21,000 bales of cotton.”
Market factors underpinned the unrest, White concluded.
“Recently the price of cotton has, as you know, greatly increased. It was about nine cents a pound in 1904, eleven cents in 1915, twenty cents in 1916, and twenty-eight cents in 1917. The price at present is forty cents. The rise in price has made it difficult to keep the Negroes in debt, and, therefore, they have become restive in their demands for itemized settlements.”
In 1926, White gathered behind-the-scenes information on the lynching of Bertha, Demon and Clarence Lowman in Aiken County, South Carolina, exposing government corruption, illegal activity and the role of the Ku Klux Klan. He turned some of his findings over to the state’s governor, who took no action.
White gave the information to the white-owned New York World newspaper, whose star reporter followed up with a series of stories that drew national attention.
Sharing exclusive work with other, competing publications is usually not done. White did so, however, in part for the good of the civil rights organization.
“The New York World was a mass circulation newspaper that would reach thousands and thousands of people, and the NAACP needed that publicity in order to continue to pressure [and] to create public support for a federal anti-lynching bill,” Kenneth Robert Janken, a professor of African American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in an interview.
In 1929, one of White’s most noteworthy books was published, “Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch.” White applied his scholarly approach to the statistical arguments made by Wells-Barnett that lynching was driven far more by economic rivalry between Black and white people than Black men’s assaults on white women and white racial purity.
“All of these reasons for the dominance of sex as a factor in lynching, with all their other complications, centre in one objective — the economic ascendancy over Negro labour,” White concluded.
“While sex, or ‘racial integrity’ is very convenient publicity material for the leaders of American lynchings,” he wrote, “sex-attachment is in fact one of the smallest causes, among even the alleged causes of this most barbarous form of repression.”
Two years later, White became executive secretary of the NAACP, a position he held until his death in 1955. That was the same year that photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, murdered in Money, Mississippi, were printed over and over again in the Black press, waking up the world to the horrors of lynching in the United States.
Roy Wilkins, who succeeded White as the leader of the NAACP, was among the “Big Six” civil rights leaders of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was shortly thereafter that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were enacted, culminating longtime objectives of the NAACP and the Black press.
By the time White died, he had gained more attention for his role as a civil rights leader than as an especially courageous and groundbreaking journalist. “He was Mr. NAACP. That’s his legacy,” said Janken, who wrote the introduction to the 2002 reprint of “Rope and Faggot.”
At about the same time that he took the helm of the NAACP, White gave away the trade secret of his success as a journalist — merely being willing to mingle with those in local gathering spots who were willing to talk to anyone who would listen to them, and looked like them, too.
“The natives know practically nothing of what is going on outside their own immediate neighborhoods. Newspapers, books, magazines, theatres, visitors and other vehicles for the transmission of information and ideas are usually as strange among them as dry-point etchings,” White wrote in a January 1929 edition of American Mercury magazine entitled, “I Investigate Lynchings.”
“In any American village, North or South, East or West, there is no problem which cannot be solved in half an hour by the morons who lounge about the village store,” White wrote.
“When to their isolation is added an emotional fixation, such as the rural South has on the Negro, one can sense the atmosphere from which spring … the Ku Kluxers, the two-gun Bible-beaters, the lynchers and the anti-evolutionists,” he wrote. “And one can see why no great amount of cleverness or courage is needed to acquire information in such a forlorn place about the latest lynching.”
Yet White did not dismiss the dangers he encountered in investigating 41 lynchings and eight riots, dangers that would be faced by the next generation of reporters and photographers for the Black press.
He’d begun to relish his returns to the North, above the Mason-Dixon line that once separated Southern slave states from Northern free ones, as coming back to places above “the Smith and Wesson line,” a reference to a leading firearms maker of the time, Janken wrote in his introduction to White’s book.
White’s account of his investigations of lynching was not limited to times when the way he looked had rescued him from impending danger.
“One other time the possession of a light skin and blue eyes (though I consider myself a colored man) almost cost me my life when (it was during the Chicago race riots in 1919) a Negro shot at me, thinking me to be a white man,” White wrote.