Shott Essay: Becoming an Historian of the Black and Irish Press

Brian Shott, author of Mediating America

When I enrolled in graduate school in U.S. history at the age of forty-one, I already knew I liked newspapers—I had worked for more than fifteen years as a writer and editor at weeklies, newswires, new media firms, and nonprofits. So choosing newspapers as a topic of study, at least broadly, was easy. But having had little experience studying history (I had majored in English in college), I tended to imagine myself as a historian-in-training who would excel at theory. I would bring a high-level media studies approach to what I felt was the oftentimes dull, theoretically weak, nuts-and-bolts histories of American newspapers. It was all that rote time in the archives that I thought would bore me.

My naivety (and arrogance) didn’t last long, for I found at the University of California at Santa Cruz that I was the opposite kind of historian–I was perplexed by McLuhan, Innis, and other bigwigs of media theory and instead preferred to spend my time digging deep into the archives, reading page after microfiche page of late-nineteenth century newspapers or the back-and-forth letters between publishers and their foreign correspondents. I found plenty of fascinating things there; my struggle has always been how to interpret and organize the material.

Pursuing Non-Mainstream Stories

“We have weeklies that lasted a week and dailies that had a name though the paper itself never came.” — African American newspaper publisher Wendell P. Dabney, 1926[1]

Perhaps because I had worked at an ethnic media news service in San Francisco, I was drawn to non-mainstream presses, particularly the many newsweeklies produced by both black and Irish “race men” in the late-nineteenth century. The large number of civil rights activists in the nineteenth century who simultaneously sat at the helm of their own presses astonished me. Every flavor of Irish nationalism seemed to have its own rag. Black newspapers sprang into existence and just as quickly disappeared. I knew that newspapers were a common source for historians who brought to light struggles around race and citizenship in the American past. But had these historians grappled with the full impact that newspapers as a medium—as a business, as a developing profession, as an aesthetic forum of advertisements, cartoons, and illustrations—made on these civil rights activists and their efforts?

I zeroed in on two African American and two Irish American activist-editors from the turn of the (nineteenth to twentieth) century: Irish nationalist Patrick Ford, editor of New York’s Irish World; San Francisco publisher-priest and labor activist Father Peter C. Yorke; African American activist James Samuel Stemons from Philadelphia; and the indefatigable black journalist T. Thomas Fortune, publisher of the New York Age. My poor foreign language skills (very shaky Spanish and French excepted) led me away from the powerful German-language press or New York City’s fiery Yiddish newspapers, among others.

The Gilded Age seemed a time replete with struggles over citizenship, as the Irish began to lose their “Celtic race” label and African Americans, by contrast, struggled against Jim Crow and white terror. American imperial moves into the Caribbean and Pacific put new racial conceptions in play; I would pay particular attention to how each editor viewed Filipinos and the Philippine-American War. In my research, I decided, I would tease out how the newspaper itself shaped and constrained these editor-activists’ struggles to calibrate their group’s American belonging and identity during this tumultuous time of racial unrest, economic turmoil, and imperial expansion.

Challenges and Rewards of Newspaper Research

Easier said than done! Beyond the tricky “medium and message” challenge, existing editions of most periodicals, as anyone who has dabbled in historical newspaper research knows, are replete with missing issues, often for months and years at a time. In some cruel manifestation of Murphy’s Law, these runs typically poop out at the precise moment most interesting to the researcher. Furthermore, I wanted to get behind the front page and into the newsroom itself, a particular challenge in the study of early newspapers.

So I tried to broaden my use of archival sources. The result was a study of four journalists and their weeklies that focused on not just newspaper text but brought in early black political cartoons, “Heroes of Irish History” trading cards, photographs of African American soldiers in the Philippines, and the wonderful letters between Stemons and his sister as he published The Pilot in Philadelphia in 1909. For T. Thomas Fortune, instead of focusing on his New York Age, I probed how other ethnic presses, including Hawaiian-language newspapers and a racist white American soldier press in Manila, regarded his 1902-03 journey to Hawaii and the Philippines, where he hoped to serve as a broker for black labor on the islands.

I found that directing a weekly newspaper made these editors into public intellectuals with influence in debates around group empowerment. Yet the strife produced by individually empowered editors directing their own sounding boards could break coalitions, too, as when other Irish American editors gleefully publicized Ford’s (likely) embezzlement of “skirmishing funds” gathered to battle British occupation. Attempts to invigorate black pride by African American columnists were in tension with hair-straightening advertisements on the same page. Activist-editors fought racist stereotypes but found whole discourses, whether of race and labor or education uplift, and entire aesthetic discourses such as minstrelsy, difficult to write or draw or photograph around.

Converting the Dissertation into a Book

Did it all really add up in the end? As I turned the dissertation into Mediating America: Black and Irish Press and the Struggle for Citizenship, 1870-1914, both anonymous reviewers recommended ditching the biographical, one-editor-per-chapter approach in favor of thematic chapters drawing upon the work of all four editors. With great trepidation, and before a contract was secured, I resisted this restructuring. Remaining focused on each editor throughout his life (or a portion of it) helped reveal the personal effects of very personal media, I hoped. Or maybe it was my own past as a journalist that made a series of chronological profiles feel more appropriate than an analytic, academic study.

The dissertation that preceded the book won an honorable mention for the American Journalism Historian Association’s 2016 Margaret A. Blanchard Dissertation Prize, and most reviews of Mediating America have thus far been positive. The chapter on T. Thomas Fortune has been particularly well received; Guy Emerson Mount, Cynthia Marasigan, and others have done even richer archival work on African Americans and empire in the Pacific. Especially for a first manuscript, Mediating America’s topics are perhaps too broad in scope, its modes of analysis too numerous or cursorily applied to intervene forcefully in any one historical question and deliver strong support, refutation, or complication.

Instead, I wonder if the book’s restless, broad-ranging curiosity might launch a thousand (or perhaps twenty or a hundred) dissertations, hinting at first steps down productive research paths for new scholars in journalism history. Those avenues of inquiry, the loose ends of my research, might include:

  • Greater attention to those “weeklies that lasted a week”—the ever-percolating, short-lived ethnic newsweeklies whose publishers and columnists may have influenced better-known names in black and ethnic advocacy. Booker T. Washington wrote at least once to James Samuel Stemons; whose ideas influenced whom?
  • A reminder that in the nineteenth century and beyond, many mainstream presses themselves might rightly be called “race papers” — that is, journalistic organs that promoted an exclusionary (white) racial nationalism.
  • With an eye toward today’s nasty, fractious social media, attention to the relationship between editors’ positions and tactics and, to put it in modern parlance, their personal “brand.” How much of the vicious infighting between activists was borne of efforts to distinguish and promote their own publishing platforms against those of their rivals?
  • For historians of religion, attention to Irish American and Catholic newspapers and the overlap between the two. Is the late-nineteenth century really an intellectually dormant time in Catholicism, as some scholars have suggested, or one where ethnic media used papal encyclicals creatively and pulled the priesthood in new, more public directions?
  • Can we quantify the so-called half-tone revolution? How might we measure the scope and effects of an influx of cheaply reproduced photographic images onto newsprint in the late-nineteenth century?

In the end, I did manage to bring in a little Harold Innis and his notions of space- and time-biased media into my discussion of Ford’s Irish World—hopefully the result was enlightening and not distracting. Overall, it was a joy to wade into these research waters, learn about my true strengths and weaknesses as a historian, and help surface some exciting newspaper histories. Best of all has been the interest and support of fellow historians—thank you all for your help, and for your wonderful work.

[1] Quoted in Joseph H. Lackner, “Dan A. Rudd, Editor of the American Catholic Tribune, from Bardstown to Cincinnati,” Catholic Historical Review 80 (April 1994): 258.

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