For the 52nd episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to Claire Rounkles about newspaper complicity in the 1894 lynching of Roscoe Parker in Ohio. This episode includes disturbing historical content.
Claire Rounkles is a graduate student at Ohio University. She presented her paper “Court Held at Midnight: Newspaper Complicity in the 1894 Lynching of Roscoe Parker” at the 2019 American Journalism Historians Association conference in Dallas, Texas.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Claire Rounkles: 00:00:04 Roscoe Parker’s story is lost in a sea of many cases … It also shows the terror that, you know, lynching brought not just to the South, but also to Ohio and to the North.
Teri Finneman: 00:00:20 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: 00:00:30 I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: 00:00:35 And I’m Nick Hirshon. and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: 00:00:40 And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: 00:00:45 And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Show transcripts are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History.
00:01:06 In January 1894, the Commercial Gazette in Cincinnati was tipped off that there would be a lynching in nearby Adams County after the murder of an elderly white couple. Accusations flew that a 16-year-old black boy named Roscoe Parker was guilty. Rather than await a trial, locals took matters into their own hands and murdered the teenager by lynching him as a newspaper reporter watched. Afterwards, a judge indicted everyone who knew about it, including the journalist who did nothing to prevent it. In this episode, we visit with Ohio University graduate student Claire Rounkles to discuss the history of lynching in the United States and the role of newspapers in covering them.
00:01:51 Claire, welcome to the show. Before we get into this specific, terrible case, give our listeners some context about the history of lynching in the United States.
Claire Rounkles: 00:02:01 First I want to say thank you for having me. So, lynching in the United States, there’s a pretty long history of it — what first started out as an extra-legal murder. It was really predominant in places that didn’t have a sense of law. So, you know, it was used as a means to seek out justice. And it really started around 1830s, but there could be even more cases before that. There’s just a lack of information on that part. However, with the case that we’re gonna be talking about, the main era of lynching, or a time period, has been termed as like racial terror lynching and this occurred from 1877 to 1950. There has been some really great research that came out these past couple of years, specifically from the Equal Justice Initiative that has found more than 4,000 men, women and children who were black and were lynched basically for just, you know, being black. And this case that we’re gonna be talking about falls within this time period of lynching.
Teri Finneman: 00:03:21 So where were lynchings most common and what types of accusations prompted them?
Claire Rounkles: 00:03:28 Lynchings were very common in the South. That is where most of the cases can be found. In many cases, people were accused of committing homicide, rape, attempted rape, theft. But in many of these cases, there would be miscellaneous offenses or no offenses at all. And they would use these, I guess, accusations as a means to agree to do a lynching. There was also a very common instance of, you know, insults to a white person. In some studies, that was a very, although minimal percentage, it was used quite often.
Teri Finneman: 00:04:12 So when did newspapers start covering lynchings, and what were some of the early coverage trends that you noticed?
Claire Rounkles: 00:04:21 So right from the very beginning they were covered. It was seen as a town event, local gossip, as well as breaking news. As you know, lynchings became more used as a form of terror to terrify the black community. They became known as spectacle lynching. So this is where you would have the large crowds coming for a picnic to watch a public lynching and things like that. And with those, you know, announcements in the newspapers, you would also find advertisements. You had stores advertising sales for lynching. I found one in Ohio that advertised a sale for clothing to go watch a lynching in Ohio.
Claire Rounkles: 00:05:06 I also found, you know, it was really a hot topic for a lot of things. I found agricultural reports that said Ohio can boast about its lynching record, but we can’t boast about our wheat crop. So that was, you know, the trends of pushing it as like a, you know, thing to go take your kids to. It was mostly found in the South. But again, you would find little instances up in the North as well.
Teri Finneman: 00:05:34 Wow. I mean, we’re gonna get to this later, but maybe we should talk about it now. I mean, as a researcher, how do you go about digging into this? I mean, you’re reading these just horrific things, like, how were you able to read through all that?
Claire Rounkles: 00:05:52 It’s been really hard to honestly get through everything because I’m reading about the worst moments of our history. With the case we’re going to be talking about, the fact that – I call him a kid because he’s so young. It really pushed me to want to tell his story, and, you know, want to show the lack of respect and empathy that was given to him was really, really hard. His case, this case we’re gonna be talking about, was the first one that really hit me in the gut when I was — when I first found it. And it has ultimately pushed me to want to tell and show the darkness in Ohio history that has been hidden, mostly because people brush it off as – oh, we’re in the North, the horrors that we see in the South can never be up in the North because we had the Underground Railroad, we were a free state and all that. That really sort of pushed me to want to show, no, the darkness of lynching and the terror actually spread throughout the whole United States. It’s not just kept in the South. And through my research, I actually found a total of 42 cases from 1841-1932.
Teri Finneman: 00:07:13 So let’s now get into the specifics of the case that I mentioned in the show introduction. I talked about how this all started when an elderly Ohio couple, L.T. and Martha Rhine, were found murdered. A 16-year-old black boy named Roscoe Parker was quickly accused. How did Parker get entangled with this?
Claire Rounkles: 00:07:36 So from the very beginning, it really was pushed out because of his proximity to the Parkers or, not to the Parkers, but to the Rhine family. Roscoe and his family was known to live very close to the Rhine couple. They also were known to help out the Rhine couple on their farm. It was stated that Parker’s family were poor and part of the black community. And another little instance that was brought up in multiple articles was the fact that Parker, Roscoe Parker, was known to be a bad character or having a history of thievery. And you know, these statements, you can’t really rely on them because you’re also looking at how, you know, a lot of these, I guess, points that they’re making throughout, you know, retelling this story is, you know, sort of blown out of proportion. I include it, but I really want people to realize you can’t just linger on that fact because, in most cases, it’s untrue.
Teri Finneman: 00:08:41 You note that there was immediate concern that a mob would try to lynch Parker and so he was placed under careful custody of a local sheriff who actually went to great lengths to fool the public on his location. This is a really fascinating story: The extent that law enforcement went to in order to try to keep Parker safe after he was accused of murdering this couple. Tell us more about that.
Claire Rounkles: 00:09:06 Right from the very beginning, Roscoe Parker was moved after a short preliminary trial within his town because there was talks of a mob forming and he was placed in the custody of Sheriff Greene N. McMannis, and he ultimately moved Roscoe Parker 15 miles away from Winchester. However, the mob that formed in Winchester followed them all the way to the jail in West Union. And with these tensions rising, Sheriff McMannis received some word that the mob planned to take Roscoe Parker from the jail and lynch him on that very night as you moved him to West Union. And because of this, the sheriff spread word that Parker was going to be moved to Georgetown, which is 32 miles away from West Union. However, instead, he moved him to another town that was 35 miles in the opposite direction called Portsmouth and, you know, he was able to do that under that night.
And with this action that he did, he prevented any form of lynching that night. Roscoe Parker was kept away in by jail for about two weeks. However, as these weeks passed, a new year came, and a new sheriff came into power. And the sheriff’s name is Marion Dunlap. And during when he took office, it was around the time that Roscoe Parker’s case was to convene in West Union. And Dunlap at the time felt that it was safe to bring Roscoe from Portsmouth and place him in the West Union jail for his trial. However, word actually got out. He wasn’t as secretive as, you know, Sheriff McMannis was. And so word got out in a mob secretly formed that night. And Roscoe Parker was literally put in the jail the same day he was taken out by the mob. So under the cover of night, you know, you’ve had a great group of a mob — it was like 100 to 400 people was what was reported – you know, really convened on the West Union jail and took Roscoe Parker out of the custody of Sheriff Dunlap.
Teri Finneman: 00:11:41 So what happened after the mob got a hold of Parker?
Claire Rounkles: 00:11:45 So before they actually got a hold of him, the papers talked at great length about the battle pursued within the jail. Roscoe Parker, they reported, put up a great fight to stay out of the hands of them. And as he was being taken out, you know, you had a sheriff pleading that they don’t hang him on the courtyard. And instead the mob loaded Parker up on a wagon and took him out of West Union and towards North Liberty, which was known as the black settlement. The mob, it was reported that the mob wanted to teach whites and blacks a lesson, no matter the cost. But in reality, they wanted to teach the black community a lesson. And it honestly, it gets to the point of Roscoe Parker’s death, which is just pretty brutal to read. The only moment that they really like give him a moment of being a human was when he asked to see his mother before he died. And when they after he asked that, he said, “Oh, it’s no use.” And this is when they basically find a tree outside of the community and basically tie up around his neck and hang him. However, Roscoe Parker was able to become free. And so then they lowered him and then hung him again. So he’s hanged twice. And then after he died by hanging, the crowd then shot his body more than a dozen times. And they left his body there basically for that message to be sent.
00:13:27 And he was basically there until the next day, by the afternoon. And his mother refused to claim his body. It was stated that she couldn’t afford to claim the body, but actually, I found reports that there were mentions of them lynching her and Roscoe Parker’s other siblings as well. So I’m sure it also had to do with the fear of going and claiming their loved one. It was also stated that many cemeteries in the county refused to bury Parker. After much effort, a cemetery actually did claim him to bury him.
Teri Finneman: 00:14:08 Well, this is just so difficult to hear about this part of our history, but so important that we do. So let’s kind of shift into kind of the other focus of your paper, which is the fact that newspapers were there, that’s how we know about this. Reporters were there covering this. So tell us more about how newspapers are reporting all of these details and how they were there.
Claire Rounkles: 00:14:33 The newspapers throughout this whole, you know, story or event, they really treated it as a competition. Newspapers wanted to villainize Roscoe Parker at every means as a way to captivate readers to continue following the story. The examples of evidence against Roscoe Parker that was given was a $5 bill underneath his bed and a pair of stockings, which were quote unquote, “believed to be the Rhine family’s.” However, nothing really connected those two pieces of evidence. And as this story would go on, they would paint those out to be even more like, you know, the socks would be bloody, the $5 bill would be bloody. Roscoe Parker, you know, was known to steal from people.
Like, they would they would build up all of these little points in the story to keep people interested in it. And this competition really went back to the mob because the lynching mob, because, you know, it was reported that reporters were there, and they basically made that note that they were there and that they knew about the lynching was going to occur a day before it happened and made every effort to not inform anybody within the law that it was going to happen. They made every effort to come from Cincinnati to West Union, which was just about an hour away.
00:16:06 And so the fact that they put every effort into, you know, going to this to witness it and to be able to report on it was a pretty big deal. They also made every effort to call out their competitors and say, oh, we got this fact and they did it. Oh, we heard Roscoe Parker say this and they did it. They also made every effort to sort of go after Roscoe Parker’s family as well, after Roscoe Parker was murdered ultimately. And the trial convened after that. They still continued the story for about a few weeks after it. They would talk about people in the community re-enacting it. They would talk about, you know, the family and what they’re doing, and if “Judge Lynch” was going to claim another villain type of thing.
Teri Finneman: 00:16:57 I think this is really important work that you’re doing because I think that, you know, we’re going to talk, of course, later in the whole show is about why journalism history is so important. But I think that this is something that we need to come to grips with as well. The role that journalists and newspapers played in this. And so going off of that, people may or may not be surprised to know that there were people who fought back against this injustice against Roscoe Parker. Notably Judge Frank Davis, who went so far as to accuse the reporter covering this lynching as being an accomplice to murder. Your paper notes that “Davis said the newspaper concealed from the officers of justice the fact of the coming of the mob and sent a reporter to accompany the mob and report in all its horrible details another murder.”
“There is such a thing as news, an enterprise, but to become accessory to murder and crime in order to procure news is a dastardly and willful violation of law. These reporters are known, and it is your duty to indict them.” What was your reaction when you found this?”
Claire Rounkles: 00:18:08 So, honestly, I was very shocked. One of the things that, you know, throughout my whole research I wanted to show was that journalists were very complicit in their actions. They weren’t just bystanders off to the side. They actually were involved most of the time. And so when I saw this and this wasn’t just one report in a newspaper, it went throughout all the newspapers, I found everybody. It was, you know, restating this because it was a statement from the judge. And it was very powerful because taking a moment to actually call out a journalist and their actions, honestly, I haven’t found before within a lynching. There is a common, you know, tradition of going after, you know, the lynching mob after lynching occurs. But taking a moment to call out specific people, especially reporters, and stating what is a job of a reporter, source, journalist is pretty fascinating.
00:19:14 This was basically during a time period when, you know, journalist, it was becoming a profession. And so, it’s fascinating that, you know, there was this moment of basically stating, OK, this person was also in the wrong because they knew it was going to happen and they didn’t do anything as a normal human being with morals would do to prevent a murder from happening.
Teri Finneman: 00:19:40 So we’ve talked about how some of these newspapers applauded the lynching. Many of these newspapers applauded the lynching of Parker. But the Cleveland Gazette was appalled by what happened. Why was that paper different?
Claire Rounkles: 00:19:54 The Cleveland Gazette is a really big anomaly in Ohio. It actually it’s a black newspaper, so that obviously sets it off to as different than the mainstream papers. It was founded around 1883 by three partners. However, one of the partners, Harry C. Smith, would soon buy out the newspaper. This paper was actually the first paper in Cleveland since the Civil War, and it’s honestly recognized as a very big constant within the black community and the black community in all of Ohio. They actually were one of the first papers to start an anti-lynching campaign in 1888. And a little unknown fact was they were actually one of the biggest supporters for Ida B Wells. You know, the Cleveland Gazette was actually mentioned frequently in Wells’ pamphlet Southern Horrors. Harry C. Smith is actually known to be a good friend of Ida B. Wells as well. She would — they would send messages to each other. So the fact of the matter that they were a very — they were a black newspaper, but, on top of that, that they use their platform to speak out against lynching in Ohio and obviously, you know, the United States as well, was pretty fascinating.
Teri Finneman: 00:21:17 So a grand jury did not indict the mob and the newspaper reporter involved in this lynching. But from this case came in the Smith Act, an anti-lynching bill promoted by a black journalist and legislator, Harry Smith, whom you were just talking about. How is it that a black journalist was able to talk other lawmakers into passing this?
Claire Rounkles: 00:21:38 Harry Smith was actually a very proactive individual. He really got a lot of things done in Ohio. His whole life sort of speaks to this notion. Shortly before the Smith Act was placed, he actually was involved in passing a civil rights bill in Ohio as well. Being a lawmaker, he used — he sort of weaponized his newspaper to be a platform for a lot of editorials. So a lot of the reports you see are actually communication that he is giving to the black community. He was very outspoken in many different ways and battled a lot of things in his life. It’s really sad because as much effort that he put into everything and trying to advance the black community in Ohio, he did die alone and on the job, which is very sad. But without his gumption and initiative, the Smith Act would probably never be passed. I mean, it sort of speaks to now how it’s been 120 and now or, you know, Congress is thinking about passing a law, a federal law against lynching. So having someone, you know, in the 1890s, actually pushing for an anti-lynching law within a state is pretty fascinating.
Teri Finneman: 00:23:11 So overall, what would you say are the lasting impacts from the death of Roscoe Parker?
Claire Rounkles: 00:23:17 So first I want to speak on the local level. So the local collective memory of the lynching of Roscoe Parker in Adams County where this took place, it sort of continues to push and serve the means to terrorize, you know, the black community. At one point, the road that Roscoe Parker was killed on was renamed and included a racial slur to distinct the — basically the community’s actual thoughts about, I would say, black Ohioans. Over time, there’s people that are realizing how wrong all of this actually is. I actually took a moment last spring to go and visit the community and talk to local historians. And all the history accounts of this case is very – villainizes Roscoe Parker to the extreme, and people are now starting to question that history, the stories that families pass down speaking on the state level.
You know, Roscoe Parker’s story is lost in a sea of many cases. And as much as we just talked about the Smith Act, I actually have not been able to find a moment where it was used by a victim’s family, which is pretty sad. But it also shows the terror that lynching brought not just to the South, but also to Ohio and to the North. Going back to Roscoe Parker’s age, you know, this impact of this story that I’m bringing now up to the forefront of the memory of Ohio, there’s a lot of people in different counties in Ohio starting to do remembrance projects for lynching victims. So the fact that he was so young sort of causes people to stop and think a little bit more, I guess.
Teri Finneman: 00:25:20 You note early on that the purpose of your research was to “review a case where the drive for a breaking news story trumped the moral and ethical considerations of journalism.” What advice do you have for journalists today?
Claire Rounkles: 00:25:34 So journalism has a very deep history of issues involving the coverage of race. Even today we find issues of it. You have new journalists coming into the field and all journalists that are sort of, I would say, stuck in their ways. You know, the peoples and the communities that we are reporting on deserve to be respected and ultimately deserved to have their existence and knowledge. The case of Roscoe Parker, as horrific as it is, it really shows the lack of respect and the lack of understanding. He was a 16-year-old boy and his family were terrorized in so many ways. And so not as much as like, you know, journalists probably won’t — they won’t report the same way as this case, but it’s still good to know that you need to understand the communities that you’re gonna be in, need to understand the pain that they sort of have.
Teri Finneman: 00:26:31 And our final question of the show, why does journalism history matter?
Claire Rounkles: 00:26:37 So I actually had to think about this for a while because, as being a historian, as being, someone I grew up loving history, I could talk for hours about it. But in terms of this horrific study that I did and, you know, these stories, you know, I realized there are a lot of deep wounds in every part of our society in America. Without recognizing what has happened, caused by the people in the past and ultimately continued by those in the present, it leaves this a wound to fester.
00:27:10 The greatest thing that we can do as a society and as journalists, and to be witnesses for justice, is to learn from our past and to gather in a place of learning. And one of those important places can be found in journalism history. Now, we talk about history, but we don’t really mention journalism history. And, you know, by looking at our past, you know, it offers us a place to heal in the present.
Recently, I’ve actually seen newspapers going back in their history on how they covered lynchings and basically stating how they were wrong in their coverage and how they, you know, basically pushed this false narrative regarding black Americans and regarding how they were villains and things like this. Basically coming to these terms and stating how they were wrong, they’re allowing — they’re creating a space for healing in a community. That ultimately really empowers me because by looking back in our history we are able to improve our future.
Teri Finneman: 00:28:13 Well, this was a really, really important show, so thank you so much for being a guest with us today.
Claire Rounkles: 00:28:19 Thank you. It was an honor.
Teri Finneman: 00:28:22 Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, good night and good luck.