For the 119th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, Caryl Cooper shares the career of Rebecca Stiles Taylor, who used her column at the Chicago Defender to champion social justice and political empowerment in the 1940s.
Caryl Cooper is Associate Professor Emerita of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Alabama. She had the pleasure of teaching a communication history course for 25 years. Her research focused on the twentieth century Black Press in American society as well as diversity in the Advertising industry.
Caryl Cooper: They weren’t commenting on the relationship between white women and Black women and how it needed to improve and who needed to do what. That was not in the New York Times or the New York Daily News.
Ken Ward: 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: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show were available online at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They’re committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
Influencers have become a significant voice in the popular discourse of our time through their use of social media. Some use their platforms to promote products or just promote themselves, but others rally their audiences to champion things like social justice. One might wonder, what did this look like in the past? Can we find parallels in, say, newspapers to the influencers of today?
Dr. Caryl Cooper thinks so. And in this episode, she explains how Rebecca Stiles Taylor used her column in the Chicago Defender to draw her audience around major causes in her own time. Along the way, Cooper shares why she thinks Taylor fits the bill of an influencer, one who amassed an audience in the Black press, rather than Twitter or Tik-Tok. Caryl, welcome to the show.
Caryl Cooper: Hi, I’m glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Ken Ward: Of course. So let’s start by I want to ask you what distinguishes the Black press from what we might call the mainstream press, something that’s right at the core of what we’re talking about here?
Caryl Cooper: That’s a great question. The Black press officially started in 1827 with the publication of Freedom’s Journal, and the editors were two gentlemen. One was a minister, the Reverend Samuel Cornish, and John B. Russwurm, whose description was a bit vague, but I would describe him as an educator, an educated person and a businessman.
And they – this is 1827 New York City. And at the time during that year, New York officially demolished our, demolished slavery, okay? Got rid of it.
And the thing of it was, as some people might know about African-Americans and access to media, access to publications, in this case, in journalism at this time, they really didn’t have a lot of access to it. Some people had access to a printing press, but more than likely it was attached to the church, and it was a type of religious publication or a church newsletter or something like that.
Um, also within New York while they didn’t have slavery, the relationship between whites and African-Americans was not – was not what you could always call smooth. And in this regard, some people in the white newspapers, I’ll call them general market newspapers, would put in disparaging remarks or disparaging images of African-Americans in their publication.
Even with the abolitionist – most of the editors were white abolitionists, and African-Americans might give them information for content, but they weren’t – African-Americans weren’t the content creators. So, with the Black newspapers that originated in 1827, this one was for Black people, developed by Black people. And it was specifically to educate people, to bring them up to date on issues that were pertinent to their survival at this time, to provide Black people with a forum, their own forum to get their thoughts across, without having to go through white newspapers. There was an editor that had published some disparaging images of African-Americans and when they went to the newspapers to pretty much ask for space, let us reply to this, they were denied.
So, that was the impetus for the origination of the Black press back then.
Ken Ward: Sure. So, speaking of the Black press then, there’s a newspaper that’s at the center of the research we’re talking about today and that’s the Chicago Defender. So, tell us a little bit about the Chicago Defender.
Caryl Cooper: The Chicago Defender was created by a man by the name of Robert Abbott, and it was created in 1905, yes, by Robert Abbott. And Abbott, he was from the South. He grew up on St. Simons Island and made his way north to Chicago, of course, needed to make a living, and he found himself to be pretty good at doing a newspaper. Turned out to be one of the most influential newspapers in in the United States for the Black community, that and the Pittsburgh Courier.
And there’s some others, but the Chicago Defender certainly rises to the top. One of the reasons that it rises to the top is because it became very influential in the Black migration from the South to the North, in the sense that what they did is they would publish directions. Here’s what you need to do. Here are the trains that you need to get on.
This is the information you need. Here’s how you need to dress. Here’s how you need to carry yourself. And it helped people get on the trains to go to the North, knew what they had to expect, so they didn’t run into problems with anyone. And that’s one of the reasons that it became a very, very popular and influential newspaper.
Ken Ward: And so, the Defender was for a time, the home of Rebecca Stiles Taylor, who your research focuses on here. So, tell us about Taylor. Where did, where did she come from and how did she wind up there at the Defender?
Caryl Cooper: Yeah, Rebecca Stiles Taylor is proved to be an interesting person to research. Uh, she grew up in Savannah. Now, if you know anything about Georgia, St. Simons Island is maybe about an hour away from Savannah. So, there was – there were interconnections there in their youth. He’s a bit older than, than she is.
But in any case, that is how they met through that community through Savannah and St. Simons Island and the Gullah Islands that are around in that community. As much as there is a lot of distance, the world’s kind of small. So, when they’re small for educated people that that can write and are literate, there was – it’s a small community.
So, in any case, he asked her to come North and be a columnist for his newspaper. By this time, she had pretty much established herself as she’s very smart. She’d been to school, been to college. She had served in the city government, which was, I would not say it was extraordinarily common back in that time, could have been common for Savannah. They seem to have a thriving community and tolerance of each other at that time.
And I’ll put “tolerance” in air quotes, because I’m not quite sure about that. But in any case, that is how, one of the reasons why they came. How they met, I couldn’t tell you. She’s not left any diaries or papers or anything to say, “This is how I met Robert Abbott.” But it’s clear that they knew each other, and that connection was from where they lived and the Black communities in which, in which they grew up.
Ken Ward: Sure. So, what did she do? What did she do with that column? What did it focus on? Um, what topics, and do you have a sense of why she chose those topics to focus on in her column?
Caryl Cooper: I do. Now Rebecca Stiles Taylor was – she was born in 1879 and as she grew and matured, she was certainly exposed to the Black women’s movement in the sense that they were – this was community, community-based. And within her writings and within her content, she would have been aware of those things. Like I said, she was intelligent from – we can tell that from the schooling that she had and the things that she did, and she was passionate about improving the Black community.
Whether it’s health care or anything else, she was very involved in that. So, at this time in the Black women’s club movement, there were – the Black women’s clubs were a way for women to come together, work on those issues in their community, and develop the strategies for improvement. They, at some point in some times, did want to work with the white women’s club movement.
Sometimes they were accepted. Sometimes they weren’t accepted, meaning, yeah suffrage would have been a good example for that. Black women were very involved in the suffrage movement because Black women also didn’t have the right to vote. Black men had the right to vote, but could not do it.
Um, there are a number of reasons why they couldn’t and a number of regulations that were in place, much less violence that was in place to prevent them from voting. Nonetheless, she got involved in the Black women’s movement through that, and she worked with an organization, the National Council of Negro Women. She worked with them and at the time they were – this was an organization that was headed by Mary McLeod Bethune and they ran out of funds to print a newsletter.
Up to this point, they’d been printing a newsletter. They needed a venue or a means to get this newsletter out. I’m not quite sure who approached who, but Robert Abbott approached Rebecca Stiles Taylor, and asked her to come and be a columnist for the newspaper, the Chicago Defender.
As they negotiated it, it turned out to be that she negotiated a full page that he would devote to her weekly for what she wanted to publish. And what she wanted to publish was the news like a newsletter submitted by the women’s organizations and what they were doing in those organizations. This would serve as a way to have other women read about the activism that was going on and get inspired and do some activities in their community. That was what she was there to do. And when you look at her columns that she had published between 1939 when she got there and 1952 when she retired, you will look at her columns and a lot of it is club news.
And I think that’s one reason why she wasn’t found earlier because it was encased in all this club news and she had a way of, sometimes she would clip articles from other people and have them published. So, you had to read her columns very carefully to make sure you were getting at exactly what she wrote. She put it in quotations. And once you got to look for that, then you could see what she was writing.
But I’d say along the lines of the NACW and the NCNW, her vision was working, was for women to work globally together, for Black women to see themselves as a global community of women, rather than just women in the United States or just women in your state or just women in your community. She wanted people, women specifically, to think of themselves bigger than that and know what their place in the world really was.
And a lot of her comments, especially during World War II as you might expect, were geared for that.
Ken Ward: So, you know, you talked about that sort of global awareness. Do you have a sense of what some of her other goals for the column might’ve been? What, what was it precisely she was trying to accomplish, and then did she accomplish some of those goals she had?
Caryl Cooper: Well, her goals were for uplift. She never really stated her goals. Now, granted she wrote plenty of columns between 1939 and 1952. I analyze a small subset, a relatively small subset compared to what she’d done, but her primary goal was what she had said it would be: Let me get the news of the women’s organizations out to other women so they can see what others are doing. This was activism.
This is 1939, you know, 1950s. Um, it’s a time of change, of gradual change as we moved up to 1954 and go into these civil rights activism that we typically as historians identify as a civil rights movement. The civil rights movement for African-Americans has been going on since we got here in 1619. Um, but in any case, that was, that was her goal to let women know that other women were doing work and to inspire each other with that knowledge. And that’s pretty much what her, what her columns were about.
Ken Ward: Do you get the sense that, that what she was doing was, was unique? Was this, was this something that she was doing at the Defender that was different from what other people in either the Black press or the mainstream press did? Is this a function that we see more throughout journalism or is this something, are we seeing something special in the case of Rebecca Stiles Taylor?
Caryl Cooper: I think if we had had this conversation maybe 10, 15 years ago, we would have labeled it as unique. But in the years since I’ve researched this, there’s been so much research done on women columnists during this time that are now being found because people are just looking a little deeper. Historians are looking a little deeper to find people.
To say that it’s unique, it’s unique in the sense that her background is unique, but you know, we have other Black women that were – that were publishers and editors there. Daisy Bates out in Arkansas, Charlotta Bass in California. So, she wasn’t unique in that sense, but what was unique about her was that she was bringing the news of the Black women’s club movement into let’s call it a mainstream Black newspaper.
I don’t believe that Charlotta, Charlotta Bass’s – I don’t think that many of her columns dealt with that. I don’t get that same sense for Daisy Bates. I’ve not researched them extensively. But from what I know about their writings, that was not what they did because that was not their intent. That wasn’t their objective.
Ken Ward: So, what, what can Taylor’s impact through this column tell us about that broader story of journalism in this era that she’s active? So, you said it was 1939 through ‘52. Is that right?
Caryl Cooper: Yes.
Ken Ward: Yeah. So, so what, what, how can we understand her column in its, in, in you spoke to its situation, how it’s situated relative to the civil rights movement. What about the business of journalism more broadly?
Caryl Cooper: The business of journalism is to get more eyes on the pages, right?
If nothing else, because she was tied in with the Black women’s club movement, because she knew Mary McLeod Bethune and she knew other people that were important in the Black intellectual and activism realm. I would say that that made her unique. There weren’t any other mainstream I mean the New York Times wasn’t covering the news that she was putting in there, you know? [Laughs]
They weren’t commenting on the relationship between white women and Black women and how it needed to improve and who needed to do what. That was not in the New York Times or the New York Daily News or anything that was being published in the mainstream newspapers at that time. So, in that sense, it makes it unique.
If you really, as historians, if you’re looking for the big picture of what intellectual thought and activism was like in particular times, you’ve got to incorporate it out, not separate it from the white press and the Black press. Put it all together and get a more holistic view of, of what was out there and what was being said. And in that sense, she contributes greatly to that. Absolutely.
Ken Ward: In your research, you suggested that Taylor might even be considered like a 1940s version of a 21st century influencer, you know, what’s different for the Taylors of today as they press for civil rights? Like how, you know, what’s different about the people who are doing this, this similar work today?
Caryl Cooper: Uh, social media is the big difference, right? [Laughs]
Ken Ward: Sure.
Caryl Cooper: And when I was thinking about that I was like, well, okay, how can I – what is she in terms of our terms?
That’s not a very historical thing to do, right? [Laughs] Um, we are warned about that when we write our first historiography paper. But on the other hand, I felt like, you know, you have, was she an influencer like Ida B. Wells Barnett? I doubt it, you know? Ida B. Wells Barnett was incredible.
But in her own realm and what she could do, her columns, I would think did influence people particularly women, because that’s who it was for in their thinking and expressed things that they were thinking about. She was harsh sometimes about the relationships between men and women, about religious officials.
She wasn’t afraid to take anybody to task if something was going on, so I think in that sense, she was an influencer. People read the column. Some of the feedback that you see in the letters to the editor and others suggest that she did have influence, you know, if we, but like I said, was she an Ida B. Wells Barnett? No, I don’t think so. But was she an influencer in her own route, own realm? Did she impact the women of Chicago? Definitely.
Did she impact the women throughout the United States? Absolutely. I think when we – and that was part of what I wrote was if was she an influencer and that was the question I was really asking the reader. Is she one? By today’s standards, even if we go back to 1939 to 1952, I would have to say yes, she was.
Ken Ward: Sure.
Caryl Cooper: She didn’t have the microphone that everybody has right now. But yes, I would say definitely.
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, we’re running short on time, but we’ve got one more question for you, and it’s one that you’ve answered before, but I’m interested to hear what you have to say this time around. It’s a question we ask everyone, and that is why does journalism history matter?
Caryl Cooper: Oh gosh. Okay. So, I got to tell you a story before I answer that.
Ken Ward: Yeah.
Caryl Cooper: Now that I’m retired, I can tell this story, right? Anyway, we at the University of Alabama College of Communication Information Sciences, and we get a new dean, and I love this guy. I’ve known him for years and he’s been a tremendous, tremendous dean. As all deans do, or all leaders do, they have to have a direction and they get direction from their people.
So, and to get this direction he brought in people that were futurists to talk to us as a faculty. And then there were committees set up to try and to discuss not only what the futurists say, but what did this mean for the college? What did this mean for education was a bigger thing of journalism and mass communication. And every one of these scholars said that history was key.
So, the first time they said it, I’m sitting in a long row of historians that are there, there’s maybe three or four of us. And we start looking at each other, like, we’re very smug. Like, yeah. [Laughs] We love this guy. We must hire him. We are relevant, right? So anyway, they kept saying history, history, history, and I said, okay. Okay.
They were so on point, because look at where we are with history now, and let’s get beyond academe and, and what we do. You’ve got legislators legislating what history is being taught, changing it in its perspective, like claiming it’s teaching our children to hate their history. And, and maybe it’s because I live in Alabama and I’ve been seeing all these political ads it’s driving me crazy.
But the point is there is an attack on history and who writes it and who consumes it. And historians, I would say, don’t go and write a book or an article based on the premise of, I have an ax to grind. I can’t say for the others, but I was trained to write the truth as I see the evidence when I go through the archives and analyze the articles.
You’re writing truth and truth is sometimes annoying, you know? American history is not always roses and a box of chocolate covered strawberries. It’s harsh. And I personally think that children should learn it respective to their age group and their understanding.
But this attack on history shows that not only does history matter, but journalism history matters because we are the carrier of those messages. And at some point, 30 years down the line, somebody is going to be researching all this stuff that you see and what’s in the media and how there is an attack on not just journalists, but I mean there’s attack on the messenger.
The historian is a messenger. Um, and I know the young scholars coming through right now, they’ve gotta be looking at it. I think if this environment was as mine as it was when I was in graduate school at the, you know, that lexis where you’re deciding what your research stream is going to be and who you are in that, I don’t know if I pursue history. I love it, but I don’t know. It’s challenging.
That’s why journalism history means, ‘cause a lot of the history that we get and we write comes out of a newspaper, comes out of a broadcast, will come out of Twitter and out of Instagram when we’re – when historians are looking back at this particular time and how and how it’s been used. It’s an interesting time to live in, and I’ll leave it at that. Interesting is a big word.
Ken Ward: Interesting is a perfect word.
Caryl Cooper: And I’ll get off my soap box at this time.
Ken Ward: No, no, no. Stay up there. [Laughs] Well, we’re out of time, but I just want to thank you one more time for being on the show. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Caryl Cooper: Well, thank you. I enjoyed the conversation too. It’s always a little nerve wracking for me to get into it because I have so much information here with the dates and I want to get it right and get the names right. But I’d like to commend you and, and Teri and Erika for doing this, ‘cause I think it’s a wonderful endeavor to have. And you guys are in the midst of making sure that journalism history does indeed matter, and it does.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, thank you again. That’s it for this episode. Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @Jhistoryjournal. That’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward signing off with the words of Edward R Murrow: Good night and good luck.