Commentary

Will Classrooms Teaching '1619 Project' Also Teach NYT's Racist Past?

By Bill Donohue | September 8, 2020 | 2:40pm EDT
Featured is the outside of a New York Times bureau. (Photo credit: Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images)
Featured is the outside of a New York Times bureau. (Photo credit: Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images)

A version of the following article was sent to every principal, and many school board members, in those locales that have adopted the "1619 Project": Chicago, D.C., Buffalo, Newark, Wilmington, and Winston-Salem.

The New York Times rolled out its "1619 Project" on the alleged racist origins of the United States with great fanfare. It would be inexcusably hypocritical not to include the newspaper's own contribution to racism in classroom discussions. 

The family that owned the New York Times were slaveholders. To wit: Bertha Levy Ochs, the mother of the paper's patriarch, Adolph S. Ochs, was a rabid advocate of slavery, continuing a tradition set by her slave-owning uncle. She lived with her father's brother, John Mayer (he dropped the surname Levy), for several years in Natchez, Miss. before the Civil War. He owned a minimum of five slaves.

Ochs' parents, Julius and Bertha Levy, were German Jewish immigrants who met in the South before moving to Ohio (where Adolph was born). When the Civil War broke out, Bertha wanted to be actively engaged in her pro-slavery efforts and moved to Memphis to support her Confederate-fighting brother (Julius was on the Union side). 

When Bertha died, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to which she belonged, draped a Confederate flag over her coffin. Adolph even donated $1,000 to have her name engraved on the founders' roll of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial. He sent a note saying "Robert E. Lee was her idol."

Adolph was raised in Knoxville, Tenn., and at age 20 he became the publisher of the Chattanooga Times. In 1900, the paper ran an editorial saying that the Democratic Party, which he supported, "may justly insist that the evils of negro suffrage were wantonly inflicted on them." After he purchased the New York Times in 1896, he moved to New York. When he died in 1935, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sent a gift to be placed in his coffin. 

Most Americans are mature enough not to blame the New York Times today for the racist beliefs and practices of its ancestry. In doing so, they show prudence. But are they too generous in their assessment? According to the wisdom of the "1619 Project," they are absolutely too forgiving. 

If racism and association with the Confederacy were all there was to the history of the New York Times, we could give it a pass. But we cannot. Its racist record runs deep. 

In 1910, the Times covered a heavyweight boxing match between the black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and Jim Jeffries, the former heavyweight champion who came out of retirement for the fight. Jeffries, dubbed the "Great White Hope," was expected to win. He lost. 

The sports writers for the Times put their money on Johnson, but not before issuing a dire warning: "If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors."

In other words, stupid blacks might want political, economic, and social rights as well, and that would not be auspicious.

In the 1920s, after a race riot in Washington, a Times editorial waxed nostalgic, speaking about conditions prior to the Great War (World War I.) "The majority of the Negroes in Washington before the Great War were well behaved," adding that in those happy days, "most of them admitted the superiority of the white race and troubles between the two races were unheard of." They wanted more than "mere physical equality." 

Also in the 1920s, Adolph Ochs invited a black singer, Roland Hayes, to lunch at the New York Times. His father, Julius, was so angry he left the building. According to Iphigene, Adolph's progressive daughter, Julius believed that while "we love the Negroes," it is important to "keep them in their place; they are fine as long as they stay in the kitchen."

In 1931, in one of the most infamous racist events in the 20th century, two white woman accused nine black teens of rape. It turned out to be totally false. Adolph's Chattanooga Times was quick to condemn the alleged rapists. An editorial read "Death Penalty Properly Demanded in Fiendish Crime of Nine Burly Negroes." The trial reporter for the paper called the defendants "beasts unfit to be called human."

Matters did not change throughout the 1940s. The NAACP, while noting that this southern arm of the New York Times was somewhat better than its competitors, it was still "anti-Negro." That is because the papers were in the hands of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. While on a Red Cross tour of England during World War II, he expressed horror at the sight of black American soldiers "fraternizing" with white women: "Rape by Negroes is just one degree worse than by whites, and black illegitimate children just one degree more unfortunate than white ones." That is what he told General Dwight Eisenhower.

Arthur's workplace policies also suggested racism. A Newspaper Guild survey taken in the 1950s found that of the 75,000 newsroom employees he commanded, just 38 were black. Bad as he was, he was still better than other family members. He fought, successfully, to end the practice by the Chattanooga Times of publishing racially segregated obituaries. 

Even though those who ran the New York Times made progress with racial relations in the 1960s and 1970s, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. said in the 1980s that the paper was "just miserable to women, miserable to blacks." 

It was miserable to blacks in another way. By championing the life of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, whose views were notoriously racist, it shows, and continues to show, how much further it needs to go before its racist past is behind it.

To the august New York Times, Sanger was known in 1980 as a "modern heroine." At the end of the decade, she was cited as a "legendary pioneer." In 1992, she was labeled a "strong-willed woman." In 2006, the eugenicist was branded "courageous," and in 2014 was noted as a "pioneering feminist." 

Never once did the New York Times call Margaret Sanger out for what she was—a white racist who spoke once to the Ku Klux Klan and lied to the public about her real motives. "We don't want the word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population," she said in a letter. She had little to worry about—the "newspaper of record" kept the truth from the public. It still does. 

For all of these reasons, any school that adopts the "1619 Project" as a model has a moral obligation to inform students of the racist legacy of the New York Times. Not to do so would be intellectually dishonest. If we are to have a national conversation about race, we must tell the truth about the role that this newspaper has played in contributing to racism in the United States.

Bill Donohue is president and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization. He was awarded his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University and is the author of eight books and many articles.

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