Last week’s political news — roiling with coverage of midterms and recounts, the departure of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the mortal drama of California wildfires — was punctuated by the president’s derision of one, two and then three black women journalists from the nation’s most prominent platform, the White House.
For a president who has repeatedly branded the press the “enemy of the American people,” dust-ups with members of the media are nothing new. But when President Trump sparred three times in three days with Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour, Abby Phillip of CNN and April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Network — denigrating the reporters and their questions in terms that included “loser,” “stupid” and “racist” — observers were quick to suggest the president showed a special animus toward African American women.
In pushing back against Trump’s attacks, the three women joined a long line of black women journalists, who have occupied an especially uneasy place in our political culture for almost two centuries. From their earliest 19th-century forays into news coverage and commentary, the derision they have faced has given African American women many reasons to retreat from the public sphere. But they have not. Instead they have wielded their words in a way that enriches public debates and strengthens democracy. Alcindor, Phillip and Ryan embody the best of that tradition.
When in 1854 Mary Ann Shadd Cary debuted her news weekly, The Provincial Freeman, she was the first black woman to publish a newspaper. That was not an easy milestone to achieve: She had to battle to get her ideas into print. For a start, she migrated to Canada West (today’s Ontario) to avoid U.S. laws that suppressed independent black activism. From there, she built a team and raised funds.
Even then, she could not hope to succeed if the endeavor went forward under her own name. Instead, the names of Shadd Cary’s collaborators, Samuel R. Ward and Alexander McArthur, crowned the masthead. In this period, readers would likely have doubted the legitimacy of a paper that was admittedly led by a black woman. The Provincial Freeman enjoyed a 15-year run, and Shadd Cary’s astute analysis and withering commentary — frequently signed with the gender-neutral byline “M.A. Shadd” — left their mark in a political moment during which slavery and civil rights were center on the national agenda.
Two decades later, in 1888, Ida B. Wells shot to prominence. She joined The Free Speech and Headlight, published out of Memphis. Wells aimed to defend the rights of black Americans as Jim Crow was gaining steam, but her earliest years as a journalist were abruptly aborted when vigilante violence — the white supremacist sort — threatened her life.
The era’s strife hit close to home in 1892 when Wells’s friend and local businessman, Thomas Moss, along with two others, were kidnapped from a local jail and lynched. Wells quickly wrote an editorial condemning the lawless murders of men she knew to be above reproach. She received death threats in return.
Though harrowing, the moment transformed Wells. Forced to abandon life in Memphis, she went on to become the nation’s foremost opponent of lynching. Her documentation of the practice, words of condemnation and advocacy for federal anti-lynching legislation are our best evidence, even today, of how the nation failed to remedy an epidemic of homegrown terror.
Being seen also meant becoming targets, and they confronted animosity from white journalists who sought to rid the public sphere of African American women. In 1894, James Jacks, newspaper editor and head of the Missouri Press Association, lashed out against Wells’s activism, branding her and all black women immoral, “prostitutes” and “natural thieves and liars” — in short, people unsuited for citizenship, let alone journalism.
The response was swift, but it was not the one Jacks had hoped for. Black women formed the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, inspired by Jacks to address “how pressing is the need of our banding together if only for our protection.” The women threw their support behind the recently founded Woman’s Era, a Boston-based monthly newspaper published by black women. It served as their independent mouthpiece in a time of crisis.
Black women journalists could not avoid the politics their work provoked. Across the 20th century, they achieved professional excellence in part by addressing and overcoming racial discrimination. Alice Allison Dunnigan covered Congress and the White House for the Associated Negro Press from 1947 to 1960, only after a struggle to win press credentials. She traveled with presidents, though subjected to Jim Crow rules, and President Dwight Eisenhower notoriously stopped calling on Dunnigan during news conferences to avoid her questions about civil rights.
Retaliation for asking hard and unwelcome questions was sometimes routine. Ethel L. Payne covered Washington for the black-owned Chicago Defender for 25 years, securing a coveted place as a member of the White House press corps. Payne, too, crossed Eisenhower with questions on civil rights. As a result, she found herself on the receiving end of an investigation that included a tax audit. She later explained her approach to such opposition: “I stick to my firm, unshakable belief that the black press is an advocacy press, and that I, as a part of that press, can’t afford the luxury of being unbiased . . . when it come to issues that really affect my people, and I plead guilty, because I think that I am an instrument of change.”
Today, the president’s words will not intimidate black women reporters like Alcindor, Phillip and Ryan. They are members of an elite, expert and seasoned cadre of American journalists who daily cover the White House and politics both at home and across the globe.
Ryan, writing for The Washington Post, described the president as someone who, when he “denigrates black women,” reveals how he “doesn’t see us equally.” In response to Trump’s remarks, Alcindor tweeted: “We, as journalists, will press on.”
These journalists, unlike their 19th-century counterparts, also have far greater institutional support. It was CNN itself that stepped up to defend Phillip. According to the network, Phillip’s question — about the role of the new acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, in the Mueller investigation — was not “stupid” but rather was "the most pertinent question of the day.” The National Association of Black Journalists, led by Sarah Glover, a social media editor for NBC, publicly condemned the president, appalled by Trump’s "continued disrespect of African-American women journalists and journalists in general.”
These are women journalists who know their place in the long story of America’s striving for a better democracy. Still, when they are attacked we must call out the president and his staff for trading in racism and sexism. We must also remind the White House that efforts to send black women journalists packing have backfired in the past and only encouraged women like Shadd Cary, Wells and the NACWC leadership to redouble their efforts to report the news and inform public debate.
They have backfired again today. Targeting black women journalists has only strengthened their resolve and enhanced their influence. I, for one, intend to stay tuned.
Martha S. Jones is the SOBA presidential professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.”