The black press appears not to have anticipated the NAACP would emerge as the nation’s largest and most enduring civil rights organization. The initial meeting on May 30, 1909, of the National Conference on the Status of the American Negro, renamed a year later the NAACP, received indifferent or skeptical treatment in half of the black newspapers whose copies survive. The historic gathering in New York was overshadowed by two other meetings in the same city, of the Tuskegee Negro Conference and the National American Negro Political League, and by President William Howard Taft’s commencement address at Howard University in Washington.

Of six African-American newspapers in circulation in 1909 that have been preserved, three published nothing at all about the National Negro Conference in the first month after its founding. The other three weeklies did put the news on the front page, but only one, the Broadax of Chicago, took the meeting seriously. The Washington Bee in its June 5 issue ran three paragraphs on the lower half of its front page about a scientific presentation made at the conference. The New York Age, owned by Booker T. Washington, philosophical rival of NAACP cofounder W. E. B. DuBois, dismissed the meeting in two cynical, opinionated articles published on June 10. The lead article on the front page carried a headline that condemned the meeting on procedural grounds: “Conference Confusion…Points of Order without Points and Arguments without Argument.” The other on page 5 predicted nothing much could come of such an organization. “It is a safe hazard to state that threefourths of the colored people attending this meeting have never succeeded in any line of occupation. It is impossible for such to become leaders and guides for ten millions of people.”

Straightforward, comprehensive coverage was found only in the Broadax, which presented the news as its top story on June 12. The paper’s unusual name served as a metaphor for its professed journalistic independence, as stated directly in its motto: “Hew to the line; Let the chips fall where they may.” Editor and publisher Julius F. Taylor had launched the weekly in 1895 in Salt Lake City before moving his family and enterprise to Chicago four years later. In an era when most African Americans were Republicans, Taylor was four decades ahead of his time as a proud Democrat who believed the Republican Party had abandoned black people after Emancipation.

The headline on the Broadax article about the founding meeting accurately foreshadowed the NAACP’s future as a national organization “contending for the civil and political rights of th[e] Afro-American.” The basic facts of the meeting were covered in three summary paragraphs, followed by texts of what the paper deemed the three “most notable” speeches. The first explained the mission and purpose of the organization, while the second placed the country’s racial situation in an historical context. The last was a well-argued address by DuBois, who rebutted Washington’s controversial position that African Americans could advance economically without political rights. The 2,700-word article without a byline is republished with its original typographical errors, which were common in newspapers in that era of lead type set by hand.


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