CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Three bold words have left a stirring imprint at protests across the country since the death of George Floyd.
The amplified slogan of “Black Lives Matter” offers powerful words now echoing from city to city - but for decades, African American lives didn’t appear to matter in newsprint.
Newspapers.com reveals The Charlotte Observer from 1873 to the present printed the full-blown N-word a total of 6,212 times going back to the 19th Century.
Taylor Batten, managing editor of The Charlotte Observer, says attitudes at the paper changed about the same time the 1954 Brown vs. Board decision became law.
“That is history. It’s a very important history, but it’s not who we are today,” he told WBTV. “I think at least going back to 1954, The Observer has been very progressive on issues of racial justice, racial equality.”
Offensive terms going back to the 1800s are depicted in stunning headlines, advertisements for entertainment events, and even book reviews.
Multimedia journalist Mary C. Curtis is a former Observer columnist who is among those shocked by this online discovery.
“The N-word is an obscenity and we would not print an obscenity in the newspaper,” Curtis said, “so why would we put something that is so hurtful and such an obscenity into our newsprint?”
Gerald Johnson, owner and publisher of the African American-based Charlotte Post, recalls seeing abject discrimination on the pages of news copy.
“Charlotte was very segregated growing up in my day. During the time when all this was happening, we weren’t considered human for the most part. And so we were treated the way we were treated and it’s still, it still hurts, but it’s the reality,” Johnson said.
It wasn’t just the N-word, but the degrading term “darky” that also made on the pages of The Observer more than 1,700 times, and that has local historian Dr. Dan Morrill sensing that the disparaging terms fueled a damaging myth.
“Black people are dangerous. Black people are uncivilized as Black people are backward,” Morrill said. ”And of course, the great label that came to be used to assign to African Americans was the N-word, and that’s how it happened.”
A contrite apology came from Connecticut’s Hartford Courant in 2000 by admitting it profited from slave ads, but the Augusta Chronicle, which has loyal subscribership in South Carolina, stands by painful images of the 19th Century that showcase slave slaves and ads for runaways.
Degrading headlines and datelines connected to The Charlotte Observer go back more than a century, but how does this publication handle such an issue in the 21st Century with all we’re seeing in our nation’s streets?
“It’s a horrible chapter in the nation’s history and then the Observer’s history. I think we apologize for that. We need to look forward and, always be focused on the Observer, playing a constructive role on this topic and, in general, in our community,” Batten said.
A search of the website newspapers.com shows the N-word in publications they tracked appears more than one million times.