By Nadine Blank
There is no doubt that people of color are still being affected by the United States’ complicated racial history of enslavement, genocide, and imperialism—what many fail to realize, however, is that the effects still being felt are not only social but economic as well. The ends of centuries should be moments of progress, focused on improvements toward the future, and in recent centuries a myriad of technological advancements have been made in the last decade of a century. Nonetheless, current events and feelings do not always match up with the times for all people. In America, even progress tends to leave the disadvantaged out. Events of the early 1890s and 1990s provide evidence to suggest that America was and is not willing to allow people of color, especially African Americans, to catch up to white society. In these decades that should symbolize movement forward, white institutions such as the media and the white workforce stalled forward economic movement for African Americans, perpetuating the hierarchy of slavery even long after it had been abolished. Of course, a lot did progress for African Americans between the 1890s and 1990s, but we cannot properly appreciate what did change for the better if we do not examine what Black struggles went ignored by white American society.
By 1892, Black Americans were citizens with the right to vote, but this post-Civil War formality was far from a racial truce; in many places, even mere territories of the United States, white workers refused to work with black workers. This is the situation that prefaced a great controversy in Krebs, Oklahoma on January 7, which The New York Times calls “The Great Mine Disaster.” On that day, a mine in Krebs exploded, killing and injuring over 100 white miners. Amidst the aftermath, while black miners were helping to recover bodies from the mine, the United States Deputy Marshall and his men chased them away at gunpoint. In covering this story, The New York Times mentioned this injustice in passing, and immediately put the blame on the black miners, claiming that their efforts and aid were “in only a half-hearted way,” and that a black miner had provoked “indignation and fury” without providing sources for any of these allegations (“The Great Mine Disaster”). While it is understandable to mourn those lost, the scapegoating of the black miners minimalized their struggle after first being ousted from their workplace. The “newsworthy” part of the story, to readers, was the death of the white workers and the alleged reluctance of “negroes” in the recovery effort that followed. Meanwhile, the line “some time ago the white miners refused to work with the negroes” is the only explanation given in the article to explain why these laborers were not allowed to work; it is simply glazed over and regarded as the way things were. This is so deeply troubling because as a reputable news source, the New York Times and its reporters failed to critically report upon both sides of a complicated, racialized event.
Photo of the mine in Krebs, OK, and the recent picture of the memorial for those lost in 1892, courtesy of Stu Beitler, gendisasters.com. When the mine exploded, thousands of family and community members crowded to the scene to find loved ones and attempt to save those trapped.
In 1993, twenty days shy of exactly 101 years later, on January 27, 1993 the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article about the Urban League and its push for President Clinton to acknowledge the particular economic struggles of Black Americans. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Urban League “cited steep increases in black unemployment, at more than 14 percent… and warned of economic devastation for black Americans as jobs are cut in auto manufacturing, the military, defense, and service-oriented industries” (Ross). This article, unlike the one from 1892, delves into a specific issue that was brought to light by an event; in this case, the article noted the Los Angeles riots of the previous year as an effect of the economic turmoil to which late 1980s/early 90s America had subjected black Americans. The article not only placed agency on the black community in pointing out that Clinton could not have won his election without them; it also placed blame onto the American government, mentioning a need for federal investment in programs to help black communities and enforcement of discrimination laws. While these issues were most likely even worse in the 1890s than the 1990s, there was less of a national platform for black Americans that were passionate about it–by 1993, for example, Sonya Ross as a black American woman was able to write and publish this article in a major newspaper.
This cartoon by Carol Simpson draws a modern comparison between Krebs and the 1990s. Whether mining or business, those who participate in discrimination aim to exclude blacks from work altogether rather than work in a segregated or another unequal manner. President Clinton, with strong support from the black community, was expected to address and fix this issue.
Now that we have examined how events were analyzed by the American media within the two centuries, it is important to consider how those who are not journalists feel about these issues and where they draw their conclusions. About a month after the mining disaster in Oklahoma, on February 24, 1982 the New York Times published an opinion piece titled “The Race Question,” in which the writer claims that “the negro is not so trustworthy a worker for an employer as he was in the old days” of slavery. This embedded thought process of the 1890s could be the foundation of modern-day worker discrimination, and it may very well have something to do with the reason black workers were kicked out of Krebs’ mine. The writer seems to suggest in his piece that the black population holds no importance politically because of its already historically suppressed vote. The attitudes that are presented in a piece published by a reputable news source suggests that many Americans felt this way. The unified opinion on the issue helped to solidify racial economic boundaries in many industries and geographic areas.
Similarly, in 1993, Rudolph A. Pyatt Jr. wrote a column for the Washington Post, “Racial Discrimination Has Become a Major Drain on the U.S. Economy.” In this piece, Pyatt discussed the economic impact of racial discrimination rather than just the social impact that had frequently been discussed. Rather than simply convey his opinion, Pyatt gave ample evidence and date to suggest that “disparate treatment of blacks cost the U.S about $215 billion in 1991” (Pyatt). He also makes a point to talk about the “legacy” of discrimination, one that can be traced back to not only the 1890s, but the slavery that existed decades before. This is a big change, because according to the writer of “The Race Question,” “slavery has disappeared forever.” If that were truly the case, one hundred years later there wouldn’t be an equation for how much racism affected the economy. What does remain the same, however, is that whether people at the time recognized the economic legacy of slavery or not, the effects were playing out in the lives of black workers, due to their perceived “untrustworthiness” or other negative factors that gained white credibility following the Civil War. This discrimination has carried through time and through the workplace for the black population, and this history is often silent or told as an aside rather than its own significant event. These economic struggles in the workplace are merely the tip of the iceberg; even today we are still wary of discrimination, and the wage gap still exists, especially for black women. Only when we recognize the history of today’s struggles will we learn to correct the damage done by so many decades before us.
“THE GREAT MINE DISASTER.” New York Times (1857-1922), Jan 10, 1892, pp. 16, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, https://search.proquest.com/docview/95040925?accountid=13626.
Sonya Ross, “Urban League urges job creation and rights enforcement Philadelphia Inquirer (1969-2010), Jan 27, 1993, pp. 7, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Philadelphia Inquirer, https://search.proquest.com/docview/1843597934?accountid=13626.
“THE RACE QUESTION.” New York Times (1857-1922), Feb 24, 1892, pp. 4, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, https://search.proquest.com/docview/95045303?accountid=13626
Rudolph A Pyatt Jr, “Racial Discrimination has Become a Major Drain on the U.S. Economy.” The Washington Post (1974-Current file), Jan 07, 1993, pp. 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, https://search.proquest.com/docview/140811738?accountid=13626.