The Northwest Enterprise: Social and Racial Equality in 1938

A Seattle Ethnic Press Report

by Kelly Connors

Abstract: The Northwest Enterprise was a weekly newspaper published in Seattle and read by African Americans throughout the Pacific Northwest. It was founded in 1920 by William H. Wilson, who edited the paper until 1935. The last issue of the newspaper appeared in 1952. The Northwest Enterprise generally reflected the opinions of middle-class African Americans. It often took moderate or conservative positions on issues such as religion, social norms, and labor, but was always an outspoken critic of inequality and a source of organization and strength for local African American communities. This essay surveys Northwest Enterprise coverage from the year 1938 and finds that during this time the paper's traditional focus on justice and equality and its ties to the NAACP remained strong, highlighted by the paper's coverage of the Berry Lawson police brutality case. In addition, the essay surveys other sections of the paper in 1938, including regular features such as "Pot Likker," "Social Notes," and "With the Churches."

____________

The Northwest Enterprise was published every Friday from 1920-1952.  The newspaper was dedicated to honest journalism and, above all, the fight for equality for African Americans in the Northwest, across the nation, and throughout the world.  Based in Seattle, the Enterprise had loyal readers all over the region, incorporating news and features from Portland, Oregon to Helena, Montana, and serviced a mostly middle-class African American readership. Edited and published by John O. Lewis,  the Northwest Enterprise billed itself as “A Newspaper the People Read, Love and Respect.”[1]

This essay analyzes Northwest Enterprise coverage from the year 1938, a pivotal year in the civil rights movement and a turning point in the life of the newspaper. 1938 witnessed the strengthening of the National Urban League and the NAACP, new campaigns for jobs during the Depression, and two major court cases, one from Kentucky and the other local, involving African Americans and the struggle for legal justice. The Northwest Enterprise brought these and numerous other stories to the African American communities of the Pacific Northwest. 1938 also saw the expansion of the paper with the addition of sections designed to supplement the political news on the front-page and editorial section with human-interest and community building features. These included “Housewives Department,” “News Flashes,” “Pot Likker,” “Social Notes,” and "With the Churches.” Thus, while the theme of racial equality and the struggle for civil rights remained dominant in the newspaper as a whole, the theme of community began to appear as a second major idea in the newspaper after 1938.

The Northwest Enterprise published articles promoting “nationwide broadcasts, mass meetings, rallies, forums, conferences and parades [for] the fight against lynching and the struggle for the ballot, for equal job opportunities, and for equality of educational opportunities.”[2]  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, anti-lynching laws, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Elks were major organizations and campaigns featured in articles on the front page.

In its coverage of these events and issues, the paper aligned itself with the values and political goals of the leading middle-class black organizations of the 1930s – the National Urban League and especially the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Urban League's mission was “to enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights."[3] It focused on job placement for African Americans and combating employment discrimination. In 1938, with the United States still in the grip of the Great Depression, stories from the Northwest Enterprise about the Urban League and employment discrimination flooded the pages, indicating that equal access to jobs for African Americans was an especially urgent issue. For example, on May 6, 1938, the front page featured an article headlined, “Public Utilities Hire No Negroes.”  In the article, a company spokesman for the New York Telephone Company held that black and white people could not work together “harmoniously.”[4]  The spokesman gave the impression that because the workplace had been segregated between blacks and whites since the company’s formation, it must stay that way, despite the fact that many companies had whites and blacks working together in complete harmony. The telephone company exhibited a lack of progress toward the equality of African Americans and the Northwest Enterprise was quick to point it out.

Supporting NAACP

The Northwest Enterprise also acted as a very strong advocate for the NAACP and all the values it was founded upon. In particular, the Enterprise promoted the NAACP's legalistic approach to civil rights by publicizing court cases and legal matters involving African Americans and the issue of equality before the law. In an article published February 4, 1938, the paper urged President Roosevelt to appoint an African American, Robert L. Vann, to a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. According the Enterprise, the institution of Vann as the first African American on the Supreme Court would symbolize “the enforcement of civil rights for ALL AMERICANS.”[5]  Through this appointment a key step towards equal justice would be taken at the highest level thus far.

The Northwest Enterprise also gave prominent coverage in 1938 to two major court cases handled by the NAACP. The first was the case of Joe Hale, an African American from Kentucky convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged murder of a white man who had been detaining African American women. As the Northwest Enterprise reported, the case began when Hale's “lawyers filed a motion to squash the indictment on the ground that all the Negro citizens of the country had been excluded from the grand jury of the county for more than fifty years.”[6] For the NAACP and the Northwest Enterprise, Joe Hale represented all past, present and future African American plaintiffs and defendants denied equal justice in American courts of law.  The discrimination shown in the courtroom in Kentucky was further evidence that racial discrimination was still present in the lower courts.  The NAACP brought the case to the Supreme Court where it was overturned on the basis of a violation of Hale’s civil rights. The Supreme Court ruled that because the “lower court had systematically excluded blacks from jury service in the case,” Hale had not received a fair trial.[7]  With the hard work and dedication of the NAACP and its counsel, Thurgood Marshall and Charles H. Houston, justice was achieved in this Kentucky court of law.   The Northwest Enterprise featured the Hale case on its front page and clearly sympathized with the efforts of the NAACP.

Berry Lawson Case

The Enterprise also featured the case of Berry Lawson, a local African American man who died while in police custody on March 25, 1938. The police reported that Lawson had fallen down a flight of stairs while resisting arrest, but new evidence brought forward, including eyewitness testimony, indicated that the arresting officers beat Lawson to his untimely death.  Three police officers, Whalen, Stevenson and Paschall, pled not guilty to second-degree murder. The investigation into the case was marred by corruption, including an attempt to bribe a state witness into leaving town to prevent him from testifying against the officers. The issue of police racism and brutality was a sensitive one for King County African Americans, and even before Lawson's death these particular officers had been involved in a number of incidents involving blacks.  Circumstances like this instilled a feeling of personal animosity towards the officers and law enforcement in general; still, the NAACP and the Northwest Enterprise reassured the community that “it is the state of Washington vs. Whalen, Stevenson, and Paschall, not the Negro community or the NAACP or the city wide council vs. those officers.” [8]  The newspaper as well as the prosecuting attorney urged readers to allow the lawyers and officials to handle the case.  If readers wanted to do more, the paper urged them to do two things:  first, to write the prosecuting attorney, B. Grey Warner, “expressing interest in the case, urging a complete airing of the facts, and urging vigorous prosecution,”[9] and second, to write the newspaper “urging complete and fair reporting of the future incidents.”[10]  Thus, the Northwest Enterprise implored readers to hear all the facts on the case before passing judgment and to trust in the system to secure a just outcome.  This small attempt by the Northwest Enterprise highlights the moderate approach the editors took in documenting sensitive news such as this case.

The trial took place on the morning of May 23, 1938, with Judge Malcolm Douglas presiding.  The defense attorney for the three officers argued that the officers beat Lawson out of self-defense.  Throughout the case the defense attempted to discredit the neighborhood in which Lawson worked as the worst district in Seattle, in turn attempting to discredit any witness gathered from such an area.  However, the discredit was turned against the officers when James C. Franey turned witness to the state after the prosecution assured Franey that perjury charges would be dropped if he told the truth about Lawson’s supposed fall down the stairs.  The prosecution continued to call witnesses against the officers who testified to some form of beating against Barry Lawson. In the end, the Enterprise reported that the “juries only point was to decide whether to convict them of manslaughter or second degree murder.”[11]  The jury, comprised of five men and seven women, convicted the officers of the second-degree murder of Barry Lawson.

Articles prominently displayed on the front page such as the Lawson and Hale cases appealed to the audience and emphasized the importance of the theme of equal treatment in the law and society.  Though the cases represented different forms of inequality in the law, the newspaper continued to take an active stance in the separate cases.  In addition to the articles describing the details and evidence in the cases there were editorials and features on the various people involved.  The paper's coverage of the two cases also reveals its alliance with the NAACP. In one particular article the newspaper represents the NAACP in an active and strong manner, acting as a direct surrogate for the NAACP's voice.   The article, headlined “NAACP Deserves Support,” appeals to readers' moral side by stating, “that it is the imperative duty of each and every individual who loves liberty and fair play to join, and become an active member in the NAACP.”[12]  Statements and articles like these are clear evidence of the newspaper's strong support of the NAACP.

Community Pride

In addition to the theme of equality and civil rights featured in front-page stories like the Hale and Lawson cases, in 1938 The Northwest Enterprise continued its goal of solidifying the local African American community and integrating it more fully into society.  With the addition of new sections of the newspaper, the Northwest Enterprise helped bring the black community out of the social shadow and into the spotlight by documenting everyday people and community events. Human-interest stories that celebrated the accomplishments of both men and women in the community were often featured on the front page of the newspaper, directly beside stories of great political importance.  Every issue strove to produce an attitude of community pride and dedication to giving African Americans equal opportunities and treatment both in the community and the nation at large. Articles of social and human interest characterize the evolution of the Northwest Enterprise toward reporting stories of not only African American equality but also stories that created a well-rounded newspaper. 

Articles about African-American men, women and youth triumphing within the community were common. The depth and length of the articles differed with each edition but the impression left by them was steadfast.  They illustrated another side to African American life, one characterized by success rather than persecution and suffering, and recognized men and women who would not have been considered newsworthy by most white reporters and newspapers. In an article titled “Race Youths Win Prize for Model,” nine lines on the front page was given to Gene Hawkins and Howard Benning praising them for their accomplishments at a contest for model ships at a local department store.  Hawkins and Benning's story was placed on the same front page that carried stories about the Lawson case, a different struggle with the same under-lying purpose:  to create equal opportunities for African Americans.  Human-interest pieces such as these kept the newspaper both deeply rooted in the fight for equality and connected to the daily interests of the general public.  These stories were printed to encourage readers to believe in the struggle for blacks and whites to coexist in society.  Human-interest articles emphasized that even at the smallest level racial justice could be achieved. 

Social Notes

One of the new sections of the newspaper was called "News Flashes." Featured on the front page, “News Flashes” documented the progress of African Americans in society and the media on a local and national level.  For example, in an article published April 22, 1938 in the “News Flashes” section the author praises Rev. J. D. Hudson, the Pastor for Trinity C.M.E. church, for his nomination for bishopric at the general council in Arkansas.[13]  Like the story of Hawkins and Benning, the story of Hudson's nomination featured in "News Flashes" was a small sign that African Americans of different social backgrounds and interests were making progress towards racial equality.

Bertha Lewis wrote front-page articles for another segment of the newspaper that strayed from the overall theme of creating equal opportunities and advancement.  This section, “Housewives Department,” was targeted to the female audience within the community. "Housewives Department" included such things as recipes and tips for cooking for a large crowd as well as one particular article in which Lewis wrote about children's diet both during and post pregnancy.[14]  Though on the one hand having female journalists like Bertha Lewis writing for the newspaper represented progress for women, the bulk of the content published in “Housewives Department” was stereotypical of women in first half of the 20th century.  Gender stereotypes such as that women should be in the kitchen and with the children are reinforced by sections like “Housewives Department.”

Located in the middle of the newspaper in 1938 was a small section titled “Pot Likker.” This section was dedicated to little blurbs reporting random happenings in the community.  “Congrats to the Fairs, a cute baby girl.  That’s fine! Best of Luck,” reads one from April 29, 1938.[15]  “Bruce Rowell not content with the first championship Negro football team has decided to help the girls organize a softball team to play in the girls league,” reads another from the same issue.[16]  “Pot Likker” was published to add a sense of fun to the newspaper.  With light subject matter and short length, “Pot Likker” served to entertain readers with an interesting community focus.

And yet these small articles, focused on individual members of the community, were also another attempt to tackle the bigger problem of racial inequality.  “Pot Likker” acknowledged everyday people, whose recognition was seen as a small indication that the lives of African Americans were progressing in social as well as political matters. For example, the formation of a girl’s softball team cited above was portrayed as a positive step towards integration and equal opportunity for African American people living in a predominantly white area.  For the Northwest Enterprise, recognizing everyday accomplishments and highlighting individual personalities was an attempt to overshadow the hatred and abuse directed at African Americans since the arrival of the first African slaves in the 17th century.

"Social Notes" was another new section of the Northwest Enterprise dedicated to fostering a greater sense of community among local African Americans. Similar to "Pot Likker," every week "Social Notes" documented the many parties and social gatherings and happenings within the last week. The short comments included birthday parties as well as announcements regarding highly respected people in the community. “Social Notes” was written mostly by Arline English.  Some readers may have considered the section nothing but a gossip wheel for well-connected neighbors.  However, like the other special interest sections of the newspaper, "Social Notes" helped foster community and facilitate the assimilation of African Americans into the society, even as it departed from the general overall theme of racial equality.

Churches served as a social basis for both new and old residents in Seattle's black community.  They supplied guidance, organization, and support for African Americans facing discrimination.  As such, religion was a major theme in nearly every edition of The Northwest Enterprise, underscoring the importance of the church in the African American community.  Each issue featured a section titled “With the Churches” that listed dates, times, and locations of a number of different church services.  Along with this information, there was memorandum notifying the community of events happening at the church, like the announcement of teacher and Sunday school meetings.  For example, in the June 10, 1938 edition, “With the Churches” reported a particular outdoor service in which  “Gospel workers sang God’s praises and testified to the glory of God.”[17] Articles like this served to promote Christian morals and values in readers. Thus, "With the Churches" reached out to readers in a different way than the front-page news articles.  “With the Churches” provided a feeling that despite the inequality present in many aspects of their lives, Christian principles and traditions were a firm foundation upon which to stand. For the Enterprise, the church was the cornerstone for the African American community, providing a safe haven against the discrimination felt outside the church domain.  The emphasis on religious life also encouraged readers to stay faithful not only to their beliefs but also to the cause – the achievement of full equality and integration in society. 

The “With the Churches” section of the newspaper was not the only section characterized by a religious overtone.  The “Editorial" section, reserved for the opinion of the editor or publisher, featured political and social issues, such as the Lawson case, but also addressed the religious theme of the newspaper with the addition of a Bible verse at the start of many of the articles.  The addition of the Bible verse served as a reminder of the Christian attitude the newspaper across all the various sections.  The editorial section is not only unique because of the small religious content but also because it was the only place in the newspaper where a clear, unbalanced opinion was permitted.  It is through such opinions that the real position of the newspaper on many issues can be found.  Typical articles were written to state the facts and give the appropriate information to understand the issue being reported.  The “Editorial,” in contrast, often looked to provide readers with hope for the coming years.  It served to praise those who had overcome discrimination as well as warn readers against actions that might hinder the long struggle of African Americans for racial equality.

            In 1938 and throughout its existence the Northwest Enterprise created a balance between issues of national and local importance and topics of social and human interest.  It chronicled a community on the uphill path toward equality and social acceptance and stability. Countless sections of the newspaper documented the many social happenings within the community, creating a well-rounded portrait of black Seattle at this time. With the institution of many new aspects of the newspaper in and around 1938, including "News Flashes," "Housewives Department," "Pot Likker," "Social Notes," and "With the Churches," as well as the inclusion of female journalists and an unambiguous advocacy of the NAACP and similar organizations, readers were introduced to different characteristics of a community that looked to the future and equality.  “A Newspaper the People Read, Love and Respect,” the Northwest Enterprise embodied the interests of an African American community that took an active approach to the goal of racial and social equality.
 

copyright(c) Kelly Connors 2008
HSTAA 105 Winter 2008
 

[1] The Northwest Enterprise, February 11, 1938.

[2] “Youth to Hold Anti-Lynching Meeting, Feb. 11,” The Northwest Enterprise, January 28,1938

[3] Wikipedia. 2008. 4 March 2008. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Urban_League.

[4] “Public Utilities Hire No Negroes,” The Northwest Enterprise, May 6, 1938.

[5] Dr. J. Finley Wilson, “Elk’s Leader Advocates Negro Judge for Next Supreme Court Vacancy,” The Northwest Enterprise, February 4, 1938.

[6] “N.A.A.C.P. Carries Case to US Court,” The Northwest Enterprise, February 25, 1938.

[7] http://www.jimcrowhistory.org

[8] “NAACP Vice President comments on the Lawson Case,” The Northwest Enterprise, April 22, 1938.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] “Prosecutor’s Office Receives Praise for Splendid Work in Lawson Case,” The Northwest Enterprise, June 3, 1938.

[12] “N.A.A.C.P. Deserves Support,” The Northwest Enterprise, April 15, 1938.

[13] “News Flashes,” The Northwest Enterprise, April 22, 1938.

[14] “Housewives Department,” The Northwest Enterprise, May 6, 1938.

[15] “Pot Likker.” The Northwest Enterprise, April 29, 938.

[16] Ibid

[17] “With the Churches,” The Northwest Enterprise, June 10, 1938.

 

Click to open readable images

The Northwest Enterprise masthead, as it appeared in 1938. See also the followup report "The Northwest Enterprise in the Cold War Years (1947-49)" by Grace Taylor.

As the editorial above indicates, the Enterprise was a strong and vocal supporter of the NAACP. Below an editorial from February 1938 advocates the appointment of an African American judge to the Supreme Court.

 


Above: the beating death of Berry Lawson while in police custody and the ensuing trial of three police officers was one of the biggest stories of 1938. Below: the Northwest Enterprise won praise from King County Deputy Prosecutor Henry Clay Agnew for its coverage of the Lawson case.


Below an article from May 6, 1938 publicizing employment discrimination against black workers at a New York utilities company.


Social Notes

"With the Churches" featured information and announcments from local black churches (above)

"Social Notes." Along with "With the Churches" and human-interest features like "Pot Likker, "Social Notes" shows that the Enterprise saw itself as a focal point for community as well as a resource for political news and commentary.

.

 

 

 

 

2004- 2014    How to cite and copyright information  |  About project |  Contact James Gregory  | Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Projects | University of Washington