Some Virginia newspapers powered political disenfranchisement, brutalization of Black people

Historically, Southern newspapers often stoked racial and political divides that sometimes preceded violence

By: - May 3, 2023 12:04 am

The Norfolk Virginian newspaper’s Nov. 15, 1885 edition included a front page article on the murder of 10-year-old Alice Powell in Princess Anne County (now Virginia Beach). The paper implicated local Black worker Noah Cherry as Powell’s killer, before a full investigation of the case had been conducted, writing days before Cherry was violently killed by a mob of white citizens that “there is strong talk of lynching” in the community. (America’s News archive)

This is Part 2 of a two-part series that looks at the ways Virginia newspapers powered political disenfranchisement and brutalization of Black people. Part 1, on how the lynching of Noah Cherry refuted Virginia’s carefully curated image as a moderate and genteel commonwealth, was published yesterday, May 2.

When 10-year-old Alice Powell was mysteriously killed in 1885, the Norfolk Virginian and the Richmond Dispatch put together a timeline of her murder, which they blamed on Noah Cherry, a Black man who was lynched soon after the newspapers published the story. But the timelines didn’t agree with each other, or with the county’s death registry. The newspapers said coroners held two separate inquests to sift through evidence in the deaths. There is no record that those inquests ever happened. 

Why would these newspapers distort the facts of the case? 

The year of the deaths, 1885, might provide a clue. The mid-1880s was a liminal space between the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, when Black and white political leaders struggled for power, sometimes violently. 

The publishers and editors of newspapers including the Norfolk Virginian and the Richmond Dispatch were actively involved in these struggles and used their platforms to sway public opinion and disseminate misinformation in an effort to bolster their political ideologies, which were often racist and designed to limit the rights and privileges of non-white people. 

A push for power

The media sources that told the story that fueled Noah Cherry’s 1885 killing were connected to a white supremacist political movement that had revived the Democratic Party in Virginia and taken control of both the governor’s mansion and the General Assembly the same year the lynching occurred after more than a decade of struggle. A 2020 report by the Equal Justice Initiative said this movement was intent on using violence and political suppression to restore white-led rule in the South after the Civil War. But it had not completely consolidated its hold in the mid-1880s. 

“There was this transitional period to eliminating … the political voice of African Americans,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Endowed Professor of Virginia Black History and Culture at Norfolk State University. As they grasped for power, she said, the leaders of this movement needed to project a moderate, law-abiding image to be considered socially acceptable during that time. In the case of Cherry’s lynching, which does not appear to have been fully investigated, the newspapers helped craft a narrative that authorities abided by the law.

“What was done was illegal. [Authorities were] bound by law to investigate,” said Newby-Alexander. When that didn’t happen properly, the media worked to “simply create a paper trail … to cover the fact that [authorities] didn’t investigate it.”

During the time of Cherry’s lynching, Michael Glennan edited the Norfolk Virginian. A Confederate veteran, he owned the paper and was active in Democratic politics, serving for several years as chair of the party’s congressional committee for the district and as an elector for President Grover Cleveland.

According to “Richmond Times-Dispatch: The Story of a Newspaper” by longtime city editor Earle Dunford, the Dispatch’s stated position during the time was “no Negro is fit to make laws for white people.” It criticized one Black politician in stark racial terms, saying he was “still a Negro, with all of a Negro’s conceit, pomposity, credulity and stupidity.'” A September 19, 1889, article in the paper encouraged Black people to vacate the South and migrate west.

Both newspapers only identified by name one person in the search party that found Powell’s disfigured body: Dr. L. R. Chiles of Kempsville. A former state senator, Chiles was a political activist in the Democratic Party in Princess Anne during the mid-1880s, when Glennan was in the party’s leadership. Norfolk Virginian articles show Chiles was responsible for canvassing on behalf of the party in that county in 1883, two years before the deaths of Powell and Cherry.

Race reporting

Gianluca De Fazio, an associate professor at James Madison University who researches lynching, said white newspapers in Virginia during the era were often sympathetic to lynchings and even helped organize them.

“White newspapers were part and parcel of … the lynching as a spectacle,” he said. “They were providing not just the reporting, but also the justification for it.”

By the time the 1885 lynching took place, the Dispatch and the Virginian had already developed a clear record of covering racial violence in a way that aimed to disenfranchise Black people.

One striking example of this is found in a report by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland detailing how the Dispatch covered deadly white supremacist violence on the eve of the 1883 state election in Danville. 

The Howard Center found that an armed mob took to the streets that year, killing six Black men and threatening Black people who tried to vote. The Dispatch painted the deadly, racist violence as a learning opportunity for the town’s Black citizens: “These negroes had evidently come to regard themselves as in some sort the rightful rulers of the town. They have been taught a lesson — a dear lesson, it is true … but nevertheless a lesson which will not be lost upon them, nor upon their race elsewhere in Virginia.”

White newspapers were part and parcel of … the lynching as a spectacle. They were providing not just the reporting, but also the justification for it.

– Gianluca De Fazio, associate professor at James Madison University

In 1878 in Kempsville, seven years before Alice Powell’s death, the Virginian covered an election riot in which dozens of white and Black political leaders traded gunfire outside a polling place amid accusations that the white politicians were engaged in election fraud.

Several eyewitnesses said a white man rode into the crowd on horseback and shot a Black preacher named Thomas Elliott in the back, killing him. A grand jury brought charges against the Black political leaders for rioting, and a coroner’s inquest indicated Elliott’s killer may have been the father of one of the white election judges. Authorities dropped the case against the Black leaders on the condition they leave the state. 

“If I am guilty of a crime try me and punish me,” Noah Lamb, one of the accused Black activists, told his attorney, according to a news article in a Northern paper. “If not, I want to be protected in my home. I don’t want to leave the State.”

Reporting on these events, the Virginian misidentified the victim, did not report the claims of election fraud or the inquest identifying the killer and blamed the violence on Black agitators and a personal argument between two people over a hunting rifle.

Meanwhile, Black-owned newspapers nationwide, though few, continually used their editorial power to expose lynchings and other racial terrors. John Mitchell Jr., born enslaved in 1863, wrote scathing rebukes of Virginia lynchings as editor of the Richmond Planet. Armed with just two pistols and facing a possible mob, Mitchell traveled to Charlotte County to confront death threats he had received for writing about a lynching that occurred there in the 1880s.

A new century and an old story

By the beginning of the 20th century, the state would have a new constitution that disenfranchised large numbers of Black people, effectively cutting the electorate in half. News coverage of race issues also changed.

The Norfolk Virginian joined with another paper, the Daily Pilot, in 1898 to create the Virginian-Pilot. The Pilot’s editor, Louis Jaffé, won the first Pulitzer Prize garnered by a Virginia journalist in May 1929 for editorial writing against lynching. 

A few weeks later, in June of that year, on the same corner of Holland Road where Alice Powell had vanished, an intruder entered the home of her 73-year-old brother, A.W. Powell, and shot him to death.

Holland Road in present-day Virginia Beach, near the site of the Powell family home and where 10-year-old Alice Powell was killed in 1885. (Paul Bibeau/The Virginia Mercury)

“Negro Suspected In Princess Anne Murder-Robbery” the front-page headline of the June 21, 1929 issue of the Pilot read, reflecting the longstanding pattern of negative media portrayals of Black people when violent crimes occurred. 

Police told reporters the suspect in A.W. Powell’s murder was a Black employee of the white family, like Noah Cherry had been before his lynching. They suspected this employee, eventually identified as Lewis Lawson, because he had a key to the house, and a key was found in the door. The paper continued its front-page coverage about the hunt for Lawson for several days.

Within the week, the Pilot reported police had interviewed others in connection with the crime, including a boy named Claude Moss and a man named Linwood Land, but the paper said they were released after convincing police they weren’t involved.

The paper also mentioned that police questioned Powell’s nephew, Charles D. Powell, who was listed as the informant on the death certificate. The paper failed to mention Charles Powell had been convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of a local man about nine years before (a conviction that was later overturned by the state Supreme Court after reviewing evidence the killing had been done in defense of Charles Powell’s father). 

In July 1929, a month after A.W. Powell’s murder, his heirs offered $500 for the arrest and conviction of his murderer in announcements that ran several times in the Pilot, which reported that the hunt for Lawson, the Black employee, still continued.

In September authorities arrested Land and Moss, the two men who had been questioned previously and released, along with another man named Lloyd Moritica; there was no mention of Lewis Lawson. The case against the three defendants collapsed in December when a key witness refused to testify. 

In 1940, a decade after A.W. Powell’s murder, his relative Charles D. Powell died in a violent quarrel with a neighbor in which he reportedly fired a gun into the man’s home, and the man killed him with a shotgun. 

The Pilot reported the death in a single-column story on the lower half of the second page, granting it significantly less coverage than it had provided of the Black suspect in A.W. Powell’s murder.

The aftermath

The Virginia Mercury made multiple attempts over several weeks to find and convince descendants of the Powell and Cherry families to comment on this report, without success. Norfolk resident William Cherry, 82, said it was possible he was related to Noah Cherry, but he wasn’t sure. He was born on London Bridge Road, the area newspapers reported as the homeplace of Noah Cherry. 

William Cherry said he had not heard the story of the lynching until recently. He had fond memories of growing up in Princess Anne and said he wasn’t threatened or harassed. 

“The only thing that kept us separated from whites was the law,” he said. “All of us got along.”

Historical records of lynchings show 84 reported lynchings occurred in Virginia between 1877 and 1950. The data doesn’t include other acts of violence that may not have been widely reported. The Princess Anne Coroner’s Files in the Library of Virginia in Richmond contain records of unidentified people of color killed by unknown assailants with minimal investigation. 

In recent years, the Virginian Pilot and the Richmond Times-Dispatch have won awards for coverage of civil rights and systemic racism in Virginia. A 2021 article in Poynter detailed how journalists of color at the Pilot and other newspapers faced abuse when covering issues like the protests against Confederate monuments in the state.

Molly Work, one of the authors of the Howard Center report on the Danville violence, said she was stunned by coverage in the era after Reconstruction, saying “it almost read like propaganda to me.” She added that the experience of writing this story highlighted the continuing need for reporters to question and examine what they’re told.

“Accuracy is king, of course, in journalism,” she said. “And I think we’ve learned that you can’t rely necessarily on, quote unquote, expert sources.”

The murders of the two Powells were never solved. A.W. Powell is buried next to Alice Powell and their parents in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Norfolk. 

No one has located Noah Cherry’s grave.


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Paul Bibeau
Paul Bibeau

Paul Bibeau has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Virginia Business and Men's Journal. He created an investigative podcast, "The Secret War of Willis Hodges," for NPR.