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Maryland newsman posthumously ousted from media hall of fame over ‘viciously racist’ coverage

A newsman who helped shape public opinion on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for decades during the mid-20th century has been stripped of one of the region’s top professional honors after a review of his work found writings that were “viciously racist” and even promoted lynching.

The Maryland-D.C.-Delaware Press Association inducted Edward J. Clarke, the longtime owner and editor of the Worcester Democrat newspaper, into its Hall of Fame in 1954 after a decadeslong career.

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The organization’s board of directors voted last week to terminate that honor after Gabriel Pietrorazio, a University of Maryland journalism student, brought to light editorials written by Clarke that likened the Black suspects in a 1940 homicide to “a rabid dog,” “a disease-spreading germ” and “garbage.”

Clarke scorned the idea of waiting for the legal system to act, issuing a call instead for “a good stout rope, a noose at one end, good stout arms at the other, a neck and a limb of a tree” as the best way to deal with the “fiends who violated the home” of a white couple in Pocomoke City.

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Presented with Pietrorazio’s reporting on Clarke, the press association’s executive committee urged the ouster of the late newspaper owner from the hall. Its board of directors voted unanimously in support of the ban, which took effect Monday.

“The MDDC Press Association board condemns in the strongest terms the ideas expressed in Clarke’s writing and in his newspaper coverage, which also was racist,” according to a statement the organization released Wednesday.

“Clarke and his repugnant views are banished from any place of stature or honor within our association,” added Rebecca Snyder, the association’s executive director.

Clarke’s name has been removed from the organization’s Hall of Fame website, which lists other recipients, including longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee; photographer A. Aubrey Bodine of The Baltimore Sun; sports editor Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American; Baltimore Sun editor Mary Corey; and John Henry Murphy Sr., the founding publisher of the Baltimore Afro-American.

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Snyder said the honorees are overwhelmingly white and male, a legacy the association hopes to broaden even as it works to promote inclusivity in newsrooms in the region. The group of 72 honorees includes seven women and four African Americans.

The work of Pietrorazio, a 23-year-old master’s degree student, is part of “Printing Hate,” a collaborative research project at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. Journalism students from seven colleges and universities across the country are reviewing racist media coverage of the past as part of the project.

The focus is on the years between the end of Reconstruction and the mid-20th century, a time when more than 5,000 people lost their lives in terror lynchings, most of them Black men and boys at the hands of white mobs, researchers say. Such research centers as the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, have shown in recent years that white-owned press outlets routinely played a role in encouraging the practice, either by displaying indifference toward its horrors or using the kind of biased and incendiary language that could foment violence.

By the time Pietrorazio came upon the writings of Clarke — a man who was once a professor of English at Washington College in Chestertown, but about whom little other public information survives — he was already aware of the nastiness of the language often used in such coverage, particularly in newspapers in the American Deep South. He and 57 fellow student journalists came to realize early on that such coverage was tragically “endemic” to newspaper coverage at the time.

What really hit home, though, Pietrorazio said, was when he ventured into the archives of the Salisbury University Libraries, where he found most of the available material on Clarke, and realized the racist newsman’s portrait was displayed on a wall in Knight Hall, the building at the University of Maryland that houses both the journalism school and the press association’s hall of fame.

“Here we were, sending students to scour the country to explore where predominantly white newsrooms had encouraged acts of lynching when, in fact, we have had someone like that on our very wall for seven decades,” he said. “That hit really close to home.”

Pietrorazio said he made extensive efforts to locate relatives of Clarke, but that the few records available yielded no results. He said a search of Ancestry.com suggested he had no children. His 1953 obituary in The Sun said he was “survived by no close relatives.”

Clarke’s picture has been removed from the hall of fame display at Knight Hall.

Snyder called it disheartening to realize not only that someone was “asleep at the switch” back in the 1950s when the association’s members honored Clarke, but that some who made the decision probably knew at least something about his racist views. But in the early days of the hall (it was founded in 1947), organization officials left no records of the criteria they used or what they were thinking.

There’s enough on the record, though, Snyder said, to see that “this wasn’t a situation where he had a very bad day or a bad couple of weeks. This was systematic. It’s disturbing to realize that an organization that actively works to make the world a better place — that now holds no such ideals and adamantly disavows those pieces — thought differently at one time.”

The “Printing Hate” project, which began last year, has drawn on the research efforts of students from the University of Maryland, the University of Arkansas, and five historically Black institutions: Morgan State University in Baltimore, Howard University in Washington, Hampton University in Virginia, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Their effort has produced 30 investigative stories on racist news coverage across the United States. They’re being posted twice a week through mid-December on the Capital News Service’s Howard Center website, on the National Association of Black Journalists’ news site, and on Word in Black, a collaboration of prominent African American news publishers. Ten appear on the sites so far.

The article on Clarke’s career is expected to run early next month.

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