The 1950s, racism in newspapers

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This past Sunday, The Herald did the first of what we hope are several stories on the 1957 murder of State Trooper J.T. Brown of Sanford. We’ve put a call out to anybody who may remember the incident from 50 years back, and we’re trying to set up an interview with the man found guilty of killing Brown and another N.C. trooper (he was still surving in Lillington, last we heard, but was tranfserred to an unknown prison recently).

While looking through the papers from 1957, however, we discovered something about newspaper editors back then — they were really quick to find somebody guilty. In other words, some of the things they printed would get me fired and sued in an instant today.

We’ll start with the headline from the day following Trooper Brown’s murder. The main headline “Lee Patrolman Killed By Unknown Thug” is bad enough, but the subheadline, “Dark-skinned driver slays two troopers; search continues” is the attention grabber. I’m amazed there are no words like “suspect” or “allegedly” … The Herald pretty much says a dark-skinned driver did this heinous crime, which is funny, considering the man who was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison twice was as white as the troopers he killed.

Go down further on that front page (you can’t see it in the picture), and there’s an unrelated story from Pittsboro, headlined “White woman raped near Siler City,” which starts with the lead paragraph:

PITTSBORO — James Yarbrough, 33, described by police as a “bad” Negro, was held today on a charge that he accosted two white women on a road near Siler City, and raped one while the other was forced to watch.

We scanned several papers from November 1957, and found amusement in headlines, stories and even advertisements that would shut us down today (ads telling the little lady to stop her cleaning so she can go buy some groceries). When Frank Wetzel was finally arrested in 1958, the Herald referred to him as the cop killing thug … before he was tried by a judge and jury of course.

I really enjoyed looking through these old papers. I know it was a different time, and I don’t fault anybody from the papers, the city or that era for the way things were reported on. That’s just the way it was. It’s a different time now.

I get a lot of people, usually a little older, who tell me the newspaper was a much better product back in those days. I’m not here to debate that, other than to say the Herald is surprisingly more of a local paper today than it was then. But from here on out, I will be able to say that if we did our paper today like we did then, we’d be out of business, and I’d have been in court several times.

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23 thoughts on “The 1950s, racism in newspapers

  1. It’s the year 2008 the wording has changed but the coverage is the same in slant. I see no reporters that look like me on the staff or coverage that is representative of the minority make-up of the county or readership population. For that matter from the time I was a journalism student in the 80’s till now why is it that minority reporter’s leave or are not hired?

  2. Yes, it was a different time, but somehow I don’t see the harm in reporting the facts. Such as, the news article about the two women, one being raped while the other was forced to watch. If a black man did the crime, report it as such. If its a white man doing the crime, there again, report it as such. Everone nodays is scared someone will play the race card. Lets face it, there is racism on all sides of the fence. Thats just the way it is. Everyone has a small amount of racism in them. Some more than others, but its there. Why was the news media reluctant to say that the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom where done at the hands of blacks…because of someone playing the good ole’ race card. If you don’t know about the crime I just mentioned, look it up on google ( murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom ). I didn’t know either until I stumbled upon it. For it to be such a gruesome crime, it was well hidden by all the media outlets. Everyone of all races have good and bad. It souldn’t be a bad thing to tell the truth for what it is…black, white, red or yellow…WRONG IS WRONG.

  3. i think that ur skin is just a color and ur pesonnality is wat makes u unique and i go to middle school and i hate that people make fun of ur race just to be funny and they think its ok with u but it really isnt !!!
    XD XD XD

    I THINK WE SHOULD JUST FORGET BOUT UR COLOR!!

  4. Billy,

    I was 9 years old when Frank Wetzel killed Troppers Brown and Reese. I remember a man hunt and being scared out of my wits..Those were different times. But I do remember that Wetzel was white. We need to keep Wetzel in prison. He is still alive.

    Those murders Troppers were doing their job who gives a flip that some one (paper or not) got his color wrong.

    • Migy funny there were 2 descriptions of 2 men and 2 cars in those cases. If wetzel did this he had to drive 95 miles in one hour to Reecr’s murder, then 48 miles in 22 min. to Brown’s! The foreman of the1st jury said they had reasonable doubt. Th eye witness Robert Terry [black] said he was forced to lie and it was not Wetzel. This is confirmed by Jerry Brown who heard Terry’s say it was a dark skinned man who shot Reece. Col. Ed C. Guy and Sheriff RW Goodman are the ones who had Reece killed. Brown was killed by James Stewart, who’s wife was having an affair with Brown. Wetzel stole black 57 Olds like the one owned by Stewart. He was an escaped con from NY that fit the frame put around him. All this will be revealed in novel about the Wetzel boys this fall. Too bad you have belived a lie all these years! RW

      • Hi Rich,hope you’re doing OK! I’ve followed your brother ‘s story since I was about 10 years old. Theres alot that just doesn’t fit!Many,many unanswered questions. When will the book be out? Keep me posted! THANKS! Respectfully,Wilburn Lassiter

      • Hi Rich,
        I have received no response to my most recent letters to Frank. As we have both gotten older, I just want to know if he is ok and receiving his mail. Please call 919-217-5914 collect and ask for me.
        Thanks,
        Erlene

  5. Is it possible to gain access to the actual article online? I am a university student and I am looking at racism in newspapers, I would like to analyse the article, however so far have failed to find it 😦 .

    Thanks

    Tom

  6. Tom,
    Professor Tom Regan at the University has researched the Wetzel case for many years and may have some information that would help you. I’m assuming he is still part of the faculty…I have hundreds of articles circa 1957 concerning the Frank Wetzel case. I retired from the North Carolina State Highway Patrol in 2007 and have been following the Wetzel case very closely. I recently testified before the Parole Commission to ensure he serves the remainder of his sentence, “Life with Mercy.” Let me know if I can help you.
    David Munday

  7. Hi,

    Would it be possible to get a full copy of the front page image, I’m writing a report on racism in the 1950’s and think this would be a perfect example!

    BR

    Chris Baker

  8. I was only 10 years old when Frank Wetzel was accused of gunning down the two highway patrolman.I do remember all the talk and newspaper articles concering the murders.It was the buzz around my house the night it happened.(family,relatives & neighbors)I think a US deputy marshal named Jack Haney (of Rockingham,NC) went to California and escorted Wetzel back to Rockingham,NC where he stood trial. Huge crowds of people daily would gather to catch a glimpse of Wetzel being brought from the jail to the courthouse and back in the evenings.It was truly a spectacle,young girls and ladies yelling Frank,Frank! He was displayed to be a good -looking,highly intelligent,nearly outfoxed the cops type,had high dollar clothes.,automatic weapons,maps,compasses,diguises,etc. in the Oldsmobile. He was treated more like a celebrity than an accused killer. It was rumored that Raymond W. Goodman( the richmond county sheriff) provided him with daily clothes to wear.(suits)(Goodman owned a department in Rockingham)They said he had been abused as a child and had a brother in NY either in prison or a mental hospital.(?) They said when he was arrested in California that he was wearing black clothes and was attempting to steal another car.It was said that he (Wetzel) had said that the Richmond County jail was the strongest lockdown that he had ever been placed in,I could have broke out of the others he was rumored to have said.My mother and dad took me out of school one day (Rohanen in Rockingham) to go with them to watch the trial one day.Guilty or Not,it’s not for me to decide! But yes I wonder! Respectfully,Wilburn (Bill)S. Lassiter SCPO/USN/Retired

  9. In the above comment please note that R.W. Goodman(Richmond County Sheriff) owned a department store in Rockingham,NC.

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  11. I have submitted proof concrete of my brothers actual innocence to the board appointed by the great Gov. If Mr. Munday has took one look at the facts then I want to know how you can think Frank could have drove 125 miles in one hour from Madison to ellerbe? then go over 48 miles with 2 90 degree turns in less than 20 minutes??!! Hell richard Petty couldn’t do that at Daytona and you can’t either buster. So how appointed you to be the overseer of his case? RW Goodman and Col. NCHP Ed C. Guy? Everyone in richmond Co. knew that those crooks were in behind Reeces murder. The medical examiner said Reece was killed beteewn 6-7 pm that night and may have been brought to the crime place at 8!! Where the dark skinned man eyewitness Robert terry Jr. said he rode with in a 2 toned Chevy. That was placed over all the law enforcement and news wires. Hell there’s the headline in all the papers the same, then Terry recanted his testimony in 84 saying it was not frank Wetzel, that Goodman and guy threatened him into perjury. so Mr. Munday I would love to see your proof of my brothers guilt you claim to have. Maybe I’ll use it in the novel called Guilty with reasonable doubt, quoated from the charlootte Observer the day frank was “CONVICTED” in Rockingham. Robert Morse the foreman said “we didnot give him the death sentence because the judge told us to give him mercy if we had doubt!!! Please keep away from the Innocence commission as I am closing watching for outside infleunce and so are alot of the policemen, prison guards, lawyers, people like Dr. Reagen, and the good Lord himself. what is right is right and Frank wetzel did not kill those men. He is 88 and no threat. I will pursue even if he passes away as many hope. The truth is OUT and you cannot hide it any longer. May god have mercy on all you that have believed this lie for 52 years and supported it.

  12. Hi I am 25 years old and born and raised richmond county. I have heard this story many many times from my grandfather since I was a little boy until most recently this past sunday at the dinner table. My grandfather happens to be one of the men who guarded frank in the days following his arrest and return to richmond county. He had a many long nights and long conversations with him. For those it may concern or interested to know more you can contact me at kjlayton1984@live.com

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