A Very Darktown: News Reporting on Black Neighborhoods

Currently, I work as a graduate assistant for the African American Digital Humanities Initiative (AADHUM) at the University of Maryland. One of our tasks includes teaching members of the scholarly community various digital tools and methods during our incubators. This semester, we focused on the movement of ideas, specifically within newspapers:


Using digital archives of local black newspapers and the campus newspaper, The Diamondbackwe explore how texts contribute to the communal memory of black experience. We will learn to create and publish digital primary texts with annotation and commentary using the Text Encoding Initiative(TEI) standard and build skills in computational text analysis using the Python programming language.

I decided as part of the exercise to use the Georgia Historic Newspapers archive to see how early twentieth century papers discussed Black neighborhoods in Metro Atlanta. I wrote about Black Atlanta in another blog post, highlighting how the Black neighborhoods there began as post Civil War shantytowns.  

Someone asked me why it is necessary to do a systematic analysis of the contents of these newspapers. I think this is an epistemological question. For instance, some critical scholars do indeed implicate the media as a tool of white supremacy that aids the state in the marginalization of people of color. I am interested in what evidence scholars bring to bear that substantiates this claim beyond the occasional anecdote.  Perhaps my favorite sociological analysis of text is Christopher Bail’s Terrified. Bail studied anti-Muslim fringe organizations transition to mainstream institutions. His work seems poignant in the wake of the 2016 presidential election,  given the perplexed reactions from both academic and journalistic circles in regard to its results. Bail identified the mechanisms through which fringe actors contributed to the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim discourse in the wake of 9/11. Thus this systematic analysis of social media activity related to these fringe actors served as one of the best predictors for the populist response to the calls for a “Muslim ban” from the Republican candidate during the 2016 presidential election.

I am making the claim that certain institutions relate to Black communities as either anchor or recalibrating institutions. A systematic textual analysis lends a means to examine whether the evidence supports that claim. The reason why it’s necessary for this analysis to be systematic is that institutions are the way social structures interact with individual agency. The implications of institutional practices oriented towards members of a group are both interpersonal and overarching.  


For the first glimpse through the Georgia Historic Newspapers Archives, I narrowed my focus on Metro Atlanta newspapers, which had issues that ranged from 1854 to 1957. Solely because I was astonished that a town by any name had ever existed in the city of my youth, I decided to look at how these Metro Atlanta newspapers described “Darktown.”

At this point, I had consulted the notes I had obtained by working with the African American Digital Humanities Initiative (AADHum). The specific skill set relevant to analyzing the newspaper archive is called the Texting Encoding Initiative, also known as (TEI).

TEI refers to a community-driven standard for a markup format suitable for encoding text. TEI relies on Extensible Markup Language (XML) to tag elements of a document like a title or the body of the text. TEI can be paired with other software programs I am currently working with, like Python, to provide answers about what themes appear frequently across a body of text.

After identifying a document to be marked up, the first step was to convert the file into an XML format.  XML stands for Extensible Markup Language, which refers to its capacity to encode parts of a text. For example, when you want to make a word bold, you surround the word with tags (e.g. <b> word </b>) to mark that word as such. TEI expands on XML’s capabilities to enable users to tag features of the text like names, addresses, etc. This format was relatively easy to achieve with documents from the Georgia Newspaper Archive because the documents had already undergone the process of optical character recognition (OCR) which converted the image of the newspaper into plain text.

 The next step is to create a header. The TEI header offers a description of the file, encoding process, the text itself, and the revision history. After creating a header, I encode the body of the text outline the following aspects: 1) formatting and structure; 2) editorial changes and corrections; 3) elements; and 4) analysis.


The Georgia Historic Newspaper archive provides PDF versions of each original article. I searched the Metro Atlanta newspapers for references to “Darktown,” one of many shantytowns and slums that existed in the early twentieth century. Two articles came from a publication called the Sunny South and the other came from one called The Atlanta Georgian. I uploaded the files I used to Github.  In addition to the PDF files, I saved the excerpts of the article I was interested in as an XML file.

My search returned 90 pages from Atlanta newspaper that mentioned the city. After sorting by date, the oldest reference I found of Darktown was on October 9th, 1897 from a newspaper called the Sunny South.  This literary magazine was established in 1874 by J.H.  And W.B. Seals. The magazine’s purchased by the Atlanta Constitution in 1893 and during this time period it advocated for women’s suffrage. Joel Chandler Harris would later absorb the publication into his Uncle Remus Magazine in 1907. The paper would remain in circulation until 1913. The Atlanta Georgian newspaper, founded by Fred Loring Seely in 1906, got purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1912 and transformed into yellow journalism outlet. James M. Cox purchased it in the late 1930s along with The Atlanta Journal, thus forming the Atlanta Journal Constitution.


Many references to Black people in these towns referred to men who were enacting violence, particularly at public drinking establishments. I started out with the five oldest references, between 1897 and 1906. This first article in the Sunny South was titled “Books in Pawnshops” and focused on a claim published in the Atlanta Journal that people were selling their books for opioids. Published on October 9th, 1897, the reference to Darktown specifically stated: “In a window in the busiest part of the Darktown section of Decatur street may be seen some very handsomely bound volumes of Mulbach’s works, elegantly finished photograph albums and the works of other authors in neat coverings. The author never went on to clarify whether opioids was an inflection unique to Darktown, instead referencing the author whose work is being sold. Mulbach most likely refers to a German novelist living at the time. The article did, however, make  reference to Black people once again:

In many cases the books are bought more for ornament than use and it is no uncommon thing to see sets of handsomely bound books by famous authors in the humblest cottages of the laboring classes, and even in tile cabins of the ignorant negroes, who do not understand the contents of the books even when they are able to read them.

Thus at least within this article, we can see that even from the post-Civil War era, mainstream media has characterized Black people through the lens of White supremacy.  

On June 30, 1906, The Atlanta Georgian referenced A.P. Dunbar, a pastor of a church in Darktown that had elided state statues regarding the licensure of benevolent associations. Benevolent associations, which were one of the anchor institutions of the Black community, often relied on Black churches to facilitate their growth. Interestingly, my literature review failed to mention that the state intervened in these groups formation through licensure. However, this analysis indicates that one of the ways that recalibrating institutions disrupt Black community building is through licensing.

On July 30, 1906, the newspaper published an article titled “Frenzied Negro Shot His Wife and Policeman.” This piece provided a wealth of information in regard to not only how the media frames space, but also how the media frames Black residents. In this particular text, the Black person in question gets referenced only by his title (Major; a driver for the Morrow Transfer Company) and his last name (Crawford). While his wife, Estelle gets named, this occurs solely to inform the reader that she “is dead”  and “was shot.” The narrative framing of this particular story hints at the paper’s future as one of William Randolph Hearst’s forays into yellow journalism. Not only is the headline sensationalized, but the details themselves characterize Crawford as hyperaggressive. The quote that opens the story reads:

Enraged and inflamed by a combination of jealousy and liquor. Major Crawford , of 176 Fort streat, a negro driver for the Morrow Transfer Company , ran amuck with a loaded revolver Sunday afternoon shortly after 5 o’clock in Darktown , as a result of which his wife, Estelle Crawford, is dead, Bicycle Policeman Fincher is in the Grady hospital with two bullet wounds in his right leg, a crowd of fully 5,000 excited people was attracted to the scene, and the desperate and blood-thirsty negro came near being lynched by his own race.

Indeed, the characterization of Black people as wild and hyperaggressive. The Black people who witnessed the murder also got characterized:

The negroes were thoroughly incensed over the shooting of the negro woman and 5,000 gathered. There were wild cries of “hang him, hang him.”As soon as a report of the trouble was received at the police station a squad of policemen hurried to the scene on horses and these soon had the situation well in hand.

The August 04, 1906 issue of the Atlanta Georgian featured a section titled “Gossip of Statesmen and Politicians,” It is in this section I uncovered the first reference of Darktown that linked back to a stereotypical caricature of Black people.The reference to watermelon and Black people’s inclination towards it quick, satirical story about the secretary of the Georgia legislature at the time, Charles Northen:

Thursday morning the bottle, filled to the bursting point with cool, limpid Lithia aqua, invited the thirsty. By way of parenthesis, it is stated that the ‘cue to members was held Wednesday afternoon. And the crowd about the fount of coolness all during the session Thursday was about like a watermelon cutting in Darktown. And Secretary Northen smiled benignantly upon them, and now and then took a refreshing sip himself.

The reference to watermelon comes from a longstanding association of the descendants of enslaved Africans with the fruit. In this case, the reference arrives as a multifaceted satirical metaphor. Here the reference transforms the usual watercolor metaphor of the white collar American workplace into one the hints at the status dynamics of the workplace by way of the watermelon reference. The metaphor had proliferated in print and visual materials including advertisements, film, and even pornography. Historically, The image meant to debase Black people and has even survived into modern times, as Thomas F. Pettigrew writes:

The 2008 presidential campaign witnessed recurrent Republican slips that betrayed traditional racist thinking (Pettigrew, 2009; Staples, 2008). One Republican club issued false ten dollar bills with Obama’s picture accompanied by stereotyped African-American food – a watermelon, ribs and a bucket of fried chicken. The McCain campaign ran an advertisement claiming that Obama had been “disrespectful” to Governor Palin – the old Southern term recalling sanctions against Black men interacting with White women. Republican Representative LynnWestmoreland described Obama and his wife as “uppity.” And Republican Representative Geoff Davis called the then-47-year-old Obama, “Boy.”


This quick foray into the Darktown references in the Georgia Newspaper Archive reveals my inclination that the media is an institutional force in the lives of Black community residents is longstanding. Nevertheless, I am uncertain at this stage whether or not the media acts as a recalibrating institution or an intermediary role as far as white supremacy and Black community building are concerned.I still speculate that Black newspaper act as anchor institutions. However, Maxine Leeds Craig makes an argument that anchoring institutions like Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) might also function as what Pierre Bourdieu describes as “structuring structures”:

Black fraternities and sororities dominated campus social life. These organizations were examples of what Pierre Bourdieu calls “structuring structures,” key institutions for repro- ducing the tastes, strategies, and dispositions that comprised the conventional bearing of the Negro middle class.

So I think that pushes me to reflect more about the way that the Black middle class might use these institutions to disrupt the lives of Black women working in the sex industry historically. I believe my next steps are to repeat the process of studying references to Black neighborhoods historically in a different database, perhaps the ProQuest Historical Newspaper database. I also need to repeat the same process of searching for references to Black neighborhoods in a current newspaper database like the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  I need to then do the same process for the other cities in my analysis. Finally, I need to be able to do the same thing for Black venues, specifically strip clubs or dance halls (they appeared to be called club rooms in the early 20th century).


Craig, Maxine. 2002. Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dirks, Danielle, and Jennifer C. Mueller. 2007. “Racism and Popular Culture” Pp. 115 – 129 in Handbook of Sociology of Racial and Ethnic Relations. Vera, Hernán and Joe R. Feagin, eds. New York: Springer.

Love, Sinnamon. 2013. “Transforming Pornography : Black Porn for Black Women.” Guernica, 1–12.

Miller-Young, Mireille. 2014. A Taste for Brown Sugar. Durham: Duke University Press.

Moody, Mia. 2012. “From Jezebel to Ho: An Analysis of Creative and Imaginative Shared Representations of African-American Women.” Journal of Research on Women and Gender 4:74–94.

Pettigrew, Thomas F. 2017. “Social Psychological Perspectives on Trump Supporters.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology 5(1):107–16. Retrieved (