Truth and its abdication in the News of the 1930s
While Yale in the 1930s saw growth and progress with the creation of the residential college system, the News’ coverage of those colleges and the University at large was largely regressive.
The Pierson College Newspaper in 1939. (Courtesy of Rebecca Amonor, with thanks to Yale Manuscripts and Archives for allowing her to reproduce the image)
Editor’s Note: This piece quotes the use of a racial slur.
Newspapers have an obligation to report the news as it is — to tell the truth boldly and state the facts plainly. But that responsibility becomes harder to meet when dealing with offensive and objectionable subjects. A reporter must square their duty to the details with a sensitivity to prejudice and an unwillingness to platform hateful ideologies for fear their piece may do more harm than good. It is only when a story is reported with the relevant facts put alongside necessary context that the truth is told. Between 1931 and 1980, the Yale Daily News did not report the truth about Pierson College and the racist mascot it held for over 50 years.
In 1933, the newly built residential college system changed the way that Yalies interacted with one another. The colleges divided students randomly but brought the students grouped into each college closer to one another, creating the sense of residential college pride we see at Yale today. Each college, in addition to a “master” and dean, was given a mascot. For Saybrook College, the seals; for Jonathan Edwards College, the spiders; and for Trumbull College, the bulls. Because Pierson College’s mini-courtyard was dubbed the “slave quarters” due to its contrast with the rest of the college’s grand, Georgian-brick architecture, Pierson was given the slaves as a mascot.
The name became a point of pride for Piersonites as they published their daily newsletter under the name The Pierson Slave and hosted “plantation” and “slave” parties. The News lent its legitimacy and platform to the ugliness surrounding the mascot. Throughout the 1930s, the News called Pierson “the slave college” in stories about intramural sports, published pieces describing Pierson’s “slave quarters” as a notable amenity, wrote stories about Pierson traditions like “Nigger Baby” and even went as far as to feature a photograph of a new editor of The Pierson Slave in manacles in an article about the newsletter’s third anniversary. These pieces demonstrate an enormous lapse in judgment of the News’ leadership and a huge failure in the publication’s journalistic integrity. The News continued to repeat these practices into the 1980s, until the nickname was dropped following protests by the Black Student Alliance at Yale — a full 16 years after the University admitted its first cohort of Black students.
Pierson College, however, was not alone in its racial insensitivity. In 1935, Saybrook College students dressed up in racist caricatures of Indigenous people for a celebration of “Empire Day.” Two years earlier in 1933, Elihu Yale’s sundial, a sculpture of a Black slave child carrying a sundial, was placed in Jonathan Edwards College. In all of its reporting about the sundial throughout the decade, the News never spoke to anyone who objected to its racist imagery. In fact, the News pointed to the sundial as a “point of pride” for JE.
In 1936, the News covered Berkeley College students playing “Nigger Baby,” a game in which an African American student stuck their head through curtains and attempted to dodge objects thrown at them by players. The News said the game was played for “exam relief.” Throughout the 1930s, the News regularly printed racial slurs and reported on offensive student groups like the “Ku Klux Klucks” and courses about the “negro and Indian problems,” published pieces that praised the debate skills of southern Yalies because they “harangue” their “negroes,” and ran quarter-page advertisements for student laundry services using racist images of a “primitive” African woman “beating her clothes clean on a flat rock.” Additionally, the News of the 1930s often quoted African Americans in Black dialect for humor. In at least three separate instances between 1930 and 1939 under the “Ten-Twenty Topics” column, the News mocked African Americans and what the News perceived to be the way Black people talk. These stories regularly used slurs to describe their Black characters and quoted them saying things like “yes suh,” “no suh” and “he’s a wu’thless nigguh.”
The News did not stop at printing these derogatory jokes about Black people; even a young Black shoe polisher who returned lost Yale-Princeton football tickets was unsafe from the News’ scorn. The child, whose name is Booker T. Wilson, was rewarded for returning the tickets with two tickets of his own “after a violent struggle with his baser nature,” the News wrote. In his excitement he was quoted describing how he wanted to take his sister to the game. “Ah’m gonna take ma sistah, Wilhelmina and we’re gonna have a time,” Wilson was quoted as saying. “We’re ain’t nevah seen nothin’ biggah than the West Haven games. Ah’m gonna yell loud.” The News reporters inserted their opinions into the story, turning an instance of a child returning lost property into an ugly and spiteful piece. That is not journalism — it is hate.
We here in the News today have to reckon with that legacy and try to do better in our obligation to tell the truth. The Yale Daily News failed that obligation many times in many ways in the 1930s, but it is through efforts like these to highlight those mistakes, no matter what unflattering or downright nasty history they turn up, that change can be made. The News of today looks very different from the News of the 1930s; we are more diverse, greater in number and, in many respects, better journalists than the reporters of almost a century ago. But that does not make us immune to those same mistakes and those same failures which have colored the coverage of that decade. We must remain vigilant in our commitment to reporting in search of truth.