It was the perfect story for Breitbart's audience.
Journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently discovered that a local black man long believed to have been lynched in 1899 was instead tried, convicted of second-degree murder, imprisoned and eventually released. Breitbart — “the platform for the alt-right,” according to former chairman and current Donald Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon — picked up the Post-Gazette's report over the weekend.
This is how Breitbart's version begins:
The tale of the lynching of a black man in Pittsburgh back in 1899 has been used for decades to illustrate how bad the area was for minorities. But new research into the incident found that the story is a 117-year-old example of “fake news,” as it appears this famous “lynching” never actually occurred.
The subtext, for white readers: Just look at this bogus account of a lynching; it never actually occurred — and if this story wasn't true, it's probably fair to question any similar story. The true injustice is the guilt-tripping of contemporary white people by the media, academics and activists for stuff that happened a long time ago — or not at all.
As framed by Breitbart, the Post-Gazette's report is a comforting revelation for white readers who feel attacked by those dreaded social justice warriors. But here is a reality check, courtesy of Margaret A. Burnham, founder of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University: “It is far more common to uncover lynchings that made no list and were undisclosed.”
Burnham's group, created in 2007, researches decades-old acts of violence against racial minorities. Just a few months ago, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project discovered a third victim while investigating what had previously been recorded as a double lynching in Kemper County, Miss., in 1930.
“I applaud what the journalists at the Post-Gazette did,” Burnham said, “and also must say that they are adding to a record where the major problem is not a report of a lynching that didn't take place but the failure to report many lynchings that did take place.”
Because records of lynchings are incomplete, Burnham said, it is virtually impossible to get an accurate count. In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., published a report documenting about 4,000 lynchings in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950.
While the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's research did debunk an old horror story, it also confirmed the fear of racially motivated violence felt by African Americans, even in Northern states. The man at the center of the story, George Templeton, might not have been lynched, but he was chased by an angry mob and shot. He just happened to survive.
Some early newspaper accounts reported incorrectly that Templeton had died. The Chicago Tribune, which for decades published an annual list of lynchings, included Templeton (under a wrong name, David Pierce) on its list in 1899.
Anyway, it turns out that Templeton, accused of fatally shooting a co-worker during a scuffle, did not die. But the Pittsburg Press reported on Dec. 20, 1899, that Templeton “will be taken to Uniontown jail, strongly guarded as a precaution against the vengeance of the white people.”
The threat of lynching was very real.
Setting straight the historical record of Templeton's case was important — and an example of good journalism by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But context matters, too. This single, phantom lynching is vastly outnumbered by thousands of real ones and doesn't even begin to dent the big-picture reality of the era's racism.