A Window to History: Hate in America

The Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection’s (CHNC) over 550 newspaper titles are broken down by categories: from Ghost Town publications to Ethnic Newspapers, CHNC has it all. As part of the Windows to History series of articles, we are spotlighting some of these categories and describe the rationale behind the development of the collection. We are beginning with an important one that requires some explanation: the Hate in America category.

To modern eyes, reading old newspapers can sometimes be jarring, or downright offensive. We accept, when browsing the archives, that old news cannot reflect the morality of the 21st century. We need not venture far into the archive to see sentiments—racist, sexist, and so forth—once published that would be considered unprintable in respectable journalism today. But there is one title in CHNC, The Durango Klansmen (1925)—a publication of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)—whose sole purpose was to spread the group’s hateful propaganda. CHNC also includes Protestant Nation, Protestant Herald, and The Rocky Mountain American in the database. Not necessarily “official” organs of the KKK, these publications showed support for the KKK or white supremacy more generally, although it is worth noting that many of the mainstream publications from this time period (the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries) routinely propagated the belief in the superiority of whites.

Why include hateful content in the CHNC?

There is an active debate about this very issue happening within historical preservation circles. CHNC is mindful of the fact that choosing to preserve hate speech presents an ethical dilemma to which there is no straightforward solution. There are, however, some crucial reasons why cultural heritage institutions such as CHNC decide to maintain such materials in a collection.

The goal of CHNC is to preserve the publications that have circulated in the state throughout its 145+ year history. CHNC collects and preserves Colorado’s print media history to the fullest extent possible, which necessarily means exposing the reprehensible aspects of history. CHNC’s mission is to gather any and all relevant publications that contribute to Colorado’s historical record. As we have seen, white supremacy is undeniably a facet of Colorado’s complex history and there are clear benefits of providing free and open access to the primary sources that offer tremendous potential for research and education, while serving as a potent reminder of hate, injustice, and inequity in America. The content of the Durango Klansmen is repulsive to most people. It represents some of the most painful realities of Colorado—and by extension US—history, which echo in the present day. The hope is to use such material as a means of reflecting on what came before, what persists, and what we aspire to be.

Statement on Harmful Language and Content in Newspaper Collections

The CHNC website includes the following policy on harmful language:

The Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection (CHNC) is a portal to millions of freely available newspaper articles published from 1859 to present day. The nature of historical materials, including newspaper content, often reflects biases and stereotypes towards people of color, people that identify as LGBTQ, and people from other marginalized communities; attitudes; beliefs and perspectives of the newspaper and often some members of their community during the time of publication. As such, some of the beliefs reflected are not consistent with current values and practices and users may find some of the material offensive and/or harmful.

The CHNC and our partners digitize historic newspapers to preserve and make available the historical record of our community. However we do not condone any harmful and offensive content that may be found in this collection, and we have a strong belief in and commitment to furthering equity, diversity, and inclusivity. We seek to balance the preservation of this history with sensitivity to how these materials are presented to and perceived by users.

We acknowledge we have a long way to go, but we actively work to share the stories of underrepresented communities in the CHNC. By doing this we hope to provide equal and equitable access to a comprehensive history that will allow users to juxtapose the dominant, establishment perspective of the historic mainstream news with underrepresented perspectives from Asian, Black, Latinx, Native American, LGBTQ and other communities also found within the CHNC. We believe that providing access to Colorado’s broad historical record is important for teaching, learning, research, and social change.

What can be done if CHNC content is found to be harmful or offensive? CHNC enables users to control the titles that are displayed in the search results through their own interaction with the collection. Registered users can simply log into their administrative account, navigate to “Restrict Titles” and choose from the available drop down menu of all titles within the collection.

Michael Peever