Jesse Chisholm Duke established African American newspapers, the Montgomery Herald and the Pine Bluff Herald, where he published anti-lynching articles and assisted Ida B. Wells in challenging the enforcement of state laws about lynchings.
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Jesse Chisholm Duke was born into slavery on March 7, 1853. He was raised on a plantation near Cahaba, Alabama. At 10 years old, he became the hired servant for a family of French refugees. The family's eldest daughter was a teacher and the first person to educate Duke.
In the 1870s, Duke became a teacher and also owned a grocery store. Duke married Willie Evelyn Black, who came from a family of respected businessmen. Duke and his wife were a financially well-off couple allowing their children to attend private school, a prospect most African American families could not afford.
In the 1880s, Duke became the publisher and editor of an African American newspaper called the Montgomery Herald. He wrote an editorial about the false accusations of rape that led to a local lynching. In his article, Duke discussed how a local white mob’s recent lynching of a black man for the alleged crime of raping a white woman was proven false after the discovery that the two parties were having a consensual affair. He examined the increased willingness of white women to engage in sexual liaisons with black men, noting “the growing appreciation of white Juliets for colored Romeos.” He also suggested that white mobs were all too willing to use the excuse of rape to justify the lynching of educated African American men making social strides. The white townspeople threatened Duke with violence, most likely in the form of lynching, in response to his article. He was forced to flee from Montgomery.
After fleeing from Montgomery, Duke settled in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Duke became the editor of another African American newspaper when the Republican changed its name to the Hornet. He remained editor until the Hornet suspended operations in 1885. In 1889, Duke became editor and publisher of the Echo, another African American newspaper in Pine Bluff.
In 1900, Duke established his own newspaper, the Pine Bluff Weekly Herald. He and his family became well-respected in Pine Bluff. As a member of the African American middle-class, Duke built a large home three miles outside the city limits and became involved in church activities along with civic and social organizations.
Duke used his influence to assist Ida B. Wells, a fellow African American journalist and anti-lynching activist, in challenging the enforcement of state laws about lynching. The response in Montgomery to Duke’s articles foreshadowed the response that Wells received in Memphis, Tennessee. Wells also wrote anti-lynching articles in the Memphis Free Speech. She examined the rape-lynching paradigm and further connected the use of these lynchings to terrorize African American communities and reinforce white supremacy in the South.
Duke wrote anti-lynching articles that criticized white journalists for turning a blind eye to the epidemic of white men fathering children with African American women without taking care of them. He condemned the courts for choosing all-white juries that supplied the convict labor system with a wealth of African American men. Duke also led the Alabama Colored Press Association, Alabama's first state organization of African-American newspaper editors, when it was first established.
In 1905, Duke’s son, architectural engineer Charles Sumner Duke, became the first African American graduate in mathematics at Harvard University.
On January 23, 1916, Duke died in Chicago, Illinois, at the age of sixty-three. On January 27, 1916, he was buried in Pine Bluff.
The Library of Congress now has the 1886 to 1887 issues of the Montgomery Herald in its collection.
DuRocher, K. (August 25, 2016). Ida B. Wells: Social Activist and Reformer. (pg. 65). Routledge.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard