A few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an incredibly well-researched article about a lynching that was to have taken place in Pennsylvania on December 19, 1899.
As the story went, a black worker named David Pierce killed a white man named Sanford White. The day it happened, a reporter desperately hoping to get the scoop on the story got quite a bit of information wrong.
First, the name of the black worker, David Pierce, was actually George Templeton. Secondly, Mr. Templeton was not actually lynched. He was shot in the neck, and it makes sense that the reporter thought he was going to die. Thought Templeton fled, he was captured, brought to a hospital and stood trial. He was soon found guilty of second degree murder, and served seventeen years before being released.
Templeton’s capture, his trial and sentencing were all reported upon in the local press. The lynching of David Pierce – a lynching that never happened – was reported across the country. For the most part, lynchings are recorded and remembered by date, location and name, with the latter being the most important means of identifying the act.
Since the original reporter got the name wrong, there was no easy way to correct the false report of the lynching. George Templeton was never lynched and David Pierce never existed. An incident took place, but it did not end in a lynching. 1Sean D. Hamill, “Historic error: Region’s only recorded ‘lynching’ did not happen,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 18, 2016, Here.
In Steps White Nationalism
With the report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, lynching databases have struck the lynching of David Pierce from their records. That’s how history works. We find our mistakes, correct them, and move on.
But that’s not how some have handled it. The white nationalist news commentary website, Breitbart, got wind of the story, and spun it to fit their alt-right sensibilities.
In an article published on December 31, they claimed that “[t]he 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.” 2 Here.
“Activists in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area have used the “lynching” of African American fuel plant worker David Pierce as an example of the inequities heaped on minorities in the region for well over 100 years — a stain on the region’s history.”
While they used the Post-Gazette’s piece nearly verbatim throughout their own piece, Breitbart invented the story of Pittsburgh activists using the lynching.
In fact, pretty much nobody knew of the lynching. It was, like many lynchings, sitting in a database somewhere, mentioned once in a while by some random academic work on lynchings outside of the South.
Is This Really Fake News?
There has been a lot of talk recently about “fake news” and even a bit about “fake history.” This story is about neither, though both labels have been tossed around in conversations about it.
As far as the original report of the lynching is concerned, no, this isn’t fake news. It’s horrible reporting, of course, but nothing was intentionally invented by the original reporter.
What is actually fake news is the invention of Pittsburgh area activists using the nonexistent lynching to show how bad things are for minorities.
“Still, despite what really happened,” Breitbart concludes, “activists have been using this legend of the lynching of a non-existent black man as a rallying point for decades. And it is all based on a 117-year-old case of ‘fake news.'”
This recorded lynching was not ever used as such. There was no rallying point. There was no fake news involved in this story until Breitbart got a hold of it.
Why Would Breitbart Even Report On This?
There have been thousands of lynchings in our nation’s history, and yet Breitbart chose to focus upon this one.
It’s tempting to say that they implied that that if this lynching was falsely reported, then the multitude of others probably were as well. But then, this is never mentioned in their article. In fact, no other lynchings were even noted in their piece – and that is their real point.
Ignoring the history of lynching, they hold that “the real life black man in the story not only wasn’t lynched, but he had his day in court and even received a lesser sentence because his plea of self-defense was accepted.”
This is one of the cornerstones of white nationalism. See, they say, black people don’t have it bad now, and they really didn’t have it all that bad before – look at this one! He got his day in court!
Facts vs. Whitewashing
Proving that a lynching of a black man did not take place is just good history. It’s just as solid as proving that the lynching of a black man did take place. It is apolitical and scientific. It is, of course, not whitewashing.
However, to take that correction in the historical record and use it to say that minorities got the same deal as whites is the very definition of whitewashing. To then concoct a narrative of a century of wild rallying activists is just writing neo-nazi fan fiction.
But then, that’s Breitbart’s bread and butter.
For more information on how mistakes like this happen, see the Post-Gazette’s other article about it.
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