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The State's swashbuckling founding editor and the Milkshake Duck
The son of a Cuban emigre, Narciso Gonzales could write like hell and fearlessly spoke truth to power, but there's a big, insurmountable "but."
“Shoot again, you coward.”
In a more cinematic world, these would have been Narciso Gonzales’ last words.
They were not, in the end, his last words. Mainly because it took Gonzales four days to die slowly, painfully from an infection caused by the gunshot wound that had ripped clean through his abdomen. The attack — delivered by South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, in broad daylight, at the corner of Main and Gervais — had been prompted by nothing more than Gonzales using the written word to expose his murderer’s public lies and and corruption, helping to doom Jim Tillman’s 1902 campaign for governor. The accusations, which Gonzales backed up with solid reporting made possible by three decades of doggedly working the statehouse beat, had been printed in the newspaper of which he was the founding editor: The State.
I received 17 years of public education in the state of South Carolina — including eight years within three miles of the intersection of Main and Gervais. I grew up reading the newspaper Gonzales founded and died serving. I have spent the past 12 years in journalism-adjacent occupations. And yet I did not learn about Gonzales or this event until a few months ago, at the age of 36, sitting behind a computer screen in Ohio, reading someone else’s Substack.
“I never had anything against ‘Jim’ Tillman except that he was a man without character, and therefore unfit for public office and both disgraceful and dangerous in it.” - N.G. Gonzales
Upon learning this story, I wondered how it’s possible that the city of Columbia hasn’t spent the past 100+ years absolutely brimming with wide-eyed high school newspaper editors, itching to ship out to Mizzou or Northwestern before returning to Columbia to continue Gonzales’ unfinished business. (Or, for that matter, how it’s possible that USC doesn’t have a world-class Narciso Gonzales School of Journalism on which the state budget spares no expense.) In those moments, it strained credulity that every child didn’t grow up hearing tall tales of Gonzales’ mighty pen and his unflinching resolve to carry on with his work, which included invectives against barbaric practices like child labor and convict leasing.
After all, rare is the South Carolina historical figure whose works one can look to with unabashed admiration and a feeling of state pride — pride you that you don’t have to preface with caveats like “well, you have to understand that everyone was incredibly racist at the time.” And here was the son of a Cuban immigrant who rose from financial ruin to become the most influential journalist in the Palmetto State and made a name for himself telling truth to power. So it was with great enthusiasm that I reserved from my public library a copy of Lewis Pinckney Jones’ 1973 biography of Gonzales, Stormy Petrel: N.G. Gonzales and His State and —
We regret to inform you that Narciso Gonzales was incredibly racist
I have to tell you: between Gonzales’ status as a first-generation Cuban-American citizen and his opposition to the Tillman clan, I absolutely did not see this one coming. But Narciso Gonzales was a white supremacist. And not in the increasingly broad sense that “white supremacist” is often used today. Gonzales’ version of white supremacy was the old-fashioned kind, where you explicitly state your belief that whites are the superior race and that your entire political project is to further entrench the existing racial hierarchy.
For example, while en route to boarding school in Virginia, Gonzales stopped in D.C. and noted in a private letter that he “saw crowds of n******s who seemed to enjoy such social equality with the whites that it was sickening.” Gonzales celebrated the United States’ involvement in the 1893 coup d’etat of the Hawaiian Kingdom, writing in The State that, “The white race is to have dominion of the world, for the world’s good.”
In Stormy Petrel, Jones writes that Gonzales was even a supporter of the white supremacist paramilitary terrorist group known as the Red Shirts, thought to be responsible for the deaths of 150 black citizens. The killings took place during a violent campaign of voter suppression efforts during the 1876 gubernatorial election. There’s nothing to suggest Gonzales himself participated in any violence, but he did help organize on behalf of the white Redeemers who sought (and achieved) an end to the multi-racial democracy facilitated by Reconstruction.
It would be one thing if Gonzales was a great journalist who merely happened to be racist. But much of Gonzales’ journalism was steeped in his explicitly racist political project. His first big scoop came in 1876, when Gonzales — in his capacity as a telegraph operator — received dispatches from the epicenter of the Combahee riots, where black workers went on strike to express their frustration with being paid in paper checks that could only be redeemed at stores owned by plantation owners, which “sold inferior goods at exorbitant rates.” The Red Shirts came in to put down the uprising, and Gonzales began sending in pro-Red Shirt dispatches to the Charleston News & Commerce.
“Wait. How did a Cuban-American become a white supremacist?”
It’s a decent question! After all, with a name like Narciso Gonzalez, there was little disguising his immigrant heritage (though Narciso and his brothers did, at various points, go by anglicized versions of their names); Tillman and other political opponents often derisively referred to Gonzales as “the Spaniard”; and Gonzales and his brother Ambrose temporarily left their positions running The State to fight in the Cuban War of Independence — a cause that was the great unfinished business of their father, who died impoverished and in exile.
But even today, for many reasons, white supremacists aren’t always white. And for Gonzales in particular, he seems to have identified strongly with the Elliotts, his mother’s side of the family, which had enslaved black people on their Oak Lawn plantation in the Lowcountry. The Civil War and Emancipation left the Elliotts destitute and heavily reliant on whatever remittances the wayward Gonzales patriarch could send back home; this state of affairs left them deeply embittered toward the Radical Republicans and Reconstruction policies.
Gonzales’ life experiences after he left Oak Lawn seemed to be slowly chipping away at the prejudices he grew up with, pushing him in a more progressive direction (in the early-1900s sense of the word “progressive”). Such was Gonzales’ progressive reputation that when Jim Tillman shot him, President Theodore Roosevelt had aides keeping him updated on Gonzales’ condition. Had Gonzales lived beyond the age of 44, who knows where his allegiances may have shifted as the sub-faction of the Democratic party he supported slowly lost any semblance of power and eventually disappeared.
One of the earliest instances of Gonzales’ heterodox conservatism is seen in his reporting on the conditions of prisoners in the convict-leasing system. Though convict leasing was a clear attempt to reconstitute slavery and restore a semblance of the antebellum racial order that Gonzales supported, he nevertheless became a sharp critic of the practice, attacking it “over and over,” writing features “revealing the revolting conditions under which they worked and lived.”
Initially supporting child labor on the grounds that it would help the South compete with the North, Gonzales eventually changed his mind, writing poetically:
“These little fellows of six and eight and ten are one day to become our voters … They are to say in the years to come who shall be our governors, who shall make our laws, who shall administer the statues, who shall pay taxes, who shall spend them. Can the fruit be any better than the tree that bears it? Can we hope for light from those who are bred in darkness?”
Prior to the 1935 Wagner Act, the dominant view of labor unions was that they were, in all cases, an illegal, communist conspiracy. But Gonzales took heat from the cotton mill operators for occasionally siding with the unions. The State itself was a union shop from its earliest days, and Jones writes that the typesetters enjoyed harmonious negotiations with the Gonzales brothers.
Gonzales doggedly investigated the murders of three black men in “Lawless Laurens,” even after the locals he was interviewing for leads began issuing death threats. In the pages of The State Gonzales inveighed against extrajudicial killings of black men, even as he supported tying voting rights to property ownership. “In brief,” Jones writes in Stormy Petrel, “his policy became one of justice but not equality for the Negroes.”
Jones also posits the somewhat cynical (though not implausible) theory that Gonzales’ may have been driven further left on lynching and other issues concerning treatment of black citizens — not out of genuine concern for his fellow man, but because his rivalry with Ben Tillman prompted a thermostatic reaction.
As late as 1876, Gonzales and Ben Tillman (future governor, uncle of Gonzales’ eventual murderer) were on the same side, each “donning the Red Shirt” as Wade Hampton’s election heralded the end of multi-racial democracy in South Carolina. But with the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of single-party rule, Tillman’s populist insurgency posed a new danger to conservative Democrats like Gonzales. Pitchfork Ben and his Farmers Revolt threatened to split the white vote along class lines, allowing white Republicans, or [gasp] even blacks, to retake power.
By 1890, Tillman had the governorship and his Farmers Revolt had control of the Democratic party. But Gonzales was not ready to cede control of the party and felt he had a role to play in winning it back. Namely, by waging war against Tillman in the pages of the News & Courier. But Gonzales was unsatisfied with the Charleston paper’s apparent readiness to get in line behind Tillman, so he quit. And a few months later, he published the first edition of The State.
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So … what do we do with Narciso Gonzales?
On. Feb. 18, 1891, Gonzales launched the largest paper in South Carolina (eight pages, six columns apiece), printing 3,000 copies in its first edition, in a city populated by just 16,000 people. While it was still struggling to turn a profit, The State survived despite a recession and while competing against eight other Palmetto State dailies. The paper endured through financially challenged early years in large part due to Gonzales and his “mosaic” editorials, which were always signed “NGG” and covered everything from public education to personal feuds with the editors of rival papers.
He refused to pull his figurative punches, even when they invited actual punches from the aggrieved publisher of the pro-Tillman Columbia Register. Gonzales dismissed such worries to the bitter end, writing that a “newspaper devoted to principle may fail; but one without principle must.”
“With the ideal of unflinching public service, [Narciso Gonzales] repeatedly risked his life. In controversy he was often overbearing and relentlessly pursued his antagonist, rubbing salt in the wounds which his shafts had made. His faults were virtues carried to excess.” -D.D. Wallace
There is a great deal to admire in how Narciso Gonzales approached his work. And yet there’s the inescapable reality is that so much of his life and his work was spent in service of unapologetic hatred. So, do we praise him as a journalistic hero or condemn him as a racist villain? Maybe it’s possible to do both. But South Carolina history texts have been notoriously poor at dealing with that kind of nuance.
A 1997 scholarly review of Department of Education-approved textbooks, including editions that were currently in use, found that “they claim or imply that Radical Reconstruction was evil” (there are even passages of Stormy Petrel that appear sympathetic to this view, or that are at least unwilling to challenge its subjects’ expression of such views), that “the Ku Klux Klan was necessary for the survival of white South Carolinians” and “that the Constitution of 1895 and its Black Codes were important for the survival of white South Carolina.”
In other words, the writers of these textbooks expressed a view of race and history they might well have learned from reading Narciso Gonzales. And teaching these views to future generations of South Carolinians necessitated the distortion, omission, and rearrangement of critical facts. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the fact of Narciso Gonzales’ contribution to journalism appears to have been among those that were lost in the shuffle.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the first edition of The State was published in 1981. Since Narciso Gonzales died 78 years earlier, that would have been one hell of an achievement.