Culture and Trends ›

The NYT Is Publishing Great Black Americans' Obituaries After the Fact

Getty Images / General Photographic Agency

The newspaper continues its project to correct historical biases in reporting

The history of the U.S. is full of the accomplishments of great African-Americans. But that hasn't always been a fact you'd find reflected in the obituary pages of U.S. newspapers. The obituary page — for instance, that of the New York Times, our country's "newspaper of record" — is where fame, talent, and ingenuity have always been summed up as a notable life comes to a close. That is, if that notable person was white.

The New York Times editorial staff is correcting a longstanding bias with their series "Overlooked." "Overlooked" launched last year with a focus on the women of all races who merited major news coverage when they died, but didn't get it. This February, the scope of "Overlooked" is being expanded for Black History Month as it shifts to focus on notable black people, both men and women.

You've probably seen death notices for plenty of African-Americans, because anyone can place a death notice. Those are the paid announcements, usually written by a family member or funeral director, that tend to include funeral service information, basic biographical details, and a list of family members who survive the deceased. Most Americans will be remembered with a death notice when their lives come to a close.

But the journalistic obituaries written by a newspaper's editorial staff are a different kind of thing. Only those deemed newsworthy enough to merit a writer's time and effort will make it into those pages. And for most of the history of the New York Times (and almost all other U.S. newspapers, too), most of the newsmakers remembered with journalistic obituaries have been white men. 

That's due in part to the way our society restricted opportunities for women and people of color throughout much of our history. It's true that it has historically been just plain harder to become rich and/or famous if you weren't a white man. But that's not the only explanation for the imbalance. There have most certainly been African-Americans who, by any standard, should have been honored with New York Times obituaries — it just didn't always happen.

For example: One of the first obituaries published this month in "Overlooked" is for Scott Joplin. His name is probably familiar, and his music is almost certainly so. The pianist and composer of "The Entertainer" and "Maple Leaf Rag" was successful and widely known in his day, and his music has endured for more than a century. Even though his fame waned in the last years of his life, he had been a notable figure not so long before. 

If Joplin died in 2019, having released a massive hit 15 years ago, he absolutely would warrant a news obituary. But the U.S. was a very different place in 1917, and his death went unnoticed by the newspaper of record. The same goes for notables including bicycle racing champ Major Taylor, fashion designer Zelda Wynn Valdes, and "first black movie star" Nina Mae McKinney. They're a few of the people remembered with newly written obituaries in the New York Times this week, decades after their deaths.

Since the New York Times launched "Overlooked" last year with a focus on women, they've published more than 50 retroactive obituaries for women who should have been remembered at the times of their deaths. With their newly widened focus, they have a chance to correct even more imbalances in the history of their coverage. 

If you know of a notable black person who didn't have an obituary in the New York Times when they died — but should have — you can suggest them for inclusion in the project. Just fill out their form to provide your input into their correction of the historical record.

Is there someone you miss whose memory should be honored with an obituary? Try Legacy's ObitWriter tool to begin preserving a life story.