DG MARTIN COLUMN: Frank Daniels Jr. — strong to the end

When Frank Daniels Jr. died June 30, people lined up across the state to express admiration and appreciation for his service and contributions to North Carolina. He was praised for his and his family’s importance to the state through their ownership of The Raleigh News & Observer.

As president and publisher, Daniels hired progressive editors including Claude Sitton, who had gained a national reputation as The New York Times leading reporter in the South during the Civil Rights Movement.

With Daniels’ support, the N&O pushed the state and region away from their conservative roots. Its liberal opinion pages and hard-hitting news stories gained it the nickname “The Nuisance & Disturber.”

His obituary explained, “A yellow-dog Democrat, Frank Jr. offered support to many of North Carolina’s most successful politicians including Governors Hodges, Sanford, Moore, Scott, Hunt, Easley, Perdue and Cooper.”

Ironically, the N&O’s founder and Frank Daniels Jr.’s grandfather, Josephus Daniels, was a confirmed racist who helped engineer the 1898 coup that brought about the overthrow of the Wilmington city government and resulted in the massacre of scores of black Wilmington residents.

Josephus’ views were, however, complicated, as explained by N. C. State professor Lee Craig in his book, “Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times.” Josephus was also viewed as one of the most influential progressive politicians in the country. President Woodrow Wilson made him secretary of the navy during World War I., making him Craig asserts one of the most important men in the world.
Craig continues, “I’ve become comfortable with the contradictions of the man. He was a progressive, a warm-hearted family man, a man who genuinely cared about the country’s less fortunate and downtrodden, at least as he defined them. Yet at the same time, he was a white supremacist, who used the coercive powers of the state to keep blacks in a socially and economically inferior state for generations.”

Frank Daniels Jr. took over the leadership of the N&O in 1968, succeeding his uncle Jonathan Daniels and the founder of the N&O, Josephus Daniels.

At Frank Daniels Jr.’s funeral, his son Frank III explained how his father and the family dealt with the community’s changing views about Josephus.

“You are probably aware that over the past several years, the family has been reckoning with increased attention to Josephus Daniels’ role in our state’s history of racial inequity. Like many prominent men of his time, Josephus was a white supremacist and, sadly, used his newspaper to support those views.

“When cousin David Woronoff and I sat down to talk with dad about taking down Josephus’ statue in Nash Square and the repercussions that would likely come, it was clear how sad it made him. The Josephus he knew was not that man, but a kind grandfather who loved him and who built a business that allowed our family to prosper. However, he did not hesitate to say that he trusted us, and he knew we had to be proactive and try and do the right things on our own, and not put others in the position of having to demand them of us.

“Over the space of days, we took the statue down, the school board renamed Daniels Middle School, North Carolina State University renamed Daniels Hall, and his University of North Carolina suggested we take Josephus’ name off our scholarship plan there.

“Those were some tough blows for him, and it was heartbreaking to me because my experience of watching him…is that his views were 180 degrees from those of his grandfather.”

Handling tough situations was Frank Jr.’s special strength. The decisive way he and the Daniels family handled Josephus’ legacy should be a challenging example for any family whose beloved ancestors had white supremacy views that would be unacceptable today.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”