On Tuesday, The Inquirer published the first chapter of A More Perfect Union, a yearlong special project examining the roots of systemic racism in the nation and their continued impact through institutions founded in Philadelphia.

The chapter, titled “Black City. White Paper,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery and edited by contributor Errin Haines, is a deep look at The Inquirer itself — examining the paper, first published in 1829, as an institution and its role in “perpetuating inequality for generations.” The Inquirer’s top editors were not involved in the editing of the story, which was based on dozens of interviews with current and former staffers, historians, and Philadelphians.

The story weaves through some of The Inquirer’s history, from the period when it brought on its first Black staffers to a reckoning it continues to face after publishing a racist headline in the June 2020 as protesters took over streets to seek justice for George Floyd, a Black man killed at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Here are four takeaways from Lowery’s report.

The Inquirer’s founding mission has yet to be fulfilled

The report uses a quote and slogan central to The Inquirer as a through line, juxtaposing those words against the paper’s history and its current mission to be an “anti-racist” newsroom. In 2020, The Inquirer promised change after facing widespread scrutiny for publishing the racist headline: “Buildings Matter, Too.”

Lowery points to a phrase from the paper’s cofounder, John Norvell, which is now displayed on a newsroom wall: “In a free state, there should always be an inquirer asking on behalf of the people.”

And about a century later, Moses Annenberg, former owner, pledged for The Inquirer to “uphold the principles of our American democracy and reflect the diversity of the growing city.” That’s when “An independent newspaper for all of the people” began to show up as the paper’s front-page logo.

But The Inquirer, Lowery writes, is “forced … to face the reality that it, much like the democracy born in this city, has failed to fulfill the ideals of its founding.”

He writes: “Rather than being an ‘inquirer for all,’ as its motto proudly claims, the paper has for the whole of its history been written largely for and by white Philadelphians, and largely at the expense of the Black residents who currently constitute a plurality of the city.”

» READ MORE: Freedom and inequality were born in Philadelphia. It's not too late to build a more perfect union. | Opinion

It took generations to begin diversifying

While the paper was first published in 1829, The Inquirer wouldn’t see its first Black journalist until a century later in Joseph V. Baker, who wrote a Black news column that ran from the 1930s through the early 1950s.

But the “first baby step toward truly desegregating its full-time newsroom” came in 1954 when Robert “Bob” A. Thomas became the paper’s first Black full-time staff reporter.

A frustrated Thomas eventually left the paper a decade later.

”It really got to the point that I hated to be referred to as the first and only Black reporter for The Inquirer,” Thomas said.

Powerful anecdotes from inside the newsroom

Anecdotes from former Inquirer staffers outline the frustrating environment some were left to navigate without a newsroom that properly reflected the diversity of Philadelphia.

Years after Maida Odom joined The Inquirer as a reporter in 1978, an editor described her behavior as “Aunt Jemima goes to war” after she complained about another desk poaching a scoop of hers, Lowery reported.

An editorial that made its way to publication in 1990 that suggested “Black women be incentivized to take birth control” forced Black staffers to protest, while a white female editor told a Latina reporter that Mexican American singer Selena’s death wasn’t an Inquirer story.

“If I had thought that The Inquirer was taking the aspirations of any Black reporter seriously, I might have stayed,” Cynthia Tucker, an Inquirer reporter in 1980, told Lowery. “It didn’t seem like there was a future there for you.”

Progress has been made, but there’s still a ways to go

Since it published the racist headline in 2020, The Inquirer has taken steps toward becoming an anti-racist institution. It has set up committees made up of newsroom volunteers who examine policy and processes, as well as adopted an anti-racism workflow guide, and made use of a Slack channel where staffers can give feedback on coverage of sensitive issues.

Though, there’s plenty of work ahead. Still, Black Philadelphians aren’t convinced that change will happen.

“When you talk to regular Black Philadelphians, if you ask them ‘Does The Inquirer speak for you? Does it speak for your community?’ Most Black Philadelphians will say no,” the Rev. Mark Tyler, senior pastor at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, told Lowery. “I don’t know if The Inquirer is capable of the change that is needed, just like I don’t know that America is capable of the change that is needed. But I desperately hope that it is…The Inquirer is still the paper of record in Philadelphia. What it prints matters.”

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