A couple of decades ago, Spy magazine pioneered the Nexis search as journalism — they’d gin up a query and publish the results as a chart in the front of the book, telling you (for instance) which dozen outlets had recently described vaguely blond public figures as Robert Redford look-alikes. (The LA Times said it of Cary Elwes and Fortune of Dick Gephardt in mid-1989.)
Nowadays, full-text newspaper archive searches let you take the game a step further, going beyond Nexis as journalism into the realm of Nexis as history. So when the late David Mills of Undercover Black Man went digging a few years ago, he discovered that between 1897 and 1968 The New York Times deployed the phrase giant negro on more than a hundred occasions.
Think about that for a moment. America’s paper of record found more than a hundred reasons to refer to black men as “giant negroes” in the 20th century, and they didn’t stop doing it until the late sixties.
Most of the Times’s giant negroes appeared in crime reporting, where they could be seen Attacking Police, Going Mad On Liners, or merely In Prison, but a few — like five-time NYT “giant negro” Paul Robeson — won lasting fame. Robeson received the GN treatment four times during the course of his college football career, and got a final nod in the 1926 write-up of his London stage debut in Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. (Robeson, of course, would go on to a world-changing career as a singer, actor, and activist. He was only six-foot-three, by the way, and weighed just 190 pounds when he enrolled at Rutgers.)