Few North Carolina newspapermen were as fearless and forthright as William Oscar Saunders (1884-1940), who denounced hypocrisy and advocated progressive causes for almost 30 years in his Elizabeth City paper, the Independent. The weekly paper, in seven-column format and expanding from eight pages to twelve in 1920, drew wide attention for its compelling editorials. Therein Saunders opposed fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, and racial prejudice. He was an unrepentant liberal with a style akin to that of H. L. Mencken who wrote that, if the South had 40 editors like Saunders, it could be rid of its problems in five years. Saunders’s brand of personal journalism is largely unseen today. His break came with the sensational murder trial in Elizabeth City in 1901 following the death of Nell Cropsey, which Saunders had covered for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1908, Saunders started the Independent and ran it until financial difficulties forced its shuttering in 1937.
During a single term in the State House in 1919, Saunders advocated for abolition of the death penalty. Sarcastic and witty, he counted the powerful as his antagonists. Most notably, in 1924, he took on noted evangelist and antisemite Mordecai Ham, then in the midst of a seven-week tent crusade in Elizabeth City. The Independent denounced Ham, who had accused Sears president Julius Rosenwald of operating biracial brothels, as a “shrewd, vicious and uncompromising demagogue, a careless mouth-artist, an irresponsible bunk-shooter, and a stirrer up of strife, hatred and bigotry.” Scholars have compared their confrontation to that of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow at the Scopes Monkey Trial a year later. Saunders survived the ensuing firestorm, but, never popular locally, he moved to New York to pursue freelance writing. After only a year, however, he returned to Elizabeth City and the Independent.
The Independent‘s pages were filled with advertisements for products as varied as agricultural implements, automobiles, Victor and Edison phonographs and records, and groceries. World war memoirs, serialized fiction, and comic strips were regular features. Saunders contributed to the nationally distributed American Magazine, penning “The Autobiography of a Crank” for the January 1922 issue and “Why I Don’t Go to Church” in January 1928.
Saunders dreamed big for eastern North Carolina. He is given credit for the idea of situating the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, and he long advocated the construction of modern bridges to the Outer Banks. On a visit to Germany, Saunders attended a passion play and was inspired to imagine a similar outdoor production in North Carolina. He contacted Frederick Koch at the University of North Carolina who convinced Paul Green to write “The Lost Colony” about Roanoke. Saunders drowned in 1940 when his car plunged off a bridge while en route to Norfolk, Virginia. In 2004, his newspaper’s offices were razed during the construction of an addition to the public library notwithstanding efforts of local preservationists to save the building.