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The 5 newspapers that won Pulitzer Prizes for articles about North Dakotans

"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen runs through the newspapers that received journalism's top award for covering North Dakota people and events.

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The Security Building, the first downtown building to go up in flames in Grand Forks, stands in ruins on April 20, 1997. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald file photo
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Did You Know That...

Five newspapers have received the Pulitzer Prize, journalism's most coveted award, for a series of articles that focused largely on people who lived in North Dakota. Three were North Dakota newspapers: the Bismarck Tribune, The Fargo Forum, and the Grand Forks Herald. The fourth paper was the New York World, which told the tragic story of a 22-year-old man from Munich, N.D. The fifth paper was the Arkansas Gazette that reported about the federal judge from Grand Forks who ordered an end to segregation in American schools.

In 1924, the New York World was awarded the Pulitzer “for its work in connection with the exposure of the Florida peonage evil.” In 1919, the Florida Legislature prohibited the leasing of prisoners to private firms, but it still continued in some areas.

One of those areas was in Leon County. There, the sheriff would round up young men and charge them with vagrancy. The local judge would then fine them $25 and, if they could not pay the fine, they were shipped off to the Putnam Lumber Co., where the prisoner was forced to do manual labor in a swampy area of the state. The sheriff and judge would get a monetary kickback from the lumber company.

Martin Tabert was a 22-year-old from Munich who decided, in 1921, to do agricultural work in Florida during the winter, and then return home in the spring. However, during that winter there was a glut of farm produce coming in from Europe and, consequently, the price farmers received for their produce plummeted and farm owners were forced to release many of their workers, and one of those released was Tabert.

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Without work, he needed to return to North Dakota, but he did not have enough money to pay for a train ticket home. He hopped on a freight train and was caught by a deputy sheriff, arrested and appeared before Judge Ben Willis in Tallahassee, who fined him $25. Tabert cabled his parents requesting money to pay the fine, which they promptly did, but the sheriff returned the money because Martin had already been shipped off to the lumber company, 60 miles away.

Working in the swamp, Martin quickly came down with malaria and, because he was too sick to keep up with the other workers, he was brutally whipped, on several occasions, by Walter Higginbotham, the “whipping boss,” and died. Martin’s family hired Gudmundur Grimson as their attorney to investigate what happened. Grimson contacted the New York World, which assigned Samuel “Duff” McCoy to cover the story.

McCoy wrote 50 articles about what was going on in Florida, and his stories caused the Florida Legislature to revise 18 laws and outlaw the whippings of prisoners. Willis was removed as judge and Higginbotham was sentenced to prison for 20 years, but because of political maneuvering, he never spent a day behind bars. In 1924, the World received the Pulitzer Prize in public service for the articles.

In 1958, the Pulitzer Prize winner in Public Service went to the staff of the Arkansas Gazette for “demonstrating the highest qualities of civic leadership, journalistic responsibility and moral courage” for reporting about the desegregation of all-white Little Rock Central High School. The central character in that decision was Federal Judge Ronald Davies from Grand Forks. In September of 1957, he ordered the school officials to “immediately allow black students” to attend that school.

Because of a prolonged drought during the 1930s, the prairie states of the U.S. suffered from “severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture.” North Dakota was one of the states that was included in what became known as the Dust Bowl.

In an attempt to assist farmers in coping with this hardship, George Mann, editor and publisher of the Bismarck Tribune, began running a series of articles and editorials in 1933 that he called “Self Help in the Dust Bowl."

These articles were full of encouragement and they told about new methods of farming, pointing out how the rich topsoil could be saved, and that farming in North Dakota could once again prove to be a profitable vocation. Unfortunately, Mann died on March 26, 1936, and his efforts were continued by Kenneth Simons, the managing editor of the Tribune who later became editor of the newspaper.

The jurors for the Pulitzer Prize committee met in 1938 to judge the winner in the Public Service category, and the Tribune ended up tied with the San Francisco News, which had run a number of articles about vice and corruption in their city. The judges concluded that the Tribune story was more timely, and named it the winner.

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At 8 p.m. June 20, 1957, a violent and deadly F5 tornado swept through parts of Fargo and Moorhead, killing 10 people, injuring 103 others and causing damage estimated at $25.25 million. “Proceeding under considerable difficulty and overcoming many handicaps, a small but skilled staff (of the Fargo Forum) put out a complete tornado edition within five hours after the disaster.” That edition included the names of those who had died and was filled with photographs.

For their incredible coverage, the Forum was “the 1958 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Local Reporting” for reporting on deadline. What I find even more remarkable was it happened while The Forum was going through a transition of editorship.

John Paulson was just taking over the editor position from his father, Happy Paulson. Norman D. Black Jr. was the publisher, and it appears much of the credit for pulling the crew together for this Herculean task was Cal Olson, chief photographer of the newspaper. Olson’s photo of Dick Shaw carrying the dead body of Jeannette Munson through the surrounding carnage is unforgettable.

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Richard Shaw, 21, tenderly cradles the body of 5-year-old Jeanette Irene Munson, one of six Munson children killed by the 1957 tornado. Cal Olson / Forum file photo
The Forum

The fourth Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles that showed the direct involvement of North Dakotans was the coverage of the 1997 Red River flood by the Grand Forks Herald. The winter of 96-1997 was extremely harsh as eight blizzards struck the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks area. With the spring thaw, the Red River began to rise, and the citizens of the two cities were protected by temporary dikes for a crest of up to 49 feet. However, the actual flood crested at 54.33 feet.

On April 18, the Red River began overrunning the dikes, and residents who lived along the river were forced to evacuate. The next day, floodwaters had spread over large areas of the two cities, and 60,000 people were forced to flee from their homes. That same day, a fire broke out in downtown Grand Forks, destroying 11 buildings in three blocks.

One of the buildings was the offices of the Grand Forks Herald, but the staff continued to work from other locations and the paper continued to be published. By having a daily newspaper, many residents maintained a feeling the community was still connected.

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Not only was the newspaper awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its public service articles, but it also received recognition for the photography. This was perhaps best exemplified by the photograph taken by Eric Hylden of the burned-out Security Building standing in floodwater in downtown Grand Forks.

In 1998, the Herald received its Pulitzer Prize when Columbia University President George Rupp personally presented the award to Mike Jacobs, editor of the Herald.

Next week, we will look at individual recipients of the Pulitzer Prize.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com.

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Curt Eriksmoen, "Did You Know That" columnist.

Related Topics: FAMILYHISTORY
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