Walter Scott Copeland was born on March 14, 1856, in Jackson, North Carolina, and was the son of a physician, Winfield Scott Copeland, and Katharine E. Randolph Copeland. After receiving his early education at a Jackson academy, he attended the University of Virginia from 1874 to 1876 but left without receiving a degree.
Copeland began his newspaper career with the Petersburg Index-Appeal before moving to the Norfolk Virginian, of which he was city editor. He established the Petersburg Mail early in 1883 and ran it for approximately a year. In 1884 Richard Lewellen sold Copeland an interest in the Danville Register. After the deaths of Lewellen in 1886 and his wife in 1887, Copeland and two partners assumed full ownership of the Danville newspaper. From December 1888 to March 1890 Copeland and one of his partners also owned the Roanoke Times. He remained associated with the renamed Danville Daily Register, for much of the time as editor, until about 1893, when he sold his stake in the paper and moved to Richmond in time to play a leading role in the consolidation of that city’s newspaper business. He purchased an interest in the Richmond State but sold it in 1896 and joined the editorial staff of the Richmond Times. Copeland helped owner Joseph Bryan establish the Evening Leader as an afternoon companion to the Times and became editor of the evening paper in 1897 while still working on the morning paper. In 1901 and 1902 Copeland participated in negotiations that culminated in the merger of four Richmond newspapers into one morning newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and one afternoon paper, the Richmond News Leader. In January 1903 he became the first editor of the Times-Dispatch.
Copeland married Mary Augustina Christian, of Petersburg, on October 13, 1885. They had one daughter before his wife’s death in 1902. On April 25, 1906, he married Grace Beale Cunningham, of Richmond. They had one daughter and one son. Copeland resigned as chief editorial writer of the Times-Dispatch in 1908 and purchased the Newport News Times-Herald. Three years later he added the Newport News Daily Press to his holdings and by 1913 was president of the Daily Press, Incorporated, and editor and publisher of both newspapers. Held in high esteem by his journalistic peers, he served four terms as president of the Virginia Press Association, in 1902, 1906, 1907, and 1925.
While in Richmond, Copeland aligned himself with the city’s leading Progressive-era reformers. He worked throughout the first decade of the twentieth century to improve educational and welfare institutions in the city and the state. To that end, Copeland lent personal and editorial support to the, the Richmond Education Association, the Southern Education Board, and the Virginia Conference of Charities and Corrections. In particular, he supported increased state funding for education, longer school terms, creation of school libraries, compulsory attendance laws, and enhanced state involvement in the running of charities, asylums, prisons, and reformatories. Like his colleagues on these boards, Copeland approached reform from an essentially paternalistic and conservative point of view, envisioning it as necessary for social peace and stability.
Although reform advocates such as Copeland recognized the necessity of improving the lives of black Virginians, educational and welfare improvements in the state accrued disproportionately to white Virginians. Progressivism was, in this sense, for whites only. Nevertheless, some of Copeland’s editorial stances dovetailed with the interests of black citizens. When the Ku Klux Klan made inroads in the 1920s, Copeland denounced the organization and supported a citywide ban on the wearing of masks in public. In addition, he served for about a decade as a state curator for land-grant funds at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). In that capacity he and his wife regularly came into contact with the students and faculty of the school, particularly at commencement exercises and entertainment functions.
One such performance led to a series of events that sullied Copeland’s legacy in later years. In February 1925 his wife attended a dance recital at Hampton’s Ogden Hall. Arriving late and unaccompanied by her husband, she was seated next to a group of black patrons. Three weeks later, Copeland launched a blistering attack on Hampton officials in which he accused them of teaching and practicing social equality between the white and black races. The school denied the charges and insisted that seating practices at Ogden Hall in no way promoted social equality. Copeland’s diatribe particularly shocked the editor of the state’s largest black newspaper, Plummer Bernard Young, of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, who had considered Copeland a moderating influence in racial matters.
Copeland joined forces with John Powell, a famed composer and pianist who in 1922 helped found the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, a Richmond-based organization grounded in the eugenics movement and devoted to maintaining the racial and cultural purity of whites. In 1924 Powell and his supporters had persuaded the General Assembly to pass the Virginia Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, a draconian statute that prohibited whites from marrying anyone who could not prove that his or her ancestry did not include any individuals considered nonwhite. Powell remained unsatisfied and argued that only the strictest physical separation of blacks and whites would prevent racial intermixing. Fully cognizant of Copeland’s standing among Virginia journalists, Powell embraced Copeland’s editorial crusade against mixed seating at Hampton Institute as an opportunity to further his own agenda. For his part, Copeland enthusiastically reiterated Powell’s dire message of racial vulnerability. Spurred at least in part by his wife, who was a childhood friend and admirer of Powell, Copeland used the editorial pages of his newspapers to demand that state authorities take action. In 1926 the assembly passed the so-called Massenburg Bill, a measure sponsored by Delegate George Alvin Massenburg requiring complete racial segregation in all places of public assemblage. It was the most far-reaching statute of its kind in the nation.
On July 24, 1928, Copeland died of heart failure at his home in Newport News. He was buried in Hollywood Cemetery, in Richmond. In 1949 his family established the W. S. Copeland Memorial Award for Community Service (later the W. S. Copeland Award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service), the highest honor bestowed by the Virginia Press Association. In 2000, after articles in the Richmond Times-Dispatch chronicled for a later generation of journalists Copeland’s fierce advocacy on behalf of the Massenburg Bill, the Virginia Press Association removed his name from the award.