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The Black Press - 190 Years Strong And Still Going
3/8/2017 2:17:27 PM

By Barney Blakeney 

March is recognized, among other things, as Black Press Month. I’m not one for remembering or recognizing such occasions. I remember my birthday and my mother’s, hers because it’s December 26. Most other stuff slips by me. Not because I don’t think some things are significant, I’m just not wired that way. After 40 years writing for Black newspapers, I was totally oblivious to the fact March is Black Press Month until my publisher suggested I write about it. It should have been a no-brainer. I’ve spent pretty much all my adult life writing for Black newspapers. I made the choice to do that as a young man. I haven’t ever regretted it.

In 1827 a group of prominent blacks established the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. Rev. Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm were its editors. In the first edition they declared, “Too long have others spoken for us. We wish to plead our own cause.” As a kid I became aware of the Black Press through the old Afro American Newspaper. I delivered the paper in the Accabee community for a skinny minute while growing up in North Charleston. Actually I helped a classmate deliver it. Can’t remember which classmate – might have been Robert ‘Bobby/Trip’ Fields whose dad was Rev. Fields, vice principal at Mary Ford Elementary School.

I had no clue there had been a Black newspaper in Charleston. The Lighthouse & Informer, long the leading black newspaper in S.C., was a weekly published from 1941 to 1954 by journalist and civil rights advocate John Henry McCray (1910-1987). McCray, who founded the paper "so our people can have a voice and some means of getting along together," published articles covering every aspect of black life and columns and editorials advocating equal rights. McCray helped found the Progressive Democratic Party, the first black Democratic party in the South. He was an editor for other leading black newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, and then spent many years as an administrator at his alma mater, Talladega College. McCray died in Alabama in 1987.

The Charleston Chronicle was established in 1971 by James J. French Sr. I had no clue it existed either until 1977 when a friend directed me to it. I was young and hopeful believing I could change the world through writing. French needed a reporter and I needed an outlet for my work. We’ve facilitated each other’s needs for much of the past 40 years.

During those years I’ve learned a lot about the Black Press and its power. I knew I wanted to use my abilities as a tool “in the struggle”, but something Jim French said to me at the beginning of my career keeps me focused and renews my understanding of the mission. He said the Black Press not only is a vehicle used to tell our stories, it also is an advocate for our people. I’ve never forgotten that.

I became aware of Mr. McCray when I started writing for The Chronicle. He sent in a weekly editorial piece from his home in Alabama. Though I never met him or had a conversation with him, John McCray became someone I’ll always admire. In 1938 he became editor and publisher of The Lighthouse and Informer, which in 1941 moved its offices from Charleston to Columbia and provided McCray with the communications base from which to launch his program for black political participation, racial equity, and social justice.

"I love The Lighthouse," McCray said in a speech at Mullins, 2 December 1945. "Gave up a nice job to run it. We don't publish it to make money. We publish it so our people can have a voice and some means of getting along together." Cited by the New York Press Club in 1950 as the "best edited Southern Negro weekly," the paper was later referred to by one of McCray’s regional colleagues as "truly the one burning torch in the benighted state of South Carolina" (Carolina Times [Durham] 18 August 1951). I like to think of The Chronicle as that kind of newspaper, one that stands on the edge of a cliff linking arms with the Black community on one side and the larger community on the other. It hasn’t been easy maintaining that position. After all, the Black Press also must be about the business of publications. And as a black owned business, like most black owned businesses, The Chronicle struggles mightily to ‘do what it do’, as the kids say.

In 1982 McCray wrote -- "There is something about working on a newspaper that haunts you forever. It's more than the smell of printer's ink, the sight of it on your hands and clothing. It's more than writing a story, an editorial piece and helping them get into print. Whatever it is, say old-timers in the profession, it gets into your blood. If you happen to be non-white and get into the business, you are definitely on a shoe string in resources, plagued by meeting payrolls, the rent, utilities and the various and sundry other expenses connected with the business hard-nosed business people say are so worrisome that only a 'plum stomped down fool' would do what you are trying to do.

Invariably, you are committed to fighting for an ethnic group that doesn't patronize you enough to pay even the rent. You have to find some way of trading enough with white concerns that will work with you, while you consistently blast away at some other whites. Sort of crazy business.
That’s still true today. I’m often dismayed to know that may Black residents living right around the corner from The Chronicle’s King Street office don’t know the paper exists. Many of them work on jobs and in positions that never would have been available to them had it not been for the efforts of the Black Press and those who sacrifice to work in the industry. As a young reporter, some people upon offering their comments about my work would ask in their next breaths what I did for my livelihood. Even Jim French admonished me to get another job.

Even though personally the struggles and sacrifices are many and the rewards few, the benefits of the Black Press have been immeasurable. We tell the stories others won’t and raise issues to the surface others cover. We’re vaunted when we praise and vilified when we prosecute. For 190 years the Black Press has been steadfast, because of it so many have prospered. I’m proud to be a member.

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