Last Saturday night celebrants wishing Charleston Chronicle founder James J. ‘Jim’ French happy birthday as he reached the ripe old age of 90, roasted the award-winning journalist during a dinner banquet recognizing his more than 60-year career.
Friends, family and admirers converged at the Hilton Garden Inn in North Charleston to enjoy old school music supplied by Charleston’s rhythm and blues disc master Frankie The Big Bopper as roasters bombarded the night’s honoree with quips marking his 64-year journey through journalism.
The Kansas City, Kansas native was toasted and roasted for his many accomplishments. After a 21-year naval career as a journalist, French started the publication he ran the past 45 years. He relinquished daily control of the business last year to his two grandsons, Tolbert Smalls and Damion Smalls. They are the third generation of Frenchs to work at the paper he established in 1971.
The salty Kansan moved to Charleston during the late 1960s while still in the Navy. He retired here in 1969 and two years later began publishing The Chronicle. Over the years the publication has become South Carolina’s premier newspaper advocating the Black community. As a member of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the paper is nationally recognized for its cutting edge journalism and coverage of issues pertinent to the black community.
Born October 7, 1926, French cut his teeth as a writer while still in high school. But it was in the Navy that French honed his skills as a journalist. While in the military French was a photo-journalist. He also was a manager for radio and television stations on naval bases in Spain, Cuba and Puerto Rico. He has interviewed such world-famous personalities as President Dwight David Eisenhower, Fidel Castro and actress Ava Gardner. He’s filed stories and photographs from the decks of aircraft carriers and a nuclear submarine. He was the first photo-journalist assigned to the Mekong Delta with the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division. Among his citations are the Bronze Star and the Presidential Citation.
Those experiences gave French the skills he used to develop The Charleston Chronicle into the highly esteemed publication it has become. The weekly paper earned a reputation for its uncut presentation of the issues which impacted the Black community especially. French earned a reputation for his no holds barred style of journalism. The publication attracted advocates for the Black community which included other journalists, activists, community leaders, clergy and politicians.
The legacy of The Chronicle has been entrenched in a philosophy of freedom of speech. French gave that right through The Chronicle’s pages to both those who agreed with him and those who didn’t. Despite the financial hardships of pressing forward in an often hostile business environment, French has published The Chronicle each week for 45 years consecutively.
Perhaps French’s greatest accomplishment is his family. While in the Navy French married Olivia Jackson and the couple had three children – Jimmy, Nanette and Simona. French’s youngest daughter, Jennifer, was born after he retired. French has eight grandchildren. He also considers The Chronicle one of his children. After all, he gave birth to it as well.
Despite having reached age 90, as the paper’s editor/publisher emeritus French continues a constant vigil over the paper. He considers it an obligation to the black community. The City of Charleston recognized that obligation by proclaiming Oct. 22 ‘Jim French Day’. It’s one of many awards he’s received over the years that include South Carolina’s highest civilian award, The Order of The Palmetto and many special awards from the National Newspapers Publishers Association and the South Carolina Press Association. But he says the recognition he values most is each week publishing an issue of the newspaper that is loaded with pages communicating a sense of black culture, thought and history.