The power of being seen
Since 1873, Florida’s Black newspapers have advocated, informed, and reflected lives often ignored
By Kenya Woodard
Featured image above: Josiah Walls, born enslaved in 1842, was a man of firsts – among them, owner/publisher of Florida’s first Black newspaper and the first Black man to serve his state in the U.S. Congress. Yet when he died in 1905 in Tallahassee, no state newspaper carried his obituary.
It was with those words, published in September 1873, that Josiah T. Walls, born into slavery, yet again made history – as the publisher of Florida’s first African-American newspaper.
Just a few years earlier, Walls – a Union Army veteran – was elected Florida’s first Black congressman. After establishing a successful farm in Alachua County and being admitted to the Florida bar, he purchased the Gainesville newspaper, The New Era, from fellow Union soldier, General William Birney.
At a time when the majority of Florida’s formerly enslaved population was coping with unemployment, substandard housing and education, Walls’ venture into journalism “was enormously tremendous,” says Yanela McLeod, author of The Miami Times and the Fight for Equality.
By 1873, more than 100 Black newspapers had been established nationwide, starting in 1827 with New York City’s Freedom’s Journal. None were in Florida until Walls bought
The New Era, McLeod says.
“This was a man who had seen and survived war and he comes back to build his community during Reconstruction,” she says. “You can’t build without a voice. He was very brave to do that.”
Walls’ feat would pave the way for dozens of Florida Black newspapers to be both community informer and advocate.
In the years since, the state’s Black newspapers have helped uncover injustice, elect candidates to office, and document the Black perspective on historic events.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the pages of establishment newspapers often upheld slavery and white supremacy. In the years after, negative stereotypes about Black people were often perpetuated. Black newspapers fully documented Black life and history, says McLeod, an adjunct professor of history and director of Communications and Alumni Relations at Florida A&M University’s College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities.
“In the Black newspaper, you see a holistic dynamic of Black life,” she says. “Birth to death, joy and pain. It covered the good, bad, and the ugly.”
In their March 16, 1827 debut editorial, Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm – editors of Freedom’s Journal – make their intentions clear:
“The civil rights of a people being the greatest value, it shall ever be our duty to vindicate our brethren, when oppressed, and to lay the case before the public.”
Founded by a group of free Black men, Freedom’s Journal served as a vehicle to call out wrongs against Black people – the publication itself a form of protest against establishment newspapers’ racist commentary and support of slavery – and an organ to unite free Blacks for self-improvement and advancement.
But Freedom’s Journal was short-lived. By September 1827, Cornish had resigned and Russwurm was the sole editor. His strong stance in support of the colonization of Africa by African Americans turned off readers. The paper folded in 1829.
But its focus on civil rights set the tone for hundreds of Black newspapers that have come since, McLeod says.
“Some Black newspapers were very conservative in their time…but they were still working toward the same end, which is Black equality,” she says.
Winter Park advocate
It was a common practice for Black newspapers to state their missions as champions for the Black community and its causes.
In his first editorial in 1889, Winter Park Advocate publisher G.C. Henderson makes it clear his paper will adhere to its name, says Julian Chambliss, English and history professor and the Val Berryman Curator of History at the MSU Museum at Michigan State University.
Born in 1862 near Lake City, Henderson tried his hand at farming and sales before settling on newspapering. A staunch Republican, Henderson’s political activism predates his establishment of the paper.
Henderson was instrumental in the success of the city’s incorporation in 1887.
He encouraged registered Black voters – who outnumbered registered white voters – to support city founder Loring Chase’s campaign to establish the city and ensure that the predominantly Black neighborhood of Hannibal Square be included.
His efforts also contributed to the election of the city’s first Black aldermen, Frank R. Israel and Walter B. Simpson.
But those gains were reversed by 1893, after the state upheld Democrats’ complaints that the city’s boundaries were improperly drawn, and Hannibal Square was removed from the city.
Two years later, Henderson was at the helm of The Advocate, penning editorials on the civil rights debate of the time, the poll tax. Henderson was against it, but advised paying it, Chambliss says.
“(The paper) is a form of activism,” he says. “A lot of what you read is an advocation for Black people that runs counter to the dehumanization of Black people.”
In 2017, Chambliss and his students at Stetson University curated Advocate Uncovered, an award-winning digital history project focused on Henderson’s paper.
Rare clippings from The Advocate illustrate how the paper covered the city’s stakeholders and social and political happenings. The only paper in town, it boasted a readership of white and Black residents, Chambliss says.
“So when you read the Advocate, you almost can’t tell it’s a Black paper,” he says. “It helps that you know Black people were involved, but it doesn’t leap out at you.”
Henderson left the paper in 1891 and moved to Orlando, where he founded The Christian Recorder. He died in 1915.
no more striking demonstration of the peaceable and law abiding character of [Gainesville]… can be given… than the publication of a paper… by one of the newly enfranchised.
THE MIAMI TIMES
Miami looks much different today than it did in 1923 when printer and Bahamas native Henry Ethelbert Sigismund Reeves first established his newspaper, The Miami Times.
A resort town, thousands of visitors flocked to its beaches and flooded its hotels. The population was growing and building was booming.
It had achieved the vision of a subtropical vacation hub that motivated railroad magnate Henry Flagler in the late 19th century to finance resorts and extend the rail lines along Florida’s East coast.
But Florida’s image was hiding the complete picture, McLeod says.
The 1920s was the height of lynching in the state, and all but one of Miami’s pristine beaches were closed to Black citizens.
While most newspapers in Miami showcased the city as a getaway paradise, Reeves’ newspaper offered another perspective.
“We still have a race problem in
Florida,” McLeod says. “The Miami Times
is there to shed light on the existence of Black life in Florida.”
Black newspapers such as the Times served as advocates for disenfranchised Black communities and called attention
to discriminatory policies in education
and government employment, police brutality, slum housing conditions, and other social ills.
“(Reeves) wasn’t afraid to speak the truth,” she says.
While Reeves was revered for his integrity, moving easily in Black and white societies, it didn’t protect his family from threats against their lives and business, as the newspaper continued to address issues of the day.
“It was a brave family,” she says.
In her book, McLeod, explores how the Times – and Reeves’ son and successor, Garth Reeves Sr. – played a prominent
role in the desegregation of Miami’s public golf courses.
In 1940s’ Miami, Black golfers were allowed to play just one day a week on the municipal greens. Garth Reeves and a group of Black golfers filed suit against the city and its discriminatory practice.
“It was a perfect symbol to strike at desegregation in Miami,” McLeod says. “They used the paper as a tool to find support.”
The paper documented every step of the case and published ads offering free golf lessons. After nearly a decade, the group was successful in its efforts to desegregate Miami’s courses.
It wasn’t Garth Reeves Sr.’s only moment of activism. For years, Miami’s Black beachgoers were limited to Virginia Key Beach. In 1959, Reeves and a friend initiated a wade-in at the whites-only Crandon Park Beach. After 15 minutes, the men left unaccosted.
“That was a victory,” Reeves recalled in a 2017 video for The Miami Herald. “And from that day on, we…could swim wherever we want.”
The youngest Reeves’s mother, Rachel, made history when she became the paper’s first woman publisher in September 1992. She proved a savvy businesswoman, expanding the paper as its readership moved into suburban areas at the onset of the digital age.
Reeves III took over the paper as publisher after her death in September 2019. Garth Reeves Sr., died two months later.
Much like his great-grandfather, grandfather, and mother before him,
Reeves oversees a paper that is calling out wrongs and advocating on behalf of Miami’s Black citizens.
Reeves III credits The Times’s survival to its commitment to uplifting and defending the Black community.
“We are steadfast in our delivery for our readers and our community,” he says. “We still find ourselves reporting on the same subject matter, year after year, decade after decade.”
Since its first printing in 1971, the Fort Lauderdale-based Westside Gazette has been dedicated to advocating for the Black community.
In return, the Black community has “been our backbone when we were first published in the county and they’ve been there ever since,” says publisher Bobby Henry.
What began as a weekly newspaper launched by his parents, Levi and Yvonne, in the living room of Henry’s childhood home, is now a Black media empire boasting the paper, a graphic design center, digital products, and podcasts.
The newspaper was Levi Henry’s response to the lack of Black-owned media in Broward County, his son says. In its early years, Yvonne Henry – a nurse – served as the paper’s editor; Bobby, a paperboy.
Attracting advertisers was difficult (major brands Sears and Winn-Dixie would later sign on).
But Levi Henry – a striking figure who stood 6 foot, 3 inches and wore a cowboy hat and boots – was a relentless salesman, Bobby Henry says.
“My Daddy could sell a blind man a pair of reading glasses,” he says. “He believed in what he said, and he could produce.”
Eventually, the paper found its footing and endeared itself to its readership by publishing stories that were “all about the positive,” Henry says.
The paper avoided headlines of crimes and focused on news of achievements and graduations.
But in 1990, when Fort Lauderdale Mayor Bob Cox told a classroom of fourth graders that “free, white, and 21” were the prerequisites to be in the city’s top office, the Gazette kept the pressure on.
“From its beginning, it was born of the necessity to tell our stories, to be a voice for the voiceless,” he says. “(Levi) he always told us ‘If somebody had a story to tell, tell it.’”
THE WEEKLY CHALLENGER
Cleveland Johnson was an ad salesman, not a journalist.
But in 1967, when M.C. Fountain, Johnson’s boss at The Weekly Advertiser, became ill, Johnson stepped into the role of publisher.
He bought the St. Petersburg paper, changed its name to The Weekly Challenger, and established a news reporting legacy focusing on community leaders, movers and shakers, and important events that continues today.
“Once he got into it, that’s when he found out (Black people) are so underrepresented, except when it was about crime,” says Cleveland’s daughter, Lyn Johnson, who took over as publisher in 2012.
In its heyday, readers would wait outside the Challenger’s South St. Pete offices on print day to buy copies right off the press, Johnson says.
“They knew they weren’t going to see themselves anywhere else,” she says. “(The paper’s positive coverage of the Black community) would uplift the community (and show) that we’re actually doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers.”
The paper also was an important source of employment for teens.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson (D.-St. Petersburg) was among the carriers selling the paper for 25 cents, keeping a nickel for himself.
“That was my first job,” he says. “It was a great first lesson in entrepreneurship.”
Cleveland managed to keep going despite challenges, such as vandalism of the paper’s sales racks, and difficulty persuading larger retailers to buy ad space. At times he employed creative methods to achieve results.
When JCPenney declined to advertise, Cleveland threatened to gather protestors to picket outside the store.
“Magically, they found the money in their budget to advertise,” Johnson says.
Johnson says as a child she didn’t grasp the newspaper’s importance, not only to the community, but to the state’s cultural and political landscape. Black and white politicians would visit “weekly, in and out” courting editorial board endorsements.
“We are the voice of the Black community in this area,” she says. “Everybody wanted to be in the paper.”
The Westside Rapper made its debut in 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement.
Publisher Charles Cherry Sr. was an entrepreneur and professor at Bethune-Cookman College. Racial tension in Daytona was high. His students joined protests and led chapters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party.
It was imperative that Daytona’s Black community had its own newspaper documenting the voices and events of the time because they were going unreported by the local daily, says his son, Charles Cherry Jr.
As was true in many daily papers around the state, news of Daytona’s Black community was relegated to one page a week. And for years, the local daily would not cover Bethune-Cookman’s football games, forcing fans to set up phone trees to get news in real time, he says.
The Rapper folded in 1970, but the senior Cherry regrouped and founded the Daytona Times in 1978.
It turned a profit from the first day and quickly established itself as “an educated, credible source of information, unapologetically from a Black perspective,” Cherry Jr. says.
The paper came down hard on city leaders on housing, healthcare, and public safety. In 1995, Cherry Sr. himself was elected to the Daytona Beach City Commission, and like many Black publishers, continued to use his media outlet to advocate for Black Daytona.
“He used that to bring attention to things and get some changes done,” his son says. “He was a force to be reckoned with.”
Florida Sentinel Bulletin
There’s a DNA connection between Tampa’s Florida Sentinel Bulletin and the newspaper started in Gainesville in 1887 by Matthew Lewey, who, like his friend Josiah Walls, was a Black Civil War veteran and attorney.
Lewey and Walls teamed up in 1884 to publish the Farmers’ Journal, a short-lived campaign newspaper that promoted Walls’s Congressional candidacy.
Lewey launched the Gainesville Sentinel in 1887, changing its name to the Florida Sentinel when he moved it to Pensacola in 1894. The newspaper moved to Jacksonville in 1914.
In Pensacola, the Sentinel became one of the top 10 Black-owned newspapers in the country, featuring editorials by such Black luminaries as Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and Mary McLeod Bethune. Lewey’s journalism reputation rose with his paper’s – in 1911, Lewey became president of the National Negro Press Association; in 1919, a founding member of the Associated Negro Press, a Black newswire service.
Lewey died in 1933 at the age of 88 in Jacksonville, where he’d moved years earlier, and is buried in Gainesville.
In 1919, the title Florida Sentinel began operating under the ownership of William W. Andrews.
By 1928, Andrews’ son, C. Blythe Andrews Sr., was editor. The newspaper promoted self-development and self-reliance, and encouraged Black citizens to exercise their right to vote.
When a bond issue came up for referendum, Blythe Andrews – a graduate of Atlanta University and former reporter for the legendary Black newspaper, The Chicago Defender – urged Black citizens to vote against it, arguing the city would use the bonds solely for white sections of town.
His editorial forcefully criticized the state Department of Public Instruction: “The position of the white man is very plain; he does not desire and will not cause your children to be educated on par with his own…they persist in believing that; their supremacy is seriously threatened by the intelligent Negro.”
Editors like Andrews and Reeves used their newspapers to advance and educate Black citizens on a plethora of issues, McLeod says
“In the paper, they are informing the community about things they may not have known about and unifying them in their regions,” she says.
In 1931, poor economic conditions forced Andrews to close the Sentinel.
He moved to Tampa in 1936 for a job with the Central Life Insurance Company.
There, he kept a foot in journalism as a columnist for the Tampa Bulletin, a Black-owned newspaper founded in 1914 by Rev. Marcellus D. Potter.
Andrews was a member of The Lily
White Lodge, a Black mutual aid organization that boasted 10,000 members throughout Florida and parts of Georgia. Andrews traveled the state gathering news from the lodges.
But when the Tampa paper’s editor – associated with a rival lodge – refused to publish it, Andrews revamped the Florida Sentinel, resuming publishing in December 1945.
The paper expanded in 1959 with the purchase of the Tampa Bulletin and became the Florida Sentinel Bulletin.
Andrews upped production to twice-weekly, filling the paper with news about the Lily White organization and sending copies to Florida towns where lodges were located, says S. Kay Andrews, the Sentinel-Bulletin’s publisher and Blythe Sr.’s granddaughter.
By the time she was 16, Kay was working as a proofreader for her father, editor and publisher C. Blythe Andrews Jr.
Now publisher, Kay says the paper remains true to its roots as an advocate for the community and a repository of Black life in Tampa.
“We always have pictures and local events and birthdays, things that Black folks hold dear – graduations, anniversaries,” she says. “That’s who we are.”
In her nearly 20-year career, Kenya Woodard’s byline has appeared in publications such as the Tampa Bay Times, ZORA, and Ebony magazine. She is the former host of “In the Know,” a Tampa-based lifestyle TV magazine, and currently is a correspondent on “Mocha Morning Show,” a digital lifestyle show. Woodard, a graduate of Indiana State University, is interested in delivering news that centers on political issues, stakeholders, and events important to the Black community.
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