Ethnic City: paging back through the black press | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Ethnic City: paging back through the black press 

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Doris Saunders thought she got her big break when she was still a junior at Englewood High School in 1937. The women's news editor at the Chicago Defender asked her to write a column about teenagers, promising to pay her five dollars per article. But after two columns Saunders still hadn't been paid. She spent her last seven cents to take a streetcar to the newspaper's offices, only to discover that her editor was on vacation. Two reporters directed her to the third-floor office of Robert S. Abbott, where she found the Defender's founder sitting behind a large desk. She showed him her published clips. "Oh, that's nice," said Abbott, a large man with a tiny voice. "Miss Megahy told you to write them, Miss Megahy can pay you. Bye."

The two reporters were laughing, having known that Abbott wouldn't give her the money. But feeling a bit guilty, they each gave her two dollars. For years afterward, one of the writers, Enoch Waters, reminded Saunders he was responsible for her first earnings as a journalist.

Despite the rough treatment, Saunders didn't lose her affection for the black press. At the time, black newspapers played a vital role in the life of the south side--especially the Defender, which was a national newspaper for the black community. "The Defender has always been a point of pride," says Saunders, who grew up around 55th Street in Bronzeville. "I couldn't wait as a teenager to get my copy of the Defender and read it, because I wanted to find out what all these colored people were doing. I started buying the Chicago edition of the Pittsburgh Courier. I read that and the Chicago Bee. By reading the Defender, I found out what teenagers were doing. They had church news, they had club news, they had lodges....It was satisfying a multitude of needs in the community. And the news was their news--it wasn't rehashed from a wire service. It was about people they knew."

Saunders, who takes part in a panel discussion on the black press this weekend, would go on to earn degrees at Roosevelt and Boston universities and complete doctoral classes at Vanderbilt. Her career has also included supervising book production for Johnson Publishing, building her own public-relations firm, and heading the mass-communications program at Jackson State University in Mississippi. And in the 60s she wrote another column for the Defender--and got a paycheck.

During the mid 40s Saunders worked at the Chicago Public Library's Hall branch, where she became more intimately involved with the tremendous cultural boom that had been coming out of Bronzeville since the early 30s. Writers like Richard Wright, who had lived in the neighborhood, were rising from the WPA Writers' Project, which told black writers that there was value in the stories of African-Americans. Jazz had already found a home there, of course, but the area was also bustling with painters, theater artists, and dancers.

Newspapers helped foment this renaissance by keeping the residents informed. Abbott had turned the Defender into a powerhouse that outlasted all the other local black newspapers of his era. The Broad Ax and the Conservator had already been established when he founded the Defender in 1905. But according to Saunders, the Broad Ax was a "rabble-rousing" newspaper and the Conservator was too conservative. The Defender's sensationalistic news, its banner headlines, and its use of Pullman porters to distribute the paper throughout the south gave it an advantage over its rivals. Furthermore, Abbott had heirs--especially nephew John Sengstacke--who were willing and able to guide the paper after he died in 1940. The Defender printed a column by Langston Hughes for two decades, and was the first to publish Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry.

The Chicago Bee, founded in 1927, was more sophisticated than the Defender, avoiding sex and sin and concentrating instead on "uplift." Bee editor Olive Diggs headed the mostly female staff for much of the paper's 20-year existence. "She was well educated, proper, ladylike--not your rough-and-tumble journalist," says Saunders, who got to know many of the major journalists of the period. "I could never see Diggs out on a story." On the other hand, Bee city editor Marian Campfield would drive around town in pursuit of a lead. But despite the ability of Diggs and Campfield, the Chicago Bee closed shop after founder Anthony Overton died in 1947.

Black publications also played an important role in politics, pushing for racial equality, especially after black servicemen fought in World War II. The Whip, which was started in the aftermath of the 1919 race riots, campaigned for jobs--it told readers to "Spend Your Money Where You Can Work." Claude Barnett also started his national Associated Negro Press wire service in 1919. Barnett lacked the hard edge that might have made ANP a bigger success. "Papers paid him when they got around to it, if ever," Saunders says. "He came out of the Booker T. Washington school of thought. Service to my fellow man. Service to my community. This news needs to be disseminated."

A high point of this boom saw John H. Johnson launch the Johnson Publishing Company with Negro Digest. In 1945 he and white editor Ben Burns went on to start Ebony, which would soon be the most widely read black magazine in the world.

Saunders will be joined by journalists Vernon Jarrett, Ben Burns, and Herbert Nipson in a panel discussion on the history of the Chicago black press up to 1950; it's Saturday at 1 at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted. The free event is part of an exhibit and program series called "The Chicago Renaissance, 1932-1950: A Flowering of Afro-American Culture." For more information, call 312-747-6910.

--Michael Marsh

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Doris Saunders photo by Nathan Mandell; Marian Campfield uncredited photo.

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