Afro-American newspaper anniversary

Chase Allen, 11 talks to law firm head William "Billy" Murphy, Jr. (foreground right) and Md. congressman Kweisi Mfume (D-7th), both who worked as paperboys for the Afro-American newspaper. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / July 19, 2012)

For Marian Anderson Bell, selling copies of the Afro-American newspaper on Baltimore streets as a 12-year-old papergirl in 1945 felt like freedom.

Now 79 years old, Bell reminisced Saturday about stashing away the pennies she earned to buy school supplies and bobby socks. She was one of dozens of one-time paperboys and girls who gathered for breakfast at theReginald F. Lewis Museumof Maryland African American History and Culture as part of the paper's 120th anniversary.

Bell said earning her own money meant she didn't have to go to her mother for a handout. The job also taught her an important life lesson, Bell said.

"It encouraged us to economize and to learn to save our money," she said.

The paper, founded in 1892, was once sold from New York to Florida and throughout the South, and for six decades the newspaper boys and girls were its "legs," said publisher John J. "Jake" Oliver Jr. The paper is the longest-running African-American family-owned newspaper in the country, according to the media company.

"We have paused to go back into our history to get a sense of whose shoulders we're standing on, how did we get here, how have we evolved, how much the environment really as changed," Oliver said. "So much could never have been accomplished without the people who got the papers to the readers."

David Rhone said the eight years, 1948 to 1956, that he spent as a paperboy helped him grow into an independent man. With his earnings, he bought food for his family, his first bicycle, and later, his first suit.

"It kept pennies in my pockets and helped me became a man," said Rhone, 74, who joined the Air Force after his time as a paperboy.

Among the ranks of former Afro paperboys and girls is Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell; Rep. Elijah E. Cummings; the late Reginald F. Lewis, the museum's namesake; past NAACP president and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume; and attorney and former judge William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr.

"Those were different days," Mfume said, adding that among his childhood memories, "none was as rewarding, nor as memorable, as the days I threw a white sack over my shoulder and delivered and sold Afro-American newspapers."

"Long before the Internet, smartphones, digital media and all of that other stuff, black newspapers were valued for the manner in which they made us relevant. … This is a different day, but the need to be chronicled, to have the right information and the need to have the right story, still remains with us."

Oliver, the paper's publisher, said the breakfast tribute is one of several ways the Afro is marking its anniversary. A luncheon was held in Washington last month and a commemorative edition is planned for August.

An exhibit at the Lewis Museum, "Growing up AFRO: Snapshots of Black Childhood from the Afro-American Newspapers" will run until Dec. 30. The exhibit features 120 images from the paper's archives.

Meanwhile, the newspaper's 1.5 million images, including rare World War II photos of black soldiers in Europe, are being digitized.

Myrtle Koger, 86, said she's proud of her time delivering the paper in 1935 to eight black families in Southwest Pennsylvania. She loved the time she spent wandering her sprawling delivery route, and remembered how she would stop to play ball or pick berries.

"I am part of the history of the Afro," Koger said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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