Afro-American looks back on a century of crusading journalism

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In 1921, a Cambridge, Md., court sentenced a white man to three years in prison for the murder of the black supervisor of Dorchester County schools. About the same time in nearby Easton, a one-legged black man got 18 years for knocking down and threatening a white girl.

The cases offered a clear example of the racial double standard of the times. But they would have gone unnoticed were it not for the Baltimore Afro-American.

"Georgia, with its lynchings and its peonage has little to offer that is more putrid than this miscarriage of justice," the paper said in an editorial. "The fact is that there is no such thing as justice on the Eastern Shore of Maryland."

The editorial prompted talk of contempt charges against the paper's editors. The charges never materialized, and the editors were never deterred.

That is the kind of history the Afro-American Newspapers will be celebrating next week as it observes its 100th anniversary. The planned festivities are highlighted by a Thursday evening service at Bethel A.M.E. Church, a family-style picnic at Druid Hill Park and a benefit gala at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall a week from today.

The paper also plans to publish a 100-page commemorative edition. And on Tuesday, the city will ceremonially rename the intersection in front of the newspaper's offices, at Druid Hill Avenue and Eutaw Street, Afro Boulevard.

It has been a roller-coaster first century for the Afro, a Baltimore-based company that once published 13 editions a week from New Jersey to South Carolina and waged battle on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

Struggling with dwindling circulation and saddled with financial problems, the Afro now publishes weekly papers in Baltimore, Washington and Richmond, Va. It also publishes nationally distributed Dawn Magazine.

Launched in 1892 by John H. Murphy Sr., the Afro flourished during the decades preceding the civil rights years by crusading against all manner of hate and discrimination directed at black folks. The paper also found success by presenting a complete portrait of black life -- weddings, social events, births, sports, personalities -- that was all but ignored by the white press.

"The news about the black community had to be carried in the black press," said James Williams, a former Afro editor, who is now communications director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "In the past, the only time white papers reported on you was when you were unfortunate enough to come into a violent confrontation with a white person. Then, inevitably, you would be portrayed as the villain."

The Afro brought the horror of lynchings to its readers. Its correspondents covered black troops in the segregated armed services during World War II. An Afro correspondent was on the scene during the famous showdown that preceded the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The Afro was with the Freedom Riders, as they moved through the South testing the enforcement of anti-segregation laws at interstate bus stations.

"We did all the things that a crusading type newspaper would want to do," said Moses J. Newson, a former executive editor of the Afro who left the paper in 1978. "We backed the NAACP, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). We helped voter registration drives, we promoted making registration more accessible. And we encouraged and supported all types of people to run for office."

Afro correspondents also were on the cutting edge of international news, trotting the globe for news of interest to blacks.

"I certainly think it was a great paper," said William Worthy Jr., a former Afro columnist and foreign correspondent who now teaches at Howard University.

Mr. Worthy was one of three journalist to defy a State Department ban by traveling in China in 1956. In 1962, Mr. Worthy was sentenced to a year in prison after being convicted in federal court of entering the United States without a valid passport following a trip to Cuba. An appeals court later overturned Mr. Worthy's conviction.

The fearless crusading and good journalism drew readers. By the early 1960s, the Afro had a weekly circulation of more than 100,000 in Baltimore alone, making it one of the largest black-owned papers in the nation.

"It was the top of the heap," Mr. Williams said. "It was an institution that was looked up to. It was widely respected; feared in some quarters."

The Afro was influential in promoting black candidates for political office. Often, the paper would endorse a candidate and then make good on the endorsement with relentless coverage of its favored politician.

"They played a fantastic role in black political empowerment," said retired U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, Maryland's first black congressman. "I don't think I could have been elected to office had it not been for the Afro."

Ironically, the Afro's downward slide came in part because of the many victories it had a hand in. As legalized segregation was beaten back, the Afro lost its longest running story -- civil rights. Also, with the growth of radio and television, black people found more outlets for news about themselves. As a result, the paper relied increasingly on sensational crime news. And circulation dipped. Currently, it sells fewer than 12,000 papers a week in Baltimore.

"No newspaper is doing as well as it once did. Television and radio have taken their toll," Mr. Mitchell said. "[Also,] it's a different ballgame now. There was time when the enemy was out there open, naked and ugly. Now, racism is subtle. It is in a disguised form, and it is much harder to crusade against something you can't really see."

The plight of the Afro and other black-owned papers worsened as white newspapers began covering black communities and hiring black staffers, mainly after the urban riots of 1960s. This led to a talent drain of the top black reporters who were drawn by higher wages.

Currently, the Afro has financial problems. In 1989, the company faced more than $900,000 in debt, including state and federal tax liens. For a time, the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

But Publisher John J. Oliver Jr. and President Frances M. Draper -- both of the fourth generation of the Murphy family to run the paper -- reached agreements with major creditors, many of whom accepted 25 percent payment on the debt. They also received financial help from a community fund-raising drive and a loan backed by the city and state. The tax liens, however, remain.

Despite the financial problems, and stepped-up competition from other publications, including The Baltimore Times, the Afro is looking toward the future.

"For as long as there is the separation of races you're going to have a place for an Afro-American paper," said Mr. Mitchell. "And I don't see real integration being achieved any time in the near future."

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