BY PAMELA DAVIS, THE ST. PETERSBURG TIMES NEWSPAPER IN EDUCATION: A SPECIAL WEEKLY PAGE
Originally published Feb. 16, 1998
This month’s theme: Florida’s Black History
When you look at a newspaper, do you see yourself?
Representing all readers is a continuing challenge for newspapers. In the past, some white newspaper editors chose to ignore the African-American community while others, including the St. Petersburg Times, put African-American news in separate sections of the paper.
That second-class treatment led black citizens to publish their own newspapers and fill them with news that focused solely on the black community. Until the end of the Civil War in 1865, most of those black-oriented newspapers were published in the north.
The first newspaper in Florida under African-American ownership was the New Era in Gainesville. Josiah Walls, Florida’s first black member of Congress, purchased the paper in 1873. Later, Walls joined fellow lawyer Matthew M. Lewey to publish the Farmer’s Journal.
In 1887, Lewey became the state’s first black newspaper editor with the publication of the Sentinel Bulletin. The paper’s stated purpose was: “the enlightenment of Negros and the development of pride in themselves, their state, their heritage, and faith in their own abilities.”
Evolution of news for black readers
In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the St. Petersburg Times published a short-lived column of “colored news.” When the column ended, black people virtually disappeared from the paper unless they were involved in crimes.
A black newspaper called The Public Informer started publishing in St. Petersburg in 1938 and continued for several years. Another black-oriented paper, The Pinellas Negro Weekly, had at least one issue in 1944, but local historians are still seeking more information about that publication.
It wasn’t until the Times offered a Negro news page that St. Petersburg’s black residents received favorable coverage. The page included births, obituaries, weddings, sports and church news and was circulated only in black neighborhoods.
St. Petersburg resident Mamie Brown was hired in 1952 as the Times’ first full-time black society writer.
“I used to go downtown to the Greyhound bus station to see who was coming into town so I’d have some social notes. That’s how I started out,” says Brown. “I was 21 years old and my father made me a little mail box to leave on my front door step for people who had news items to drop in.”
In 1948 the Negro news page began daily publication. By 1967 it was abolished.
The page “was considered to be very progressive at the time they were doing this, but it became a kind of anachronism by the ‘60s,” says St. Petersburg historian Ray Arsenault. “In 1939 it may have been interpreted as a step in the right direction, but by 1966 it was embarrassing.”
After the Times stopped running its Negro page, Brown found another publication to write for – a new paper that published stories specifically about St. Petersburg’s black community. She found The Weekly Challenger.
The 30-year-old Weekly Challenger is published by St. Petersburg resident Cleveland Johnson. The paper is St. Petersburg’s main source of news about its black residents, offering advertising and favorable coverage of special interest to black readers.
In Tampa, the Florida Sentinel Bulletin has been publishing for more than 75 years under African-American ownership. Florida now has about 15 African-American newspapers, including the Miami Times and Capital Outlook in Tallahassee.
Information from Twelve Black Floridians and African Americans in Florida was used in this report.