Cleveland Johnson, Jr.: Newspaper publisher

In 1967, Cleveland Johnson took over ownership of a small advertiser called The Weekly Challenge from his friend and mentor, M. C. Fountain, after he became ill and passed away. He made a very simple change in the paper’s name by adding an “r” at the end. Fifty-five years later, The Weekly Challenger is still going strong with Mr. Johnson’s daughter, Lyn, at the helm.

Mr. Johnson was born in Thomasville, Ga., and came to St. Petersburg with his family in the late 1930s. He attended Davis Elementary and Gibbs High School but dropped out before his senior year.

Cleve, as he was affectionately called, was drafted, and eventually discharged from the army before meeting and marrying Ethel Johnson, née Burnett, in 1959.

In the early years of their marriage, he jumped from job to job. He worked at a downtown cafeteria, sold dresses and jewelry out of the trunk of his car, operated a consignment shop and was even a pest control technician.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Johnson began selling advertising for his friend’s publication, The Weekly Advertiser and found his calling.  

By 1967, African Americans were hard-pressed to find positive and uplifting news about themselves in the St. Petersburg Times’ Negro News page. The city’s Black residents virtually disappeared from the newspaper, except when the coverage was about criminal or unflattering behaviors.

The Weekly Challenger vowed never to publish a negative article about African Americans. Mr. Johnson suggested reading the Times if you wanted to read about Black people doing something bad, not his paper.

Mr. Johnson’s life was full of partnership developments, community involvement, support for the Sickle Cell Foundation, and so much more.

We honor a life well lived — a St. Pete legend.

This article was part of the 28 days of Black history heard on WUJM – 99.1 FM.

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