The Columbus Free Press

Reflections on Black History - Part 16
The Black Press in the 1920s

by Thomas C. Fleming, Jan 7, 1998

When I moved from New York City to Chico, California in 1919, I was already aware of the existence of the black press. I knew that there were both local black papers -- such as the New York Age in Harlem -- and national black papers that were sold in black neighborhoods all over the country.

During the seven years I lived in Chico, I never saw a black newspaper in a store. But people subscribed by mail, and I would sometimes see them in homes. The biggest of the national black papers was the Chicago Defender, a crusading weekly founded by Robert Abbott. He came up from the South, and was the first black journalist to get a big name nationally.

In the Defender, we used to read about A. Phillip Randolph, Chandler Owen and the other young rebels who were attempting to bring reforms in race relations. The news section was filled with fiery editorials denouncing discrimination and segregation, plus lynchings and other forms of brutality.

Many blacks throughout the nation bought the Defender for its ads. A substantial number of advertisements came from the company of Madam C.J. Walker, who made a fortune in processing the hair of black females, as most blacks felt that so-called nappy hair was a sign of degradation, or too much of a reminder of their slave period. Most of them aspired to make their hair look like that of whites. The processing was done with the use of hot metal combs manufactured at Walker's plant.

The national black press filled its pages with advertisements from herb doctors and fortune tellers, because it had to get what it could. Those who designated themselves as seers would tell hapless blacks about unfortunate love affairs, or how they would someday come into huge sums of money. They would appeal to the very poorest members of the population, because it was easy for the entrepreneurs to convince these people.

The black papers published nearest to Chico were from the San Francisco Bay Area, about 180 miles to the southwest. During the early to mid-1920s, I knew of one black paper in San Francisco and two across the bay in Oakland -- which always had a much larger black population.

The oldest black newspaper on the West Coast still published today was the California Voice, founded in Oakland in 1917. In the 1920s, it carried only news of Oakland, and didn't have much vision. The owner was more interested in his small print shop.

Then there was the Oakland American, which lasted about as long as it takes for me to say the name. I've seen a lot of them come and go.

The only black paper to carry news of Chico was the Western Appeal, published in San Francisco by George Watkins. Watkins used to come north, hitting each town and soliciting subscriptions, all the way up to Redding, about 270 miles from San Francisco. He had a correspondent from each of the small towns. I don't think any of the writers were paid, because he didn't have any money for that. The columns were just chitchat; most of the items were about churches, fraternal organizations and parties held by blacks who wished to see their names in print.

Watkins, a conservative black, had no editorial page in the strict sense. He got ads from sympathetic small businesses, all white-owned. He did well enough to gain respect as a black spokesman, and acquired some property. I believe his paper went out of business during World War II.

Mama bought the Negro Yearbook, which was edited by Dr. Monroe Work and published at the Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama school founded by Booker T. Washington. It came out yearly and furnished a wealth of information about American blacks. I would peruse every issue several times, and it gave me a tremendous interest in reading every history book that an adolescent could understand.

I never thought about becoming a reporter until I got to Chico High School, when I wrote a few humorous columns in the Red and Gold, the student paper. Then a lot of my fellow students made comments about it, and I thought, "Maybe this isn't so bad."

In the 1920s, I heard of some black reporters who worked for the daily press. There was Eugene Gordon at the Boston Globe and Ted Poston, who wrote for the New York Post. So I knew there were some, at least on the East Coast. But I never had any serious thoughts of going into it.

The daily papers in the Bay Area didn't hire blacks until the 1960s. The only exception was the Oakland Tribune, which from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s had a weekly column, "Activities Among Negroes," by a black writer named Delilah Beasley, who was paid $10 a week.

The other papers would go into hem-hawing and make all sorts of excuses, like the San Francisco Chronicle made to me in the 1940s: "Well, we wouldn't have enough money to pay you, Tom." I said, "Hell, what are you talking about? A paper as big as this and you say you couldn't pay me? All I want is the same pay as the other reporters."

I only asked that one time, because some of my white liberal friends who had read my articles urged me to apply. The Chronicle had the reputation for being the most liberal paper in town.

In 1962, the San Francisco Examiner became the first daily paper in the Bay Area to hire a black reporter. The editor had decided to hire one of the two finalists. He called me up to ask for my recommendation. I knew one of the writers, because he had done some work for me and I thought he was very capable, so I said, "Hire Ben."

Ben Williams got the job. He went on to have a successful writing career at the Examiner, and later became the first black television reporter in the Bay Area.

Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A new 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is now available for $3. Send mailing address.

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