Frank Thomas founded The Mobile Weekly Review in 1943.
Alabama’s oldest black-owned newspaper is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, but Mobile Beacon Publisher Claretta Blackmon said without a new owner, it will likely be their last.
“Our industry has changed a lot,” she said last month in the Beacon’s nondescript cinder block office on Costarides Street. “We’ve done a lot of good but it’s not like it used to be. Recently my health has suffered and it won’t allow me to do it much longer.”
Last week, Blackmon elaborated that she was obligated to publish certain ads through the end of the year, but would likely not continue to print in 2019. She said she has suffered multiple strokes and other ailments over the past few years, while advertising revenue declined to the point she is using her own income to pay print costs and other expenses.
A handful of attempts to sell the paper over the past few years were unsuccessful and a largely volunteer effort to rebrand the paper for the anniversary did not draw new subscribers or advertisers.
“We haven’t stopped publishing in 75 years, but recently we’ve missed a couple weeks,” she said. “[Closing] is not something I want to do but when you can’t get out there and hustle and make money and sell the product — it’s not easy to do, I don’t care who you are.”
Founded in 1943 as The Mobile Weekly Review by Blackmon’s parents, Frank and Lancie Thomas, the Beacon has not been Mobile’s only black-owned newspaper but it does have the distinction of being the longest running. The Alabama Department of Archives and History has archives of several other black-owned newspapers whose press runs in some cases were limited to just a few issues.
Before moving to Mobile and establishing The Mobile Weekly Review, the Thomases had published newspapers serving black communities in Tuscaloosa (The Alabama Citizen) and Selma (The Selma Citizen). It was renamed The Mobile Beacon in 1954. Frank died weeks after retiring in 1974 and Lancie died in 2005 as publisher emeritus. Blackmon has been serving as publisher since 1997.
Black newspapers of record
In the second half of its more than 300-year history, several African-Americans in Mobile have dipped their toes in the waters of newspaper publishing. In reverse chronological order, there has been The New Times (1988-1995), The Inner City News (1982-1994), The Mobile Weekly Advocate (1939-1958), The Gulf Informer (1949-1952), The Press-Forum Weekly (1929-1934), The Mobile Weekly Press (1914-1929), The Southern Watchman (1899-1904), The Mobile Republican (1870-1872) and The Nationalist (1869).
At the turn of the 20th century, even Baldwin County had a black-owned newspaper, The American Banner. The Baldwin County Archives and History Department has scattered issues dated from Sept. 16, 1899, to Feb. 1, 1902.
For a subscription fee of $1.40 per year, the Banner could be delivered to subscribers along with a farming almanac, an encyclopedia, a state road map and a subscription to the twice-weekly Detroit Free Press.
Editor S.J. Boykin wrote a regular column called “Race Gleanings” and “Race Notes.” In October 1899 he editorialized: “… the daily papers of this country are finding ample space to create a public sentiment against the Negro by publishing double headed telegraphic reports of Southern outrages in which the Negro is painted as a bloodthirsty villain; but not a word of commendation have they to say about the thousands of Negroes who are busy laying the foundation of a great people despite the opposition and adverse public sentiment.”
In the same issue, the Banner printed one of the only first-person accounts of the undercover midnight coup that moved the county seat from Daphne to Bay Minette the week before.
Writer Larry Muhammad, who published a brief history of black newspapers for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University in 2003, traced its origins to 1827’s Freedom’s Journal in New York City.
“By the Civil War, 40 black newspapers were being published. And, during the 1920s and ‘30s, when major papers virtually ignored black America, the glory days of the black press began,” Muhammad wrote.
In 1940, the National Negro Publishers Association (NNPA, later renamed the National Newspaper Publishers Association) was formed with the intent of “harmonizing our energies in the common purpose for the benefit of Negro journalism.” Today it lists 166 member publishers in 28 states, including the Mobile Beacon and the 134-year-old Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest continuously published black-owned newspaper in the U.S.
Muhammad noted in the ‘40s and ‘50s “black papers became the primary means of group expression and main community service outlet” among African-Americans, publishing “bylined stories from America’s leading black activists and intellectuals” and “[engineering] monumental change from school desegregation in 1954 to the voting rights bill of 1957, the marches, sit-ins and civil rights legislation of 1964.”
Indeed, archived editions of the Beacon and its predecessor preserve reports of Jim Crow segregation in 1940s Mobile, followed by stories and editorials chronicling desegregation efforts not just in local public and private schools, but at area hospitals, industries, retail establishments and in government.
During the civil rights era, with Frank Thomas as publisher and John LeFlore as associate editor, the Beacon also encouraged criminal justice reform, voter registration drives, higher education and equal economic and home ownership opportunities for Mobile’s black population.
It reported Mobile native Vivian Malone’s enrollment and graduation at The University of Alabama. It featured wire stories from Montgomery about Rosa Parks and the resulting bus boycott. It recounted vivid details from Selma during the marches to Montgomery and how Alabama State Troopers attacked peaceful and unarmed protestors crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
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When LeFlore later founded the Non-Partisan Voters League, the Beacon documented cases he pursued on behalf of civil rights victims along with attorney Vernon Crawford and his law partners. Its archives include coverage of the 1958 rape conviction and death sentence handed to Willie Seals by an all-white jury and its reversal five years later by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision in that case is partially responsible for the integration of juries, but Seals wasn’t released from prison until 1970. Those stories were in the Beacon.
In 1965, when black 26-year-old handyman Nathaniel Taylor was charged with the murder of white Spring Hill resident Lillian Kohorn, an all-white jury eventually found him not guilty. Crawford presented an expert witness who claimed Taylor had the mental competence of an 8-year-old, and thus was incapable of providing police investigators with the detailed confession he signed after more than 36 hours of nonstop interrogation without the presence of counsel.
Weeks after his acquittal, Taylor was seeking a ride to Pascagoula when he disappeared, “never to be seen again,” according to the Beacon, which followed the case from beginning to end.
The Beacon was there when The Senior Bowl first recruited black players in its 15th year of play. The Beacon was there when Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panther Party spoke to the Neighborhood Organized Workers, a local nonprofit group seeking black independence. The Beacon was there when LeFlore’s home was firebombed, reporting on the subsequent dead-end investigation. The Beacon was there for the Birdie Mae Davis school desegregation lawsuit and the Mobile vs. Bolden lawsuit, which eventually led the Legislature to impose a new form of municipal government the city still adheres to today.
In its heyday, the Beacon featured weekly dispatches from black neighborhoods including Plateau, Hillsdale, Toulminville, Crichton, Whistler, Maysville and Mobile Terrace. It published church news, sports reports, entertainment previews, obituaries and editorials from politicians including Congressman Jack Edwards, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. When black servicemen died in the Vietnam War, it published profiles of their lives.
By the 1970s, the Beacon had expanded to include three sections to introduce classified ads. Thomas had hired a full-time reporter, a managing editor, city editor, circulation manager, officer manager, production manager, production assistants and three advertising representatives. He paid teenagers to distribute the paper across the county and collect news tips. The Beacon carried international news on the front page, and after an accidental fire destroyed its original home on South Cedar Street, Thomas built the facility on Costarides Street large enough to house his own printing press and darkroom.
In addition to publishing the paper there, The Beacon Publishing Co. sold all manner of printing services for African-American churches, businesses and individuals. Notably, he told others he designed the building without windows so Molotov cocktails couldn’t be thrown inside.
The paper flaunted full-page ads from national corporations including Sears, General Motors and Kmart. Editorials focused on an increasing amount of crime within the black community, increased reliance on social welfare programs, young people growing up without role models, the importance of families and churches, the shortcomings of public housing and more.
But as Muhammad noted in his article for the Nieman Foundation, by the late ‘70s “the black press was considered, at best, a farm team for major dailies, which recruited top black journalists to cover the civil rights movement and eventually attracted readers and advertisers once considered the black press’ captive market. Conventional wisdom by the 1980s was that the black press, by doing such a bang-up job promoting racial equality, had made itself obsolete.”
Frank Thomas couldn’t have foreseen the changes decades later for print media in the internet era, but a few months before he died in 1974 he published an editorial as a part of NNPA’s Black Press Week stating, “… the black press is an informer and a sounding board, a crusader and a protestor, a fighter and a healer. It is a force that can stimulate further growth of the American economy and help heal the cancer of racism that painfully divides the American people.”
By the 1980s, under the leadership of his widow, Lancie, the Beacon had scaled back to a single section but news coverage resumed a more local focus and stories often offered more commentary and context. But by the ‘90s it was down to 12-16 pages per week, with local news briefs compartmentalized and crime stories dominating the front page.
Today the Beacon can be difficult to read, lacking uniform fonts, leading or kerning, and featuring disproportionate photos with text sometimes overlapping the borders. News is often limited to just a single Mobile City Council story written by a freelancer, crime reports provided by the Mobile Police Department and social updates submitted by black churches, fraternities and sororities.
Yet it still publishes some of the leading black columnists syndicated by the NNPA, including Julianne Malveaux, Marian Wright Edelman, Marc Morial and Jesse Jackson.
The Beacon’s legacy
“I would be hard-pressed to think of another primary source that’s as important to the full story of African-Americans and the history of Mobile,” said Scotty Kirkland, a historian currently writing a book about the history of race and politics in Mobile, tentatively scheduled to be published next year. “With African-American press [in the ‘60s and ‘70s] you’re getting something that you’re not getting with your daily white-owned press. The Beacon taps into this long tradition that sees their readers differently, as full-fledged human beings and full-fledged citizens, not as objects of scorn.
“Often [traditional newspapers] don’t have a very strong editorial voice, but the Beacon, at least in the years I paid close attention to it, had a very strong and important editorial voice. Frank and Lancie Thomas were pretty fearless.”
Former State Rep. James Buskey, who retired from the Legislature this year after 42 years of service, said he used the Beacon for decades as a tool to communicate with constituents about what was happening in Montgomery, who the players were and how it affected people in Mobile. His weekly column was called “From the House.”
“It was very widely read at that time and I had classmates from as far as California, New York and Ohio who would write me to comment on some article or issue they read about in the Beacon,” he said last week. “I realized how effective it was for communication and would often get mail or [calls] from people about the column.”
Buskey moved to Mobile from Greenville, Alabama, at age 4 when his father found a job in the shipyards, and soon learned how well regarded the Beacon was.
“I remember quite well, the Mobile Beacon was published by one family in the community and it was shared with all the other families in the community,” he said. “Back then, it wasn’t expensive, but even if people didn’t have the money to buy it they knew someone who was willing to share it.”
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As newspaper revenue has declined industrywide over the past 20 years, black press has not been immune. John Zippert, publisher of the Greene County Democrat, said he and his wife, Carol, purchased their paper in Eutaw, Alabama, in 1984 and have “basically been breaking even” ever since.
“Because we have other jobs we have not had to be paid by the newspaper, and if we did, it would be a more serious problem,” he said. “We face something similar to the Beacon in trying to attract young people who will take this over and build on the foundation we built … it seems tragic to lose an important voice and an outlet like [the Beacon], but I know it is very difficult from a financial standpoint, you have to have steady advertisers and subscribers.”
Zippert, also a member of the NNPA, said before they purchased the Democrat it was a “disparaging” white publication in a county where the population is 80 percent black. He said he has managed to keep the doors open by providing exclusive news of interest to subscribers with the help of legal advertising revenue, as well as syndicated ads from the Alabama Press Association and content from the NNPA.
“We’re glad when it breaks even and we don’t have to put money in it, so I know what [the Beacon] is facing and I don’t know who [Blackmon] has been able to talk to in the Mobile community, but I bet when she stops publishing, people are going to be upset.”
Greg Cyprian was able to provide a more local perspective. As the publisher of Steppin’ Out, Cyprian occasionally prints his “feel-good newspaper” in Mobile to simply support his nonprofit literacy organization Legacy 166.
“First of all, to lose the Beacon would be a crying shame for this community and a major, major loss,” Cyprian said. “It’s a heritage black newspaper and it’s important to have that representation in any city, in any place, and certainly makes sure the news is treated fairly and with checks and balances. But I know running a newspaper is hard work — constant work — and I’ve watched a lot of people come and go. Newcomers generally don’t last long because after they get into it, they realize how hard it is.”
Cyprian said along with the burgeoning internet culture, he has also noticed people simply aren’t reading as much and traditional print advertisers tend to steer their marketing budgets to broadcast or social media, if they spend money at all.
“We have a lot of black folks in this town that spend a lot of money,” he said. “And some of those advertisers realize how important it is to attract those kinds of consumers. Franklin Healthcare, Commonwealth Bank, MAWSS … those are folks that believe in us and I want to make sure they are taken care of. But we’re in a city that is at least 50 percent black and I can’t get one black restaurant to advertise with me. I know black folks are heavy consumers, but I talk to these African-American business owners and a lot of them think the only way to be successful is to put their information on Facebook. They only believe in word-of-mouth advertising.”
Cyprian also suggested traditional newspapers have suffered from declining literacy rates and education standards. His Legacy 166 organization, supported by ad revenue from Steppin’ Out, offers reading programs to school children, distributes free books and hosts a reading theater, among other things.
“There are people walking around this city that have not picked up a book since high school,” he said. “We have to encourage reading. It’s important for folks to pick up that newspaper — whether it’s the Beacon or Lagniappe or Steppin’ Out — and get their read on. When I have Lagniappe in my hand or a Beacon in my hand, I’m reading Mobile.
“Unfortunately we live in a ‘what’s in it for me’ society,” Cyprian concluded. “I find it hard to believe that folks in the community and particularly black folks don’t know what’s going on with the Beacon or wouldn’t care to save it.”
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