Looking out the window from my fourth-floor office, I can see the Richmond Free Press building — a place where history has been made and continues to blossom.
During a ceremony [in February], the Society of Professional Journalists’ Virginia Pro Chapter awarded the founders of this Black-owned publication with the George Mason Award. In reading about the tribute to them, including the late Raymond H. Boone Sr. and wife Jean Patterson Boone, the current publisher, I felt a connection.
It reminded me of all the Black journalists who laid a pathway and broke barriers for future generations of journalists of color. We are a group that aspires to or is now covering news. We are bringing a unique perspective to coverage by adding our lived experiences, while bearing witness and telling those stories in diverse communities that otherwise might not hear them. It’s a lot like the story of the Black press overall.
The Black press in America comprises a long line of Black-owned publications, a few still in existence digitally, many with original publication dates going back nearly two centuries and decades before slavery had been abolished. Knowing this history gives me a sense of pride and gratitude, but it also reminds me of some early Black female journalists who wrote for these Black-owned publications — because they had no other place to write. With the many factors and experiences shaping my journey as a journalist, their personal narratives, fortitude and persistence are the most inspiring for me.
Among those I associate with is the venerable Ida B. Wells. Born into slavery in 1862 Mississippi, Wells’ parents became politically active during Reconstruction and helped start Rust College, a historically Black liberal arts college. Wells attended the college for a short time, according to a post on the National Park Service website. After losing her parents to yellow fever outbreaks, Wells and her sisters moved to Memphis. Later, she attended Fisk University in Nashville.
In 1884, a train ride to Nashville was a pivotal moment for her. The train crew wanted her to vacate the first-class seat she purchased and move to the car where Blacks commonly sat. She refused. Following a scuffle with the crew, Wells was forced off the train. She sued the railroad and won a settlement in circuit court, but the decision was overturned in Tennessee by the state Supreme Court.
She began writing about race and politics in the South. Her work was picked up by many Black newspapers and periodicals. She joined the Memphis Free Speech (later renamed to The Free Speech and Headlight), ultimately becoming co-owner and publisher.
Wells later shifted her writing focus to anti-lynching, and in 1898, she brought her campaign and calls for reforms to President William McKinley. Wells also was a tireless crusader for women’s suffrage and started the National Association of Colored Women, whose goals focused on desegregation and equal rights for Black Americans. In 2020, Wells posthumously was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in special citations and awards for her “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Another notable journalist is Ethel L. Payne, who wrote for the Black-owned publication The Chicago Defender. The newspaper was first published in 1905 and had a print edition until 2019, but still exists online as a weekly. Payne is known as the “first lady of the Black press” and was the first Black woman reporter to join the Washington press corps.
According to the National Women’s History Museum website, Payne entered journalism after working in Japan for the Army Special Services club. During the Korean War, though the military was no longer segregated, Black servicemen continued to be treated poorly. She wrote in her diary about their conditions, how they endured slurs about their race and about their mixed-race children who were abandoned as orphans. Her work caught the eye of editors at the Defender, which published some of her entries and ultimately offered her a full-time job there.
A more recent pioneer is Dorothy Butler Gilliam, whose memoir, ”Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America,” detailed her experiences, good and bad, as the first Black woman reporter with The Washington Post. In sharing her origin story, the intrepid reporter lays out the spectrum of the American Black press, citing several publications and reporters, both male and female, through whom she forged alliances that helped nurture her.
Gilliam entered journalism in the early days of the civil rights movement, gaining experience at Black-owned publications including the Louisville Defender and The Tri-State Defender, based in her native Memphis. Gilliam earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University before being hired by the Post. She covered civil rights, among other beats, while facing intense racism at times. Her earliest columns, as written in the book’s summary, “chronicle the times when mainstream media first began to cover Black culture.” Over Gilliam’s six-decade career, she has encouraged younger journalists and worked to help diversify newsrooms.
The number of stories about Black women journalist pioneers who reported for the Black press since Reconstruction could easily fill hundreds of pages. Richmond resident and former Times-Dispatch journalist Bonnie Newman Davis has taken on the task to at least record those journalists who have made their mark in the past five decades.
In the forthcoming book “The Evolution of African-American Women Journalists since 1970,” Davis has assembled an anthology featuring Black women journalists who entered the field since the release of the Kerner Commission Report in 1968. The report, from the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal” and called for expanded aid to Black communities to prevent further racial violence and polarization.
Mixing in some of her own back story and inspiration, Davis said in an email that “as black women journalists, our stories, struggles and triumphs are overlooked, disregarded or untold. ... Our workplaces aren’t always welcoming, and our readers/audiences can be brutal. At the same time, there is great joy in what we do — giving voice to the voiceless, tapping into people and communities that aren’t always covered.”
It is necessary to tell our own stories and celebrate our trailblazers — the Boones and all those who came before, during and who are here now. Black women journalists have created a lasting legacy to keep our voices alive and continue the cycle of excellence for the next generation.