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Publishers Discuss Role of the Black Press

D. Kevin McNeir | 5/21/2014, 3 p.m.
On Saturday, the publishers of two local black newspapers — John J. Oliver of The Afro-American and Denise Rolark Barnes ...
From left: Frank Bond, host of "Inside Media," and newspaper publishers Denise Rolark Barnes of The Washington Informer and John J. Oliver of The Afro-American discuss the role of the black press during a taping of the weekly show on May 17 inside the Newseum's Knight TV Studio in Northwest. Photo by Roy Lewis

The black press bears a long, illustrious history tracing its roots to 1827 when Samuel Cornish and John Brown Russwurm first published Freedom's Journal in New York City.

Since then, hundreds of others, particularly in urban centers, have joined their ranks, all committed to telling their own stories and sharing them with people of color or their allies.

Last Saturday, the publishers of two local black newspapers, John J. Oliver, The Afro-American and Denise Rolark Barnes, The Washington Informer, shared their views on the state of the black press. They spoke during the taping of a weekly program, "Inside Media," hosted by Frank Bond in the Newseum's Knight TV Studio. About 100 people attended the event which coincided with the opening of the Newseum's new exhibit, "One Nation With News For All." The exhibit recounts the tale of how immigrants and minorities used the power of the press in their crusade against racism and injustice.

Oliver, a seasoned journalist, weighed in on the significance of the date of the discussion, May 17. Sixty years ago, ruling on a combination of five lawsuits brought by the NAACP and argued by attorney Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that "separate but equal" denied black children their constitutional right to equal protection under the law. The ruling effectively removed state-sanctioned segregation of the races — a lynchpin that had allowed Jim Crow to operate in America.

"I didn't understand what Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Mitchell [chief lobbyist for the NAACP] were doing back in the 1940s and 1950s," Oliver said. "I just didn't get the significance until Emmett Till. When our paper ran the photograph of Emmett everything stopped. Things changed. And they were never the same again. It was at that point that I realized why The Afro-American mattered. I was able to more clearly understand our role and our mission."

Barnes acknowledged the important contributions of black pioneers — publications that dealt with life-altering topics in every edition.

"The Afro-American is 50 years older than The Washington Informer but we have a rich history too," she said. "When my father first started our paper in 1964, it was because of the issue of home rule in the District. White flight was running rampant and new black voices, like Marion Barry's, were getting noticed. Some blacks in D.C. lacked the motivation to take control of their own destiny. At one point there were close to 15 black-owned newspapers, many focusing on society life. But that wasn't what The Informer was all about. We felt the need to address politics and social issues that were impacting the black community."

Oliver said the black press faces a daunting task because of the complexity of the black experience in America.

"We realize that we must not only reflect the community but we have to be that community," said Oliver, whose publication covers news in Baltimore and D.C. "But it can be a difficult task because there are so many issues that our people face and that we must cover. We have to address news that is negative and that's a given. However, one of the roles of the black press is to also share good news — the positive things that are happening in our community."