Historic Newspaper Turns 115

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Baltimore's Afro American newspaper, founded by a former slave, celebrates 115 years in circulation on August 13. John J. Oliver, Jr., the paper's CEO, talks about the paper's history, its future and the role of the Black press in an increasingly diverse culture.


On August 13, 1892, Benjamin Harrison was president of the United States, legally enforced segregation divided citizens in the Southern and Northern states, and the Afro American newspaper released its first issue.

One hundred fifteen years ago today, John Henry Murphy, a former slave, published the debut issue of the Baltimore Afro American. Today, his great grandson, John Oliver, Jr. or Jake, is now the paper's chairman of the board and publisher. Jake Oliver joins us now from the studios of member station WEAA in Baltimore.

Welcome and congratulations.

Mr. JOHN OLIVER, JR. (Chairman of the Board, Publisher, Afro American): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: How on Earth did your great grandfather do it? I mean, many people were just trying to survive those early days after slavery. How on earth did he manage to publish a paper?

Mr. OLIVER: We are still trying to understand and figure that out since at that time, we surmised that most of the African-American or black population of this country probably didn't know how to read. And to attempt a venture of that nature in 1892 must have been just a leap of unimaginable faith. But, quite frankly, we're pleased that he started it.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea, though, what gave him the vision? Did he ever write about it - write a memoir or anything or talk about what his vision was?

Mr. OLIVER: My sense is is that he felt that the black community in Baltimore probably was being, like many other black communities at that time, sort of abused by its inability to know exactly what was going on, and hopefully using that information to form the basis of coming up with an agenda to begin to assert those types of things that will evolve into a higher level of better form of life.

MARTIN: What kinds of stories did the early Afro American report?

Mr. OLIVER: A lot was, you know, really internal - about the community - you know, I mean, who was doing what, who was basically in business. But they also were very much focused on things which they felt needed to be changed.

One of the first campaigns that the paper had was the campaign to integrate the black school system of Baltimore City in a way that would allow black teachers to teach in the black public schools. And that campaign was a very long and apparently a very hard-fought campaign. But it eventually ended up in black teachers finally able to teach black students.

MARTIN: Do you think that advocacy is still part of the mission of the Afro American?

Mr. OLIVER: Absolutely. The moment it stops, I think we're out of business because advocacy is a reflection of the level of additional work that still needs to be done. We've got to help our people understand what, in fact, is going on. You know, people, unfortunately, think too often that well, Jake, you know, Brown versus Board gave you the rights and you got the '65 Civil Rights Act. What more could you want? And then you turn around and look a little bit closer, and you realize there's a lot more that we want because there's a lot more that's wrong and it just doesn't stop with one, you know, monumental decision or one monumental act.

MARTIN: How do you reconcile that, though, when you talk about some of what's wrong? A lot of the conversation, I think, that many ethnic communities are having these days with themselves is, on the one hand, there are the external wrongs, right? On the other hand, there they are - internal wrongs. And so how do you balance that desire that people have to put their best foot forward with your need to tell the truth about everything?

Mr. OLIVER: I honestly think that we will be doing our community a gigantic disservice by not showing them where they are doing wrong. Today, there's a lot of things about our community that really is wrong, and the wrong comes from our own problems. The level of violence is something that we have got to more or less come up with solutions to. The fact that we don't vote is something that we're going to have to come to grips with.

But if it weren't for us - that is, the black press - pointing out the importance of correcting these things, then we were, I think, probably are indeed sort of like relegated to permitting these particular wrongs to continue to hold this back even more so than those impediments which exist from the outside part of our community.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a 115th birthday of Baltimore's Afro American newspaper, and I'm joined by the Afro American publisher, Jake Oliver. You know, there's a saying, I can talk about my family but you can't talk about my family? You know, there's this - the image of Baltimore in the national mind, I think, on the one hand, it's kind of this image of, you know, the - what's that movie that John Travolta is in now? "Hairspray."

There's, you know, "Hair Spray" is kind of the, you know, fun, camp, let's all get the others and have a party kind of thing. On the other hand, you've got the award-winning HBO series "The Wire," which frequently depicts Baltimore as a very tough place, you know, a violent...

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...drug-infested. So how do you see yourself? Do you see yourself as correcting those images? Do you see yourself as, what? Interpreting those images or re-interpreting? Or do you ignore to what other people think about your hometown?

Mr. OLIVER: No. What other people think about Baltimore is very important to me and I think every Baltimorean who lives here. But the point is is that we have got to paint the picture of reality. I mean, if Baltimore is all of the things that you basically refer to, you can't ignore them. You've got to basically deal with it, but you can only deal with it once you understand exactly what it is, and that comes from our and other people's attempts to try and define what that picture really is about.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who wonder whether there's still a role for the black media? I mean, there was a time when papers like the Afro American were the only places - virtually the only place African-Americans could see their community in the news except in the motion of negative light, right?

But now, there are other choices. The mainstream papers, the white newspapers, if you will, cover the communities and their people of color working in these places sometimes in positions of significant authority. So how do you see your place in that media universe where African-Americans have other choices of media?

Mr. OLIVER: Our mission is really - continues to be to address the African-American population of this country. You can pick up to New York Times and you can read them really good stories written by some very gifted black writers. But the question really remains is to what extent is that a black perspective as opposed to the New York Times perspective? And I think that really underlines a major distinctive difference that continues to justify the role of the black press.

MARTIN: How do you deal with a question of leadership? It's often been in the past, I think, many people have felt that mainstream papers are - you know, whether it's fair or unfair, a sense that mainstream papers are white papers, if you will, are very tough on African-American politicians. And some people have the sense that the black papers compensate for that by not being so tough on black politicians, because they feel that they're going to get it from somebody else, they don't need to get it from them.

But the consequence of that is some people would feel that there isn't as much political competition as there could be in a black community because the community tends to sort of rally around the establishment or the status quo, whoever they tend to be in it. There isn't as much challenge to black authority as there could be internally within the black community. Do you - I don't know. Do you - have you heard that argument? Do you buy it?

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah. I've heard it. And I think in some instances, it may be true. You know, I think it's the worst thing a black newspaper can do is to mother its politicians just because they're black, particularly in a world when I think it is true that black politicians have - I think, by and large - been addressed unfairly or dealt with unfairly. And I agree that, you know, that doesn't justify the black press or anyone else mothering these politicians. They have got to basically represent the people who they are basically voted into office by. And whenever we find that there are individual politicians who somehow lose sight of that, we don't hesitate. We just unload both barrels as much as we can...


Mr. OLIVER: ...and tell them. You know, I mean, if you do it wrong and you can't justify what you do, then don't bother to come home because we're not going to welcome you.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, break it down. (unintelligible) Mr. Oliver, I'm just trying not to get on your bad side. We'll see...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know, they say don't fight with somebody who buys his ink by the barrel, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: How about that?

MARTIN: But speaking of which, the relevance of all newspapers, not just black papers, is being challenged now by the broad range of media sources that are now available on the Internet, are, you know, on satellite radio and so forth. And I just, how do you - do you think your paper's going to be here 115 years from now?

Mr. OLIVER: I'm counting on it, primarily because of the fact the word you used was challenge, I don't view it as a challenge at all. I view it as an opportunity because the new media outlets, the media forums are to me probably the biggest, most exciting thing that probably has happened in my life because now for the first time, probably in our 115-year history, this newspaper can basically have a level field in a way that we properly never did happen in the past.

We can reach out to larger numbers of African-Americans or people who have interest in issues relating to African-Americans, so no, it's not a challenge. It's an opportunity.

MARTIN: Well, good luck, Mr. Oliver.

Mr. OLIVER: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Jake Oliver is the chairman of the board and publisher of Baltimore's Afro American newspaper. He joined us from member station WEAA in Baltimore.

Mr. Oliver, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. OLIVER: Thank you for inviting me.

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