The African American Press in West Virginia
By Stewart Plein, Curator, Rare Books & Printed Resources West Virginia University Library
The African American Press in West Virginia
Beset with a fluctuating subscriber base, the constant need for funds, and personnel shortages, African American newspapers in West Virginia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries struggled to survive. Many were short lived, publishing issues for a couple of years at best. Some papers found themselves shutting down production for weeks or even months at a time, waiting for subscribers and advertisers to provide enough funding to begin publishing again.
As was often the case, few people could afford to subscribe and issues were frequently passed from hand to hand, shared among family members and throughout the community. The act of sharing brought important news to a wider audience, but the lack of subscribers was nearly certain death for the publisher. Even as late as 1944, the editor of the West Virginia Digest, I.J.K. Wells, printed this plea to his readers:
“The West Virginia Digest, the people’s paper, will no doubt appear infrequently because of labor shortage and help. It will not make its weekly schedule for some time. Because you fail to see it every week, don’t think it’s dead. The cause for which it stands cannot die, and because there is a need for a newspaper, this one or some other one will spring up from time to time.”
The founders of the state’s African American newspapers were recognized as community leaders. More than one served their readers as ministers. Editors were also attorneys, educators, and politicians. As leaders, editors took strong stands on racism with topics that included political events, Jim Crow laws, unfair mine labor practices, civil rights, and the military; which often limited soldiers to positions of service. Newspapers advocated for education, community pride, and party alliances that would benefit African Americans. Cultural activities, including church and social events, also filled their pages as did articles provided by wire services, such as the Associated Press, and the all-important advertisements.
Among the earliest African American newspapers in West Virginia, the Pioneer Press, was owned and edited by J.R. Clifford, a man of many talents and abilities. Clifford was a graduate of the first West Virginia institution of higher learning for African Americans, Storer College. He was a Civil War veteran and the first Black attorney in West Virginia. A colleague of W.E.B. DuBois, Clifford was a key figure in the Niagara Movement, a precursor of the NAACP. Clifford published the Pioneer Press for over 30 years and the paper’s subscription base was nationwide.
The West Virginia & Regional History Center, special collections for WVU, owns microfilm of the surviving issues of the Pioneer Press covering the years 1911 – 1917. These issues have been digitized and are currently available on the Library of Congress Chronicling America site for historic newspapers. Several original paper issues have also survived from the 1880s. These issues have been digitized and are also available on Chronicling America. For more information on Clifford and the Pioneer Press, see the blog post: https://news.lib.wvu.edu/2014/08/18/j-r-clifford-and-the-pioneer-press/
Four African American newspapers were published in Huntington during the late 1880s through the early years of the 1920s. These newspapers are the Huntington Enterprise, the West Virginia Spokesman, the Breeze, and the Huntington Times. These newspapers documented an extraordinary time in Huntington’s history, a time Dr. Cicero Fain, author of the book Black Huntington, refers to as a “Black Renaissance,” a period of intellectual and cultural significance for Huntington’s African American community.
The survival rate for extant issues, actual hard copies of original newspapers, or even microfilm facsimiles, is rare. Sadly, only one issue out of these four Huntington newspapers is known to survive today. The West Virginia & Regional History Center has a single original issue of the Huntington Times, for May 15, 1920. Contents of this issue include news on political candidates, world events, and an announcement for an upcoming NAACP meeting to be held at Huntington’s Frederick Douglass High School, Monday, May 17.
The announcement above the NCAAP meeting includes news of a lecture by General Leonard Wood on Friday, May 21. Wood was most likely in Huntington to campaign for his presidential run in the 1920 election. As a candidate Wood was a well-known Republican from New Hampshire whose military career included service as the Army’s Chief of Staff as well as Military Governor of Cuba, and Governor General of the Philippines. In fact, at the Republican National Convention just a couple of months later, in June, Wood’s popularity was so great that he was tied with Governor Frank Orren Lowden of Illinois for the nomination. However, Warren G. Harding secured the nomination and went on to win the election, serving as our twenty-ninth president. These headlines reveal just two of the major stories that ran in the Huntington Times.
Two other papers have also been digitized and made available on Chronicling America. They are the McDowell Times, edited by M. T. Whittico and the Advocate, edited by J. McHenry Jones, pictured below, other editors unknown.
Like many African Americans in this era, Whittico was a staunch Republican in the party of Lincoln, and the McDowell Times reflected its editor's politics. Whittico used his publishing pulpit to espouse Republican politics to Blacks in the county and region. McDowell County was unique in West Virginia, due to its sizeable Black population, many of whom labored in the coal fields.
With no small pride, the Times declared:
"Negroes are very important political factors in this county...[they] are more thoroughly organized than in any county south of New York."
The Times played no small part in this organization, with a wide-reaching circulation of nearly 5,000. The political clout of the county's African American community was evidenced by Whittico's election to Keystone's City Council, and Whittico's growing importance to the Republican Party was evidenced by his service on the party's state executive committee.
The Advocate was based in the state capital, Charleston. Only one member of the editorial board that managed the newspaper is known, J. McHenry Jones, author of the novel Hearts of Gold, and the first president of the West Virginia Colored Institute, now West Virginia State University. Jones was as active as Clifford in nearly as many different roles. A recognized orator, Jones served as a minister in the African Methodist Church, as a teacher, and a principle of the Lincoln School in Wheeling prior to his term as president of the West Virginia Colored Institute. Surviving issues cover 1907 – 1912.
Right up front, The Advocate didn’t hesitate to make bold statements. One above the masthead reads:
“The Advocate Contains More News than any other Race Paper Published.”
In addition, the paper stated:“The Advocate Reaches More Colored Readers than any Newspaper in West Virginia.”
These were bold claims to make and they may or may not be true. Competition was tough. The Advocate was one of five African American newspapers published in the state at the time, and its competition included two papers founded and edited by the Rev. Dr. C.H. Payne, the Pioneer and the Mountain Eagle, Clifford’s Pioneer Press, and Whittico’ s McDowell Times.
At first, the Advocate, a weekly, ran a full eight pages of news, which may explain why it states, beneath an ad for hair color, titled “You Look Prematurely Old,” is this statement:
“Read every line in this paper and then decide whether or not it contains more real, live race and general news than can be found in any other weekly paper.”
Although the Advocate had a long run, 12 years, longer than most African American newspapers, the paper’s popularity wasn’t to last. In just a few years, the Advocate decreased its length to 6 pages, changing its statement to “We Cheerfully Publish all Crisp News Notes from All Sections.” Quite a different claim from those made earlier.
The three African American newspapers on microfilm mentioned here have been digitized with funding provided by a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress to the WVU Libraries and the West Virginia & Regional History Center. Four more newspapers, a single surviving issue of the Clarion, a single surviving issue of the Huntington Times, and runs of the West Virginia Weekly and the West Virginia Digest, will be digitized during the current grant cycle. Together these papers span more than one hundred years of publication. Now, you can once again flip through the pages of the Pioneer Press, the Advocate and the McDowell Times. It won’t be long before you can read pages from the Clarion , theHuntington Times , theWest Virginia Weekly and the West Virginia Digest. But this time you can view them all for free. And like their original readers, you can read them at home from the comfort of your favorite easy chair. You can also stop by the WVRHC and see them today on microfilm or in their original paper issues.
Up until recently, the state’s only African American newspaper that continued to publish into the 21st century was the Beacon Digest in Charleston, but it too, has folded. The good news is, right now, you are reading a new paper by founder and editor Crystal Goode, Black By God The West Virginian. Subscribe and you can receive paper copies in addition to the online newsletter.
List of West Virginia Historic African American Newspapers Known to Exist by City
- Huntington Enterprise 1885 - Rev. Dr. C. H. Payne
- West Virginia Spokesman: 1900 - C. H. Barnett
- Breeze: 1920s J. W. Scott
- Huntington Times 1918 - A.N. Johnson
- Advocate: 1901 – 1913 J. McHenry Jones and others
- West Virginia Digest: 1939 – 1946 I.J.K. Wells
- Beacon Journal/Beacon Digest: Founded 1957 – 2000s Benjamin R. Starks
- West Virginia Beacon Digest: 1970 – 1989 Benjamin R. Starks
- West Virginia Enterprise: 1885 - Rev. Dr. C. H. Payne
- West Virginia Weekly 1933 – 1935 Earl K. Kogar
- The Star Journal 1962 Editor unknown
- Kanawha Advance 1884 R.B. Robinson
The Clarion T.L. Higgins
McDowell Herald/Times: 1904 – 1941 M.T. Whittico & R.W. White
The Pioneer: 1890s – 1900s Rev. Dr. C. H. Payne
West Virginia Eagle: 1890s – 1900s Rev. Dr. C. H. Payne
The Pioneer Press: 1883 – 1917 J.R. Clifford
Black By God: The West Virginian Crystal Good
- Images: West Virginia & Regional History Center West Virginia History OnView: http://wvhistoryonview.org/
- Image of M. T. Whittico: E-WV (West Virginia Encyclopedia): https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1244
- Image of J. McHenry Jones: Ohio County Public Library: https://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/wheeling-history/5165
- Hart, Betty L. Powell. “Spicy Editorials and Fearless Sayings: the Black Press in West Virginia.” Appalachian Heritage Volume 19, Number 4, Fall 1991
- Hart, Betty L. Powell. “The Black Press in West Virginia: A Brief History,” in Honoring Our Past: Proceedings of the First Two Conferences on West Virginia’s Black History, editors, Trotter, Joe William and Ancella Radford Bickley.
- Fain, Cicero M., III. “Race, River, and the Railroad: Black Huntington, West Virginia, 1871-1929.” OhioLINK: Electronic Theses and Dissertation Center: https://etd.ohiolink.edu/ap/10?0::NO:10:P10_ACCESSION_NUM:osu1258477477
- E-WV: West Virginia Beacon Digest http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1028
- E-WV: Newspapers: http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1666
- Wikipedia: African-American Newspapers:
- Wikipedia: General Leonard Wood: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Wood
- Wikipedia: United States Presidential Election, 1920: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1920
- Wikipedia: Warren G. Harding: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_G._Harding
pp. 51-55 | 10.1353/aph.1991.0120. Project Muse: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/438658/summary Accessed 1/10/17.
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