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Community celebrates The Weekly Challenger and its founder

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Friends of strays. Amy and Jeff Raab with Alex.

Nikki Gaskin-Capehart reminded the crowd packing the Coliseum for the 50th anniversary of The Weekly Challenger of an important milestone in many St. Petersburg lives over the past five decades.

"How many of you remember the first time you saw your picture in The Weekly Challenger?" she asked. "Some of us have to remember a little further back than others," she added with a laugh.

The paper started by Cleveland Johnson in 1967 had two main goals: to print more news about the black community than was on the "Negro page" in what was then The St. Petersburg Times, and to print positive news about African Americans.

"Other people gave us a half a page and he gave us a whole newspaper. He gave us a voice when he had none," Pastor Wayne Thompson, from the First Baptist Institutional Church, said in a prayer before the dinner.

Johnson’s daughter, Lyn Johnson, is now the paper’s publisher and editor. Her father died in 2011.

"I hope to continue the legacy my father built for years to come and ensure that the voice of the local African American community is not stifled," she said.

Acclaimed actress and St. Petersburg native Angela Bassett gave a shout-out to the newspaper via a recorded video, calling it "a beacon and bridge in our community."

Gwen Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, led a tribute to leaders who made a difference in the city’s black community that was also narrated by state Sen. Darryl Rouson, Angela Fletcher and Daniel Sanders.

"Where outhouses and unpaved streets were common, people pulled together," Reese said, "our stories tell of the rise over adversity." Local heroes who were highlighted included Johnnie Ruth Clarke, the first African-American to receive a doctorate from the University of Florida’s College of Education; Don McRae, the first African American city manager; Willie Lee McAdams, founder of Happy Workers child care center; Bette Wimbish, the first black city council member; Ralph Wimbish, who led desegregation efforts and James B. Sanderlin, the first black circuit court judge.

Three community leaders received Impact Awards: Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College, Terri Lipsey Scott, director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum, and Louis Murphy, a wide receiver who played for the University of Florida and three professional teams including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who hosts and supports local youth programs.

At the end of the program there was an appeal for donations for The Weekly Challenger, which is struggling financially, like most newspapers. Donations came through the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center, which was the organizing agent for the celebration.

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Three things garnered even more praise than the much- admired glass works of art at the Duncan McClellan Gallery, where Friends of Strays held its recent fundraiser. While guests "oohed" and "aahed" at glass sculptures made by McClellan and other artists, they were even more enthusiastic about their own cats, dogs and where they came from, Friends of Strays.

"We wanted to have two cats and we really liked that Friends of Strays was a no-kill shelter," McClellan said, describing how he and his wife, Irene, adopted their pets. "Friends of Strays makes such an impact on these cats and dogs they have rescued."

Amy and Jeff Raab brought their 6-month-old dog to the party titled "Wags and Whiskers, A Hepcat Ball."

"She’s a mix of mixes," Amy Raab said. The dog, Rachel, was rescued along with two siblings and became known at the shelter as one of "the Friends dogs," because upon arrival at Friends of Strays they were named Rachel, Phoebe and Chandler after characters on the television show. Phoebe and Chandler were adopted, too, and when they all get together to play, they are visibly excited to see each other, she said, "It’s like not a day has passed."

Bill and Susan Gooch took in two cats named Simon and Misty as foster pets with the understanding that it was only temporary and when they were adopted the animals would leave the Gooches.

"I was taking them back to (Friends of Strays) to get spayed and neutered and Bill came after me and said we needed to keep them (permanently) for our family," Susan Gooch recounted.

Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at [email protected] Follow @snowsmith.