History & Heritage: Area newspapers slow to cover African-American communities

Published June 30 2016
Updated July 1 2016

During the era of segregation, African-Americans were excluded from almost every facet of white society.

That exclusion extended to the major local newspapers of the time, including the Tampa Morning Tribune, Tampa Daily Times, St. Petersburg Times and the St. Petersburg Evening Independent. Unless they were the perpetrator (either alleged or proven) or victim of a crime, African-Americans simply did not exist in the eyes of the area's newspaper editors.

As a result of this exclusion, a small but important black press emerged in Tampa and elsewhere in Florida. One of first black-owned newspapers in Florida was the Florida Sentinel, published as early as 1887 in Pensacola.

Tampa's first black newspaper hit the streets in the fall of 1912. Known as the Florida Reporter, it was founded by Thomas Davis, who arrived in Tampa that same year after spending time in the newspaper business in Panama near the Canal Zone. The Reporter's office was located on Scott Street and was part of the growing Central Avenue business district.

The Reporter did not last long, but by 1916 a new African-American newspaper began publication in Tampa. The Tampa Bulletin would prove more successful than its predecessor, even briefly becoming a daily newspaper in the mid 1920s

The Jacksonville-based Florida Sentinel (unrelated to the Pensacola paper of the same name) began publication in 1919 with William Andrews as the publisher and editor. Andrews' son, C. Blythe Andrews, moved to Tampa in the 1930s, working in real estate and insurance. In 1945, he revived his father's paper in his adopted hometown. The Sentinel purchased the Bulletin in 1959, becoming the Florida Sentinel Bulletin.

During the 1930s, Tampa's white dailies began to see the potential to expand their readership, so coverage of African-Americans began to change. David Smiley, publisher of the Tampa Daily Times, initiated what came to be known as the "Jim Crow" edition of that newspaper. While Smiley would have preferred a true integration of African-American news into the pages of the Times, he surmised that the public was not ready for such a dramatic shift in policy.

His compromise consisted of running an edition of the newspaper and, instead of running the entertainment page, it substituted news from Tampa's black community. The substitution was no accident. Since African-Americans were barred from Tampa's theaters and other entertainment venues, there was no need to include that page in that edition.

According to the late Hampton Dunn, a veteran of Tampa's newspaper business (quoted in The Tampa Tribune: A Century of Florida Journalism), the Times' black edition "was filled mostly with church and social notes. We had a black on the staff, George Carr, when I was there. He had graduated — played football — at Bethune-Cookman. He was a real nice, fine gentleman … he was hustling to get all that stuff. … Of course, we'd make the pictures big of the brides, the preachers, and stuff."

While it was the only way African-Americans made it into the pages of the Times, Dunn concluded "at least we had this page. It was a daily. And it wasn't a pull-out."

The same could not be said for the larger Tampa Tribune. It would take another 20 years or so, into the 1950s, until African-Americans would consistently, and fairly, find their way into the Tribune's pages.

Unlike in Tampa, both of St. Petersburg's daily papers ran an African-American page, and unlike the Daily Times, the black pages in St. Petersburg were not produced on a daily basis. The St. Petersburg Times did not specifically classify its page as such until the late 1950s, eventually using the tag line "Local and National Negro News." The Evening Independent's page, by the early 1940s, carried the banner "News of the Negro Community."

The slow process of social integration, sparked by Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation, led to the eventual end of the Jim Crow pages. The St. Petersburg Times hired Peggy Peterman in 1965 to write for its Negro news page. Peterman soon came to see this page as a symbol of segregation and a vehicle for Jim Crow real estate ads. She wrote a 14-page memo asking for the page to be abolished and the news to be integrated. The paper did just that in 1967.

Peterman went on to become a ground-breaking reporter, columnist and editorial writer at the Times for 31 years. She retired in 1996 and died in 2004.

With the increased coverage of African-Americans in the daily papers, the popularity of black-owned newspapers began a steady decline. By the 2000s, the newspaper industry as a whole started to see its numbers dwindle. Despite this, the Florida Sentinel Bulletin is still owned by the Andrews family and publisher Sybil Kay Andrews, appearing in newsstands twice a week.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library and the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes comments and questions, and can be reached via email, [email protected], or by phone, (813) 228-0097.

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