African American Newspaper Editors in Early 20th Century Florida

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Photograph of M.M. Lewey and other staff of the Florida Sentinel. From The New York Public Library Digital Collections

As you may have guessed, the people running this blog really enjoy Florida history. We love finding new topics to write about by not only exploring our papers but also the books and articles historians have written about the state. Occasionally, we learn about an event or person we think will allow us to write a great post only to find out that our papers don’t discuss the matter at all! One such topic that is largely absent from our papers is the existences of and opinions in the African American press in Florida in the early 20th century.

Journalism professor Patrick S. Washburn describes the role of the black press in America as “operating against a background of continual inequalities for blacks and a white America that routinely, and sometimes fiercely and even illogically, fought the granting of any new rights, black newspapers came to be in the vanguard of the struggle.” He also argues that the black press was necessary because of the racial bias in white papers. Simply put, “white newspapers virtually refused to cover blacks unless they were athletic stars, entertainers, or criminals, blacks were forced to read their own papers to learn about everyday black life in communities across the country” (Washburn 5-6). Because the African American press was so intentionally focused on black news and concerns, it may not be surprising that the white-run Florida papers we’ve digitized, which do refer to each other frequently, by and large don’t address the existence of the black press.  However, we will point out that some papers had regularly occurring columns or pages that made space for African American news, but, in our collection of papers, this example seems to be the exception and not the rule. Some of the more outspokenly segregationist papers in Florida at this time opposed the inclusion of such columns with the argument that it involves “pushing the negro forward to a place where he does not belong.”

Gainsville Lewey Praise
The Gainesville daily sun-March 9, 1908

Despite the infrequent mention of the African American press, there is a pleasantly surprising amount of positive coverage of Editor Matthew M. Lewey (stylized as M. M. Lewey) and the Florida Sentinel. The paper served a variety of cites during its publication period. It was published in Gainesville from 1887-1894, Pensacola from 1894-1914, and Jacksonville from 1914-1931. Lewey was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1848 and, prior to moving to Florida, he served in the Civil War for the Union. He eventually became involved in politics and served as both a Justice of the Peace for Alachua County and a member of the Florida House of Representatives prior to starting the Florida Sentinel.

During Lewey’s time in Pensacola, The Pensacola journal regularly discussed his involvement with groups like the Negro Business League and Republican Party. Lewey also supported education for African Americans, even appearing and traveling with Booker T. Washington when he visited Florida in 1912. The white press was generally complimentary of his work with both The Chipley banner and the Gainesville daily sun complementing his work. The Pensacola journal seemed to praise the Christmas edition of the Florida Sentinel almost annually as well as their annual special edition published in the summer. The Pensacola journal’s praise for the 1912 special edition highlights the “graphic account of the recent tour of Dr. Booker t. Washington through Florida” calling the paper “a very fine effort” while also denoting that it is “a negro newspaper.”

Republicans hold meeting
The Pensacola journal-January 27, 1912

Despite the considerable praise The Pensacola journal heaped on M.M. Lewey, their coverage of his activities eventually and abruptly ceased. We know that he moved the paper to Jacksonville in 1914, but to our knowledge there is no mention of it occurring in our newspapers. However, in the year prior to the move, his name does begin to appear in the legal notice section of the paper. In one announcement, the manager of Ferris Warehouse and Storage Co. was to “sell to the highest bidder for cash, one lot of household furniture, property of M. M. Lewey, stored in our warehouse upon which no charges have ever been paid.” And on September 23, 1913 there is a story about the City Tax Collector seizing his property to cover taxes he owed. This is the last story about Lewey in The Pensacola journal and it stands in stark contrast to the tone of the other articles in which he is discussed.

Washington Lakeland Lewey
The Lakeland evening telegram-March 2, 1912

If you are interested in learning more about African American run historic newspapers in Florida, we do have some suggestions for further readings. If you’d like a list of black newspapers, the Florida Journalism History Project includes as list historic and contemporary African American newspapers in the state. Additionally, Julian C. Chambliss, a history professor at Rollins College, has worked to digitize surviving portions of The Winter Park Advocate which began publication in 1889. Archives are created and maintained by humans and are very much reflective of their time. Both consequently and unfortunately, archivists in the early to mid-20th century often did not include African American papers in their collections. Because of this, the voices of many African American papers in Florida have not survived and, unless copies of papers are discovered and preserved, may be lost forever.

Citations and Additional Sources:

Brown, Canter. Florida’s Black Public Officials, 1867-1924. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

Pride, Armistead S. and Clint C. Wilson II. A History of the Black Press. Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

Washburn, Patrick S. The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom. Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 2006.

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