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The legacy of Central Florida’s black press 

The voice of the voiceless

Hours after the flames had burned Ocoee to the ground and the town's black inhabitants had fled for their lives into the darkness, Orlando's daily newspapers churned out their version of what happened on Election Day 1920, in what later became known as the Ocoee Massacre.

"RACE TROUBLE AT OCOEE CLAIMS 2 WHITE VICTIMS," reads part of a headline from the Orlando Morning Sentinel's Nov. 3 edition.

The Morning Sentinel and another local paper, the Evening Reporter-Star, spun a similar tale about the day, which told of a black man who started a riot after he was refused the right to vote because he hadn't paid his poll tax. The man, Mose Norman, was sent away, according to the stories, but he returned with a shotgun and later, a "band of enraged Negroes," according to the Morning Sentinel. The newspapers reported that Norman visited Julius "July" Perry at the latter's home, which was filled with armed African-Americans. When the white citizens of Ocoee and surrounding areas went to arrest Norman, Perry was said to have shot at the crowd, killing two former soldiers and injuring others. During the fight, 25 homes, two churches and a lodge meeting hall in the black section of Ocoee were razed and an unknown number of black people were killed, according to the newspapers.

"It is declared that between 500 and 1,000 rounds of ammunition exploded in the church and in Perry's house where the congregated and desperate blacks fought like demons," the Morning Sentinel reported on Nov. 4, 1920. "Examination of the ... destroyed negro houses revealed numerous firearms of large and small caliber."

Perry was captured and taken to the Orlando jail, where he was forcibly removed from the custody of the authorities and lynched in downtown Orlando.

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For a long time, this was the only local account of what had happened to Ocoee's thriving black community. Then in 1989, Essence magazine published an article about the incident written by Zora Neale Hurston. The Eatonville author and journalist wrote her account of the event in 1939, which she contributed to the Florida division of the Federal Writers' Project, part of the Works Progress Administration. It was never published.

Hurston spins a political tale as well as one of heroism. Poor white Democrats resented the large number of Republican African-Americans who were voting that day and tried stopping them at the polls. Norman was taking down the names of all the black people who had tried to vote, and the white people who had stopped them, when a shotgun was found in his car. Norman ran, and somehow word reached the white mob that he was hiding at the home of Perry, who was a prosperous farmer and contractor.

"So night dusted down on Ocoee, with the mobs seeking blood and ashes and July Perry standing his lone watch over his rights to life and property," Hurston wrote.

The only people inside the home with Perry were his wife and daughter. After the shooting was over, Perry's wife tried to help him escape into a cane patch, but he was found and taken to Orlando. The Ocoee residents who had not escaped or hidden in the orange groves were shot and burned to death, the buildings consumed by fire.

"It was after sun-up when the mob stormed the jail and dragged him out and tied him to the back of a car and killed him and left his body swinging to a telephone post beside the highway," she wrote. "That was the end of what happened in Ocoee on Election Day, 1920."

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The discrepancies between the two stories of the Ocoee Massacre were – and to some degree still are – typical when white, mainstream publications reported on black communities. According to the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade association for the 200 existing black newspapers operating in the United States, it was once customary for the white-owned press to malign the black community. So in 1827, a group of free African-Americans met to discuss the need for a publication that advocated against slavery and countered the one-dimensional, racist narratives that were common at the time. That year, they founded the first African-American periodical in the country, called Freedom's Journal.

"We wish to plead our own cause," the Journal's editors, the Rev. Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm, wrote. "Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly."

Leading editors and contributors to the black press, like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, advocated against slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and later on, segregation. For 126 years, black journalists like Zora Neale Hurston documented the joys and tribulations of black families, friends and neighbors living in Central Florida and beyond, capturing the humanity often ignored by mainstream publications that often used slurs and derision to describe black people. Local African-American newspapers provided a forum for discussion of the social, political and economic interests of the black community while also acting as a catalyst for progress in Orlando and nearby cities.

Headlines of today may differ, and mainstream newsrooms may be more diverse than ever, which may lead some to think there's no need for publications that cater solely to African-Americans. Although the media market is constantly changing, and it can be a struggle for publishers to keep newspapers alive, there are still a handful of black newspapers operating in the Orlando area.

With smaller staffs and fewer advertising dollars, Central Florida's black press delivers news for African-Americans beyond the "pathologies and exceptions," as The Philadelphia Tribune managing editor Irv Randolph calls it, for a more complete and nuanced picture of everyday life in black communities. In other words, African-American communities still need the kind of voice that only the black press offers.

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Over the past year, if you only read mainstream publications or watched local TV roundups, the news you probably heard about West Orlando painted it as an impoverished, crime-riddled blight holding back a city striving to be more than an international tourist destination. Briefs on juvenile shootings and sex trafficking, mixed with features about police brutality, dominated the narrative of neighborhoods like Pine Hills, Parramore, Washington Shores, Holden Heights, Callahan and the Mercy Drive Corridor. Black bodies lived and died, many shortchanged by drugs and violence.

However, if you happened to pick up a copy of the Florida Sun Review, Orlando's oldest African-American newspaper, you'd have seen something different. You might have recognized that the black community in Orlando is interested in hearing about more than the latest crime stats and that it's having its own dialogues about everything from economic development to personal achievement to politics. From a snug turquoise room in his home, Jim Madison, publisher of the Florida Sun Review, and his reporters clatter away at two computers, chronicling communities from Sanford to Kissimmee.

"We're going to be occupied for a while with the election year coming up and the Republican field," he says. "We're getting more and more black Republicans, which I don't think a lot of other black newspapers cover, but we do to be fair. The black community, like any other community, is not a monolith and those voices should also be heard."

The weekly paper is distributed for free in African-American churches, restaurants, barbershops and salons. In December, the Review's audience read stories on the continuing case of Sandra Bland, local church and HBCU happenings, the Democratic Party's treatment of Bernie Sanders, NAACP politics and the latest in African-American literature.

"The concept of a black press in America was started to tell stories from our own point of view," says Madison, who took over as sole publisher of the Review in 2007. "If there was a murder, the mainstream press and TV would do stories just using the police report, so we would do more in-depth reporting. We felt they were not being told correctly, and the Florida Sun Review won awards because we pointed out some of those discrepancies."

The tradition of providing a counterpoint to the mainstream media's portrayal of black life in Central Florida began with one of Winter Park's founders and the state's first black traveling salesman, Gustavus Christopher Henderson.

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In 1886, after he was fired from his sales job when his white colleagues complained to his employer that he was black, Henderson moved to Hannibal Square, an African-American community on the west side of Winter Park. There the 24-year-old started a general printing and publishing company, according to records from the Winter Park Public Library and Rollins College.

A year later, two men from the Winter Park Company, Loring Chase and Oliver Chapman, wanted to incorporate Winter Park as a city. The white community in the area was opposed to allowing the black Republican population of Hannibal Square to become part of their community, but Henderson was not going to allow his community to be shut out. According to documents at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, he successfully rallied African-Americans to march across the railroad dividing the two communities and vote to include Hannibal Square in Winter Park. The community also elected Walter B. Simpson and Frank R. Israel as the first two black representatives of Winter Park's city government.

Knee-deep in local politics, Henderson decided to found the Winter Park Advocate in 1889, one of only two black-owned newspapers in Florida at the time. His publication was unique in that it was popular among black and white residents alike. He printed stories on the opening of the first school for black children in Hannibal Square, local elections and the nearby all-black town of Eatonville. (Eatonville had its own newspaper, the Eatonville Speaker, which listed a "G.C. Henderson" as its business manager and called for black people to solve the "race problem" by moving to the town, says Scot French, director of public history at the University of Central Florida.)

Julian Chambliss, chair of Rollins College's history department, says it was common in Southern cities to suppress the black vote through legal methods, such as the poll tax, literacy tests and redistricting, to more violent methods, like lynchings and mob violence. But in smaller towns like Winter Park, black and white residents could interact in a less intense environment, which is why Henderson's paper was so successful – he could operate a newspaper for the entire community and still ensure that African-Americans had a voice in town.

"Henderson is active in a period where white Democrats are trying to push people out of the public sphere," Chambliss says. "And he says, 'No, I don't want to be pushed out.'"

When the Advocate stopped publishing in 1891, Henderson moved to Orlando, where the lines of segregation were harder to push through. He started another black newspaper called The Christian Recorder, later known as just The Recorder, in which he published articles arguing in favor of better education and voting rights for African-Americans. It operated until his death in 1915.

After that, no known black newspaper published in Orlando until 1931, well after the Ocoee Massacre, when J. Lawrence Bowden and his wife Lena Cowan Bowden founded the Florida Sun. At one point, according to Madison, it was called the Florida Sun and Mirror before it joined with a bimonthly publication called the Orlando Review, and was renamed the Florida Sun Review. In 1945, Benjamin C. Hubert founded another black Orlando newspaper, the Central Florida Times, but it closed four years later, writes black historian and Florida Sen. Geraldine Thompson in her manuscript "Toward the Paved Road."

Central Florida was a racial hotbed through the late '40s and early '50s. In 1949, the infamous case of the Groveland Four, in which four African-American men were wrongfully accused and later convicted of gang-raping a white woman in Lake County, made headlines. But those headlines were, according to a 2014 case study published by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice's Center on Media Crime and Justice, markedly biased against the black defendants. In fact, the publication notes, "mob journalism" actually made media reports on the case into a tool for the prosecution.

Harry T. Moore, a member of the NAACP and a pioneer for civil rights in Florida, was involved with the case until he and his wife, Harriette Moore, were murdered by a bomb placed under their home. His death was barely covered by the local media.

The 1970s saw a small expansion in Orlando's black press. While the Florida Sun and Mirror was being sold in 1975 and undergoing a name change, the Orlando Times was established in 1976 by four local professionals with no newspaper experience, says the son of one founder and the Times' current editor, Kevin Collins.

"Incidents before the early '70s caused the doctors and lawyers who started the paper to feel there was a void, a different side of the story not being told," he says. "The coverage the black community was getting was not going to be fair coverage, so we needed to provide our own. ... We became the voice, the eyes and the ears for our community."

Both papers, like other black publications across the country, became staples in African-American cultural institutions. Aside from community news, the papers included various opinion columns, sports news, and national and international wire reports about black people from the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

Through the '80s and '90s, the Times published stories on the Rodney King case, President Ronald Reagan's assault on affirmative action, a series on Orlando's black pioneers and the Rosewood Massacre. In 1994, another black newspaper, the Central Florida Advocate, was started by the Rev. Kevin Seraaj and his partners.

As a young journalist in Orlando, Rebekah McCloud worked for both the Times and the Review before becoming an educator. The subjects she covered varied from the beginning of the city's relationship with Disney to local officials like City Commissioner Nap Ford, but they always had one thing in common: They were told from a perspective that kept Orlando's black community at the forefront.

"What I found was when other people told our stories, they focused on the violence, but black people exist beyond that," says McCloud, who is now the director of the PRIME STEM project at UCF. "Writing for the black press gave me the opportunity to give a voice to my people."

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But does the black press truly play a vital role in the media landscape? Some say it's outlived its usefulness. In his 2014 book, Whither the Black Press?: Glorious Past, Uncertain Future, author Clint C. Wilson II argues that a lack of resources and other factors have caused the influence of black newspapers to wane.

Unlike when the first African-American newspapers were founded to counter the skewed perspectives of all-white newsrooms, these days black reporters are part of the mainstream media, which has begun to focus on issues important to black Americans. In the last two years, for instance, the criminal justice department's treatment of African-Americans has been front and center as major media outlets follow the cases of Bland, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and more recently, Laquan McDonald.

"In the wake of the election of the first Black President of the United States it is possible the black press won the war for social equality it waged for more than 185 years," Wilson writes.

While most journalism students get angry comments or letters when they upset readers, Rhetta Peoples remembers when she worked for Florida A&M University's radio station WAMF 90.5 in the early '90s, people claiming to be with the Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist groups would call the station and threaten to come by.

"We knew when our dean would get those calls because he would come in to the station, and you could see the fear on his face," she says. "He would always tell us to never leave the station alone if it was after 5 p.m."

But even after stints working in the mainstream press, Peoples kept coming back to black media. Currently she writes weekly opinion pieces and the occasional article for the Florida Sun Review. She also runs the blog "Being Black in Orlando" on hypeorlando.com, an online publishing platform created by the Orlando Sentinel.

"I kept jumping back toward the black press because there's such a need there," she says. "So much that happens in American politics is never covered from a person of color's eyes. The mainstream media doesn't have enough black reporters to cover it from an inside perspective."

More journalists of color are employed in newsrooms today than they ever have been before – 13.34 percent of newsroom employees were of a race other than white in 2014, compared to 3.95 percent in 1978, according to the American Society of News Editors census – but that's still not representative of the fact that 37.4 percent of people in the United States are people of color.

LaFontaine Oliver, president of WMFE 90.7 FM and the Central Florida Association of Black Journalists, says black journalists bring the collective African-American experience to the forefront – a perspective that's usually missing in most publications.

"It's news that comes from a slightly different lens," he says. "Part of what was talked about in the 1968 Kerner Report [a commission established to investigate the race riots that swept the United States in 1967] is that a lot of the views in the media came from a dominantly white male perspective. Whether it's the black press or a columnist like Darryl Owens at the Sentinel, as a black journalist you bring that history that allows others to identify in a different way."

Even when traditional outlets do hire black reporters or report on issues that are important to African-Americans, Sen. Thompson says, nothing can replace the role of stories published by outlets devoted solely to the black experience.

"I think a person working at an African-American publication can probably relate to African-Americans in a different way, more sympathetic than the mainstream media," she says. "You saw what happened with Hurricane Katrina. The images the mainstream media projected were of people looting and engaging in illegal activities when in fact things were very different. Those projections endanger young African-American men, because they're portrayed as anti-social, dangerous and threatening, and some law enforcement, and the George Zimmermans of the world, react based on that."

That doesn't mean it's easy. Just like mainstream media outlets, members of the black press are faced with the challenge of competing with the Internet for audience share. Millennials, for instance, are seeking a lot of their news from online sources like Twitter, which helps propel stories about black lives into the public consciousness.

Chambliss says the use of social media, like so-called "Black Twitter," to narrate the black experience helps paint a larger picture of what is happening nationally.

"You have serious, dedicated people narrating their experiences to other concerned people across the country," he says. "Local experiences are recognized as part of the national oppression. They're trying to give you a sense of the race. You can watch the news on TV and nothing is happening, but if you go on Twitter, you can see people protesting or reporting that police are shooting at them."

Both Madison and Collins say black readers in Orlando still respond to the printed version of their publications, despite the focus on social media, which is why that's still their focus. "What makes our day is when a grandmother calls wanting 30 copies of the paper because her grandson is on the cover," Collins says. "There's still pride in seeing yourself in print. It makes it seem more real than just a web page."

Madison says he's trying to develop enough print revenue to create a better online presence, but he says it's expensive, and advertising dollars can be tough to chase down. While larger publications with broader audiences have a larger advertising base, black newspapers have to rely on their immediate communities to support them.

"We have to go within our own community and survive off that," he says. "We feel we should be getting that advertising over other weeklies with a much smaller circulation. That's the only part I'm not pleased about. Not being taken seriously by corporate America."

Collins says that even though it's a tight market, and the Florida Sun Review and Orlando Times are independent publications, he and Madison try to collaborate rather than compete, sharing tips on advertising and ways to generate revenue. Because in the end, he says, it's less about the money and more about the legacy of the black press.

"All of us in the black press are brothers," Collins says. "Even though we compete, at the end of the day we feel we can't let one of our own fail because that's one less voice for our community. Brother Jim and I are very good friends. The mainstream papers can be cutthroat with the competition, but for us it's more of a kinship. We are struggling trying to do this, but we're doing it together, and that in itself is a beautiful thing."

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