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Heated Contest Between Two NNPA Publishers Bodes Well for Black Press at 190 Years

By Hazel Trice Edney –


L to R: Denise Rolark-Barnes, Dorothy Leavell

L to R: Denise Rolark-Barnes, Dorothy Leavell

“You’ve got two candidates who’ve got such successful and productive records in the Black press, who are willing to take and run that organization. This is an excellent sign that it’s in good shape,” says A. Peter Bailey, who teaches The History of the Black Press at the University of the District of Columbia and taught the same course for five semesters at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Several factors, including the direction of the organization’s digital growth and journalistic focus make this year’s election especially important. Adding to the interest is the fact that the election is a rematch of sorts. Rolark-Barnes prevailed over Leavell by only six votes in the last election two years ago.

Both women are NNPA veterans with stellar reputations of commitment to the Black press. But Barnes and Leavell are also known for their distinctly different personalities.

Leavell, known for her fiery speeches and fighting spirit, is a National Association of Black Journalist Hall of Fame inductee, who has held a number of NNPA leadership positions, including president during the late 1990s. In her campaign, she promises to fight for government and corporate advertising and to strengthen the NNPA News Wire, which in recent years has been moved from under the NNPA Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit, to the association, which is a 501c6 tax-paying trade organization.

“For those people who know me, they know I fight. And I fight with a big stick and I’m very passionate about the Black press,” Leavell says. “It’s not 1827, but so many of the things that are happening in our community are reminiscent of those very same times. The Black press is an activist press. That’s how it started out.”

On the other hand, the even-tempered Rolark-Barnes is known for her mild manner and deliberate leadership style. She says she and NNPA President Benjamin Chavis have spent the past two years solidifying the infrastructure of the organization including its staffing and digital components, which she said was a crucial mission as the Black press approaches a third century. Building national advertising must be undergirded by a strong infrastructure, she says, “The two go hand-in-hand.”

Rolark-Barnes said, due to the lack of proper staffing and operations, NNPA had even suffered the loss of some of its historic documents. “It was really important to bring all that back in and set it up properly and make sure that when we make commitments, even to our publishers, that we can fulfill those commitments. In order to grow national advertising, we had to have an infrastructure.”

Leavell says she has sent a letter directly to the publishers outlining her vision and agenda. Rolark-Barnes has posted a video message to the organization’s members, outlining the successes and goals of her administration.

The dueling qualifications of Leavell and Rolark-Barnes are well-documented. Both of their award-winning newspapers are more than 50 years old and the legacies and achievements of both women are featured in The HistoryMakers, an online oral history collection of distinguished African-Americans, now featured in the Library of Congress.

Black press historian Dr. Clint Wilson, author of two books, A History of the Black Press and Whither the Black Press, agrees with A. Peter Bailey that the candidacies of Rolark-Barnes and Leavell not only bode well for NNPA, but for the institution of the Black press overall.
“It certainly shows stability,” says Wilson, a former board member of the NNPA Foundation. “I think over all this is a good sign that the Black press still exists” in various forms – the hard copy newspapers and those that have reverted to online publishing. “I think that’s a good sign of progress.”

Wilson also noted progress in the fact that an institution started by two men now has two women contending for leadership. He was speaking of John Brown Russwurm and Samuel Eli Cornish, who together founded the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal on March 16, 1827.

The popular quote from their first editorial is known well to Black press enthusiasts: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly.”

Wilson concludes that one thing is clear. That is the void that still must be filled by the Black press: “There is a challenge to all newspapers right now in this high tech era. But the most important thing, looking back over the past 190 years. That is that the need is the same…Clearly, Black people have a continuing and ongoing need for the news that they can rely upon that is representative of the community and that has the community’s interest at heart.”