Clergy, civil rights organizations, lawyers, activists, students, federal judges: such are the familiar agents whose actions helped the civil rights struggles of mid-twentieth-century America ultimately achieve landmark victories. To this list of key agents an additional category should be added: black-owned newspapers. Amy Helene Forss’s superbly researched biography provides an informative case study of publisher Mildred Brown (1905–89), whose Omaha Star newspaper, founded in 1938, played a critical role in spurring Omaha’s transition toward greater respect and opportunity for the city’s black residents.
Forss ably recounts how the Star, in concert with local community activists, pressed in the late 1940s and the 1950s for an end to blatant employment discrimination by businesses including the local streetcar operator, Coca-Cola, and white-owned retail stores in the predominantly black “near north side.” Brown pushed the Omaha school district to open teaching positions in white-majority schools to African-American applicants. In the 1960s, the Star’s campaign against housing discrimination was a central focus. [End Page 160] The struggle was a difficult, decade-long one, culminating in 1969 with passage by the City Council of an ordinance banning restrictive covenants.
As Forss’s study shows, matters of liberty and opportunity that in the present day are often taken for granted—applying for a job, buying a home, seeing neighborhood residents of color hired at local business establishments—were, only a few generations ago, matters of great controversy and struggle not only in the American South but also in the country’s Midwest.
Black Print with a White Carnation (Mildred Brown’s outfits over the decades were ubiquitously adorned by a flower, most often a carnation) provides insightful succinct background on black-owned newspapers in North America, going back to the cofounding of the antislavery Provincial Freeman in Windsor, Canada, in 1853 by Mary Ann Shadd Cary. “The nationwide lifespan of minority weeklies averaged a mere nine years of operation,” Forss writes, “and of these 2,700 black newspapers published between 1827 and 1951, only 175 weeklies existed by the midcentury mark.” The high-water mark for black newspapering in terms of circulation and influence came during 1939–45, with circulations of 350,000 for the Pittsburgh Courier; 230,000 for the Chicago Defender; and 170,000 for the Baltimore Afro-American.
The Omaha Star maintained its financial viability, Forss explains, due to Mildred Brown’s business savvy, aggressiveness in pursuing ad sales, and promotional skills both locally and nationally. Brown “emulated her fellow black newspaper owners, men like Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, and Robert Vann, creator of the Pittsburgh Courier, and especially women like her contemporary Charlotta Bass, who owned the California Eagle.”
Throughout her publishing career, Brown’s messaging to Omaha’s black community was grounded in what Forss terms a “politics of respectability,” by which people of color were encouraged to “conform to the white majority’s societal standard of manners and morals.” Brown’s focus on respectability and propriety would be sorely tested in late 1960s. “As a woman in her later sixties, Brown did not identify with the new generation of assertive black male leaders in the black power movement,” Forss writes. “Nevertheless, she persevered by revising her strategies to fit the changing times. She used the Star to encourage and unify black residents during Omaha’s three race riots and campaigned against a freeway project that would physically divide the already isolated black community.” [End Page 161]
Forss’s impressive research for this biography included extensive documentary study to trace Brown’s family roots in Alabama. Forss discovered not only that Brown’s great-grandparents were an interracial couple (a white landowner married via common law to his ex-slave) but also that when that patriarch died, his biracial sons successfully sued in 1899 to obtain their inheritance. In that same era, Nebraska lawmakers passed an 1893 civil rights law—a law that in the mid-twentieth century, Mildred Brown and other Omaha activists...