Andrew J. Smitherman: A Pioneer of the African American Press, 1909-1961

Article excerpt

  "A.J. Smitherman is not only a very able journalist, a truly loyal
  race man and an eloquent speaker, but he is one of the heroes of
  the race."
  Monroe Trotter,
  Editor and Publisher of Boston Guardian, 1934

From the time of their inception, African American newspapers served both as an instrument for disseminating information, and as a platform for social and political advocacy within the African American community. They were in many instances the only source for documenting and preserving African American history. This article examines the life and work of one of the most persevering and inspiring examples of African American newspaper editors, whose long and productive career is not recognized among the historical community. His name is Andrew J. Smitherman, the first African American newspaper editor and publisher to produce a long-running daily in the state of Oklahoma. (2) Who after his exile from Oklahoma following the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, went on courageously and against all odds to lead a successful career in journalism for an additional 35 years.

Smitherman appears in several scholarly works, which examine his role in the Tulsa race riot of 1921. (3) However, these works do not examine his life beyond his sudden departure from Oklahoma in 1921. His partial autobiography and related sources in Buffalo, New York have been overlooked as evidence for documenting his life and career. Some historians of the African American press mention Smitherman, but these references are usually limited to his work in Tulsa. Despite the identification of Smitherman with Tulsa Oklahoma, it needs to be recognized that his life did not begin in Tulsa, Oklahoma, nor did it end there in 1921, but continued on to Buffalo, New York, where he resurrected his work as a successful journalist, publishing for another 35 years.

In order to appreciate the life of Andrew J. Smitherman it is important to understand the history of African American newspapers. During the early period of the 19th century, the most prevalent concern in African American newspapers was the abolition of slavery. After the Civil War, Reconstruction came to the forefront and African American press was bursting with concerns about political freedom and social equality. In fact, the repression of African Americans and its many forms particularly violence would dominate the pages well into the 20th century. Newspapers would also serve as a means to recognize and applaud the success and progress of individuals in the African American community.

The purpose and content of African American newspapers are often indicated by the title of the paper; titles such as The Crisis, Challenger, Defender, or Advocate. Central themes in African American newspapers have been racial justice, freedom, and equal rights. The African American press has been an organ of protest and has served to connect the African American community nationwide. It allowed its readers to become acquainted with the leaders of their communities, as well as those in other cities and states. African Americans also read white newspapers, but found them lacking in articles specific to their needs. (4) Editors and publishers of African American newspapers faced the difficult task of running and maintaining their publications with very little support from the white community and had to rely on their subscribers for financial stability. (5) Smitherman began his newspaper career on the cusp of African Americans' migration north, just prior to World War I, a period that coincided with the rise of the "Negro press." (6)

Much of what is known about Smitherman's early life comes from his autobiography, that he began writing in September 1960. He published it in weekly installments in the Buffalo, New York Empire Star where he had been editor and chief since 1932. He completed a total of 39 installments before his life was cut short on June 20, 1961, at the age of 74, due to heart failure. …