A Tricentennial Salute to the Black Press in New Orleans

By Shearon Roberts

Christopher Dylan Brown graduated with the Class of 2018 from Xavier University of Louisiana this May. The New Orleans native and mass communication major took my journalism and converged media courses as a student and will ultimately pursue a career in public relations. But on March 15, 2018 he paid his first visit to the African-American Museum in Washington, D.C. and he spotted an exhibit item dedicated to the African-American Press called “The Power of the Press.” The exhibit text singled out 1827 when Freedom’s Journal first published in New York City.

“Ever since, African-Americans have used the press to establish an independent voice for Black communities and advance the struggle for freedom and equality,” the exhibit text noted of the significance of what is currently called today the Black Press. Brown immediately recalled his time in my classes where he got the opportunity to write and report for the Black Press in New Orleans, thanks to a partnership that is now in its fourth year. He texted me:

“I’m at the African-American Museum in D.C. Saw this and immediately thought of you…Thank you so much for all that you do and [have] done.”

I want to take his thanks and hit forward and send over to the Black Press in New Orleans, the place where I first cut my teeth in journalism more than a decade ago when I was a sophomore at Dillard University. An editor at Data News Weekly took me personally in her car to cover the Black Circus when it visited the City. My eyes were open to stories about Black people, for Black people, produced by Black people. I went on to a career in mainstream media, but my first experience as a reporter for Data News Weekly years ago shaped my career in journalism. Now I get to play it forward as I provide my students with the same experience as a professor of mass communication.

As New Orleans marks its tricentennial year, the City’s African-American newspapers are a much often overlooked fabric of the New Orleans story. It has been a tool for challenging historic wrongs for Black people in this City. The Black Press in New Orleans has challenged segregation, lynching, housing, education and social injustice. It is also a place of recording the notable firsts of African-Americans in New Orleans and the State of Louisiana, that don’t make the headlines in the mainstream media.

Yet 300 years later, the Black Press in New Orleans is not just a bygone institution, it still lives and breathes and inspires the latest generation of millennials who will take up careers in the media. Four years ago, my colleague Dr. Sheryl Kennedy Haydel and I developed a partnership that allowed students at Xavier and at Dillard University to cover the community and have their reports published in the City’s African-American newspapers. To date, over 500 stories have been reported from mass communication students. Some now hold jobs in newsrooms and communications offices in the City and across the country. However, they first cut their teeth understanding the power and responsibility of the media in the City’s Black Press. In marking the 300 years of this City, these millennial students speak for their generation to highlight what the Black Press still represents today. As contributors to this civic exercise of journalism, these students see that their work provides a rough cut to history that tells the stories of Black people as told from our own voices.

Reflections from the Spring 2018 Reporting Class:

“Instead of reading about my community or learning about it from a secondary source, I was able to interact with the African-American community firsthand,” said Amyre Brandom Skinner, a mass communication major, who wants to one-day work in International Public Relations. “For once, our community was uplifted in the media and I played a role in highlighting Black excellence, service, and culture. I can only hope my future work allows me to do the same,” said Brandom Skinner, a native of Detroit, Mich.

“As a young African-American woman, writing stories about people of color is an inspiration for me, because growing up I noticed that the media displayed more negative than positive stories about the Black community,” said Jade Myers, a mass communication major who was born in New Orleans, but raised in Houston, Texas and who hopes to work one day as a broadcast reporter. “Currently writing for Black publications, I have been inspired to write about a broad range of stories in the Black community, from the importance of equity in the Black community to traditional New Orleans parades. While beginning my career journey, I observed that the Black community has so much more to offer then what is often displayed to audiences. As my journey towards my career continues, I hope to be the one to change the negative portrayal of African-Americans in media and instead get the positive stories of the Black community heard.”

Jared Braud, a New Orleans native in the class also wants to work in broadcasting. “The benefit for me publishing with the African-American newspapers was getting a sense of professionalism and it helped me to see that this is the field I want to go into,” Braud said.

“My reporting experience this semester helped me prepare for my career in mass media by training my eyes and ears into noticing what’s right for the story and what’s not,” he said of his experience.

“It’s such an awarding experience because it allowed me to be in touch with the Black community and discuss things that involve the Black community,” said Piper Thurman, a mass communication major at Xavier, and a Houston resident. “Reporting this semester gave me a lot of knowledge and insight into the world of the media. It’s helped teach me numerous skills I can apply to my career in broadcast journalism.”

“The benefit of being published in an African-American newspaper is that it shines a light on the good that our people are doing in our communities. It is a celebration of us,” said Ka’Lya Ellis, a New Orleans native, who attends Xavier. “My reporting experience helped me realize that I like other fields that come with reporting such as photography and filming. I’ve also learned to be self-sufficient and resourceful.”

Dillard student and New Orleans native Glenn Rebert II, like Ellis, said through reporting in the class, he realized for sure where his strengths lied. “My reporting experience this semester helped me prepare for my career in mass media because it helped me solidify my decision to be behind the camera and how to properly do so by learning about the different types of shots needed for both photography and broll,” Rebert said.

Precious Smith in the class said she wants to pursue public relations but working for the Black Press helped her with her communication skills. “My reporting experience has helped me prepare for my career in mass media through on-going communication and interactions with individuals of all backgrounds,” said Smith, a Baton Rouge native. “It’s also helped me come out of my shell and not be intimidated by someone of a higher status, because that could be me one day.”

“The benefits I took from publishing with an African-American newspaper is that I am able to reach people of the same ethnicity as me directly in my community,” said Monte Lambert, a New York native who attends Xavier. “My reporting experience this semester helped me because it was my first experience and the whole semester was a learning experience to give me the basic tools I need to start my journey towards my career.”

“Publishing with an African-American newspaper was beneficial to me in many ways. It taught me how to appreciate, support and contribute to the African-American community in a small way,” said Junine Goodison, a Xavier student who is from Jamaica.

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