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The St. Louis American marks 95 years as community staple for Black St. Louisans

The St. Louis American’s headquarters on Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Downtown West.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis American’s headquarters on Thursday in Downtown West. The largest weekly newspaper in Missouri is celebrating its 95th anniversary this year.

The St. Louis American’s genesis is steeped in St. Louis history. A growing number of Black St. Louisans pushed for more news coverage that addressed their lives. With the help of several prominent Black St. Louisans, including Nathan B. Young Jr. and Homer G. Philips, the St. Louis American was born in March 1928.

It has since gone on to be the single largest weekly newspaper in the state. St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Rudolph Clay, an African & African American Studies and Urban Studies Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis as the paper celebrates its 95th anniversary this month.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: Why was there such a need for a Black newspaper in 1920s St. Louis? What was happening?

Rudolph Clay: Well, I think even probably before then that there had been a need. But there certainly wasn’t a vehicle for communication for things that were happening specifically for Black people in St. Louis. And I do also remember reading that one of the first campaigns after the newspaper was founded was encouraging Black people to utilize those institutions — maybe we would call it “Buy Black” now. But certainly to patronize our own institutions and commercial establishments. And also to be able to utilize those commercial institutions that did actually employ African Americans. Of course, in 1928 we weren’t that far away from, say the race riots that happened in East St. Louis [in 1917]and in Chicago in the summer of 1919. So there had been a number of race riots recently all around the country. So certainly politically, I think those riots and lack of having a communication piece for Blacks in St. Louis were probably factors in establishing the newspaper.

St. Louis American
St. Louis American
The St. Louis American celebrates its 95th anniversary this year.

Lewis-Thompson: On March 17, 1928, the paper published its first issue and sold 2,000 copies with the leading headline, ”Pullman Porters May Strike.” Why was that story significant, and how did it set the tone for other stories to come?

Clay: ThePullman Porters are an important part of African American history throughout the country. And so, there was certainly a large number of Pullman Porters that actually lived in St. Louis. Probably in 1928 a number of African Americans — Blacks — knew someone that was a Pullman Porter. In thinking about newspapers even before the St. Louis American, so let’s say some of the other newspapers that started a little bit earlier like the Chicago Defender, it was actually the Pullman Porters that would actually distribute those newspapers to the various stops on their route. So the Pullman Porters were vocal and an important part of the community. But we also knew the treatment that the Pullman Porters received, and their working conditions, and also their pay. So having a story like that would then say, so this is something that it’s two things. It’s local and it’s national. So it’s local because of the number of Pullman Car Porters that were from St. Louis. But national because this was a national organization also. So having that as one of the earlier stories, I think would set the expectations of readers.

Lewis-Thompson: It started as an eight-page tabloid, and now it’s the single largest weekly newspaper in the state. How has it evolved over time?

Clay: Certainly in length obviously. But that it survived when many of the others did not — say the other African American newspapers — that it survived from when it started in 1928 till today. So you know going through World War II and then going through the Korean conflict and going through the civil rights movement that it has stayed the course and brought editorials and coverage of local, regional and national news.

Lewis-Thompson: Former owner and publisher Nathaniel Sweets once said his vision of the paper was, to quote, “give a voice to the African American community that was lacking, and bring them information they could use.” 95 years later, how has the American lived up to that legacy?

Clay: It’s covered the issues that I think are important to people in the African American community. And so, I think that’s one of the reasons that it has been able to survive. That it’s looked at as a place for information that you can trust.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.