The Omaha Star has given African-Americans a voice for 77 years. The newspaper is not only a vital mouthpiece for locals, but a valued hometown connection for natives living elsewhere.
It became an institution under the late Mildred D. Brown, a force of nature who became an icon with her ever-present smile, carnation and salesmanship. She charmed and challenged movers and shakers, near and far, with her insistent calls for equality. Through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, the late 1960s riots, it never missed an issue. Upon Brown's 1989 death, niece Marguerita Washington, who worked at the paper as a young woman, took over the helm. She reportedly used her own money to pay off debt her aunt accumulated. Despite financial shortfalls, this grassroots, advocacy, activist, community-minded paper has never missed a beat. Not through the 2008 economic collapse or the decline of print and concurrent rise of online media. While circulation's dropped and the Star's now published bi-weekly instead of weekly, its social conscience, watchdog, give-voice-to-the-voiceless roles remain intact.
For the first time though since Brown's death, the Star's future is unclear because Washington, the woman who's carried the torch lit by her aunt, is now terminally ill. The 80-year-old Washington was diagnosed earlier this year with lung cancer. The cancer spread to her brain. Meanwhile, there's no direct heir to inherit the Star because she never married and has no children. When Brown passed she divvied up shares to Washington and other family members. Washington is the majority share holder and out-of-town relatives who've never taken an active hand in its operations own the other shares.
Star advertising and marketing director Phyllis Hicks has been acting managing editor and publisher during Washington's health crisis. Hicks began at the Star in 2005 and grew to be Washington's closest colleague.
"It was a growing relationship that became more of a personal one than a business one," Hicks says.
The two formed the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center as a vehicle for preserving the paper's legacy and the Junior Journalists program to encourage youth to enter the field. The pair obtained historic status for the Star building at 2216 North 24th Street.
Brown's brash, bigger-than-life style lent the paper panache and edge. By contrast, the quiet, unassuming Washington, an academic with a Ph.D., exhibits a "walk softly and carry a big stick" tone," said Hicks, adding, "Marguerita is not one to be vocal and take the lead and sound off, but she's going to support from the background to do what she can to make it happen." For each woman, the Star became a labor of love. Washington's never drawn a salary as publisher and maintainer of a historic line of female leadership that made it the longest continuously published black newspaper owned and operated by women.
"The role of the Omaha Star in the history of this community cannot be overstated," says Gail Baker, dean of the School of Communication, Fine Arts and Media at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "The Star, like other black papers, is key to developing and maintaining the community. Under both Mildred Brown and Marguerita Washington, the Star's voice has been loud, clear and critical. Whether championing the rights of African Americans, calling the community to action, covering the stories others did not see fit to print or just shining a light on what is important to its readers, the Star is that beacon of light leading the way. Its place in Omaha is without parallel."
Chicago Crusader editor-publisher Dorothy Leavell writes in an email about Washington, "I appreciate all of her support of things I hold dear. I love her loyalty, sense of humor and dedication to the Black Press as well as the fighting spirit of Mildred Brown that we shared memories of. I know she is putting up the good fight…"
Hicks, who shares power of attorney for Washington, has watched her friend endure radiation and chemotherapy to try and arrest the cancer. She and other friends of the paper are weighing what might happen to the Star in the absence of Washington. Discussions have grown more urgent as doctors recently discontinued treatment.
Washington, who suffers from dementia, is cared for at a northwest Omaha assisted living facility.
Hicks and others close to the situation have been selling off some of Washington's possessions and are looking for a buyer for her home.
"We're dealing with her business, we're dealing with her and her doctors and we're trying to sell her things and her home so we can have money for her care," Hicks says. "I guess at one time she was quite wealthy but with all the money going into the Star and her never taking a salary her wealth has dwindled. My goal is trying to make sure she's safe for the remainder of her life."
A means to continue the paper, including finding a buyer-publisher, is also being discussed.
For folks of a certain age the Star is part of what makes North Omaha, North Omaha. It's a touchstone for those who reside here and for natives who left here. More than any other institution it holds fast the community memory of a people and a district. Those who grew up with the publication are bound and determined to do whatever it takes to keep it alive even as its leader nears the end.
"It's my goal and her goal as well the paper remain in North Omaha and remain black owned if we can sell it," Hicks says. "Some mention female owned. That'd be nice but I don't have any desire to own and run a paper. Lots of folks have approached me and asked what's going to happen, and it's not up to me to make that determination. I'm power of attorney with one of her nieces in Kansas City."
Asked if she sees any scenario in which the paper would close, she says, "I'm hoping that with the amount of people expressing interest and working towards its survival that that won't happen. It's my hope that somebody or somebodies will come forth.
"The officers of the Study Center are working on coming up with a plan. We're looking at avenues and ways. We're even looking at if the nonprofit Study Center could own the paper as a for-profit arm."
Omaha Economic Development Corporation executive director Michael Maroney says, "A lot of people want to see it survive, that's for sure. There will be a solution found, we just don't know what it is yet. I'm quite confident it will survive in some form or fashion."
"Now is a pivotal moment for the Omaha Star and the Near North Side community," says Amy Forss, author of the biography, Black Print with a White Carnation: Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star. "I am emphatically stressing the need for a successor because if the Omaha Star ceases to exist, then the longest-running record no longer exists and neither does the regularly published voice of the black community and that would be a piece of history you cannot replace."
Omaha native Cathy Hughes, a national media czar through her Radio One and TV One companies, has credited Mildred Brown and the Star, for whom she worked, as a direct influence on her own entrepreneurial communications career. She says much as Ernie Chambers has been its militant voice in recent years through his column, the late Star reporter Charlie Washington once served that "rabble rouser" role.
"Charlie and the Omaha Star actually showed me the true power of the communications industry," she recalls. "The Star took the mute button off of the voice of the black community in Omaha. It was more than just advocacy, it was a safety net. It has fostered and nurtured and promoted progress. It glorifies the success and accomplishments of Africa Americans in that community, which says to our young people, 'You too can do it.' It has been a vehicle for inspiration and motivation.
"I think that's why it's been able to successfully survive all these years and I pray that it will continue for many decades more."
Hughes admires what Washington's done.
"She could have done a lot of things with her life," she says of the publisher, "but instead she came home because. It's in her blood."
"I believe it was commendable of Marguerita to take up the banner. I think she understood and saw the need of what it meant to the community and she also had the desire to continue her aunt's legacy," OEDC's Maroney offers.
Retired photojournalist Rudy Smith says, "To her credit she continued the legacy, integrity and mission of the Omaha Star. Mildred Brown was a pioneer and a trailblazer and it's hard to follow a pioneer but Marguerita was able to do that.."
According to community activist Preston Love Jr., who pens a column for the Star, "There was pretty much a transparent and no wrinkle transition from Mildred to Marguerita. It happened without much of a blip in terms of the paper being published. I think Marguerita's played several roles. To some degree early she played a caretaker role. Then she emerged to take more of an editor-in-chief role and she has moved into the role of publisher. So while the paper's made a transition she has, too. She's made some tough editorial decisions as well. All of that is a testament to her stewardship."
Like her aunt before her, Washington's been much honored for her work, including last summer by the Urban League of Nebraska. More recently, the City of Omaha proclaimed Tuesday, December 1 Marguerita Washington Day for her "commitment to the community and issues that have impacted African-American people" and for "her great sense of social justice and social responsibility."
Her empowering marginalized people continued a long, unbroken line.
"The paper has been a staple to me and the community for generations.," Love says. "Other African American newspapers have come and gone here over the years but the Omaha Star endured. In my generation it's something we all grew up with and hold in very strong endearment."
Love sold the paper as a boy and was Mildred Brown's driver summers during college. His late father, musician-educator-author Preston Love, sold advertising for the Star. The son says it's been a link for blacks here and who've moved away "like no other link – you can't overstate how important that link is."
If the Star should ever fold, he says, "what would be lost is part of the personality of North Omaha. Embedded in that is history and culture."
Hicks says blacks would lose a valuable platform for "telling it like it is in the community without having to always be politically correct."
The Star may not have the readership or pull it once did, but that's a function of these times.
"When I was growing up in Omaha the Star was all that we had," Hughes recalls. "Now everyone is in the black lane competing for that black consumer market. When my company went into the cable industry 10 years ago there were two choices for black folks watching cable – BET or TV One. Now every cable and broadcast television station has some type of black programming, which makes it that much more difficult for us to secure advertising dollars.
"Well, Marguerita has really had that problem with the Omaha Star. When her aunt was running it Mildred could candidly say to the head of the electric company, 'The only way you're going to reach these black folks is through me.' Well, that no longer is true, they can reach 'em in social media, in a whole host of other ways."
It may not be the presence it once was but Hughes leaves no doubt it's meaning for her.
"When I was on the front page of the Omaha Star I called up and ordered two dozen copies – I was sending my Omaha Star out to everybody. And I laughed at myself and said, 'Boy, that's the little girl still in you.' It was like hometown approval. It's more than just the hometown newspaper to me, it's the approval of the folks in Omaha, it's the cheering, it's the you-did-good, we're-proud-of-you vehicle
"It inspired me then and it still does today."
She says she hasn't been formally approached about how she might assist the Star but would entertain ideas.
Preston Love says such deep sentiments about the Star are not just based on its rich past but its vibrant life today.
"The contribution the paper is making today should not be overlooked.
So it is not just historical but the present and the future. What it does to provide a platform for columnists, churches, businesses, community organizations and individual accomplishments is all right now."
He says he and other concerned observers "will fight tooth and nail" any transition not deemed in the best interests of North Omaha.
Having arrived at this each-one-to-teach one and it-takes-a-village juncture, the Star's fate is in the people's hands as never before.
Rudy Smith says the fact the Star is both a historical treasure and a still relevant and resonant voice bodes well for it continuing.
"Marguerita put in building blocks that will allow the Star to continue even after she's gone.Years ago Marguerita and I had talks about the future of the Star and she told me, 'My goal is for the Star to live beyond me.' I know for a fact there are things in place now that will allow the Star to continue. Marguerita started preparing the community to embrace the Star years ago.
"I think the community is rallying around the Star more than it ever has because the Star is a community institution and if it dies part of the fabric of the community dies. The community will not let it die. I'm familiar with some of the things going on now (behind the scenes) to ensure its survival and I'm encouraged."
Somewhere, Mildred Brown is smiling that people care so much about the fate of the paper she and her niece devoted their lives to.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.