The woman behind the successful media enterprise of the Omaha Star helped inspire two of today’s leading women in media — Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell and Radio One chairperson and Omaha native Cathy Hughes.
In this fluid transmedia age of the internet, a weekly newspaper, the Omaha Star, celebrates 75 years as the oldest continuous black-female founded and owned publication in the country. Leavell is the featured speaker at an April 19 banquet celebrating the Star’s success and benefiting the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.
The Star may not be known for any Pulitzers, but it does own a groundbreaking gender and activist lineage. Its late publisher, Mildred Brown, was among very few women, white or black, to run a newspaper of its size. She and her first husband co-launched the Star in 1938 though Brown was the driving force behind it. Within a few years they divorced and from that point on she served as sole publisher and editor until her death in 1989.
Though several years younger, Leavell’s career paralleled Brown’s when her first husband, Balm Leavell Jr., who founded the Crusader, died and she took over as a young single mother. She expanded the Crusader empire to reach hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Leavell’s also served as president of the National Newspapers Publishers Association, a trade organization representing hundreds of African American newspapers, chairperson of Amalgamated Publishers, a company thats sells national advertising to black papers and recently was named president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
As a fledgling journalist Leavell patterned herself after the “strong black woman” she saw in Brown. She admired the way Brown handled herself amid their mostly male peer publisher colleagues.
“She had a profound affect on me because … the men would try to discount you but they couldn’t discount Mildred. She was a strong personality, She would stand her ground. I always say, Mildred put the ‘n’ in nerve.
“I wouldn’t let anyone take me lightly because they did not take Mildred lightly.”
The history of the Star, located at 2216 North 24th St., is bound up in the story of Brown. The dynamic entrepreneur became synonymous with the paper for her front-page editorials, out-front activism, personal style and legendary salesmanship. She often sported a fresh carnation pinned to her shoulder, a hat crowning her head and fitted gloves over her hands,
The Alabama native and former educator migrated north with her then-husband, Shirl Edward Gilbert, a pharmacist. The couple started a newspaper, the Silent Messenger in Sioux City, Iowa. In 1937 they were recruited to Omaha to work for the city’s then-black newspaper, The Guide, whose co-publisher, Charles Galloway, Brown remained friends with even after she quit to start the Star.
The Star chronicled black people’s lives through the Depression, World War II, the Great Migration, the civil rights movement and America’s changing face post-Vietnam and Watergate. When North 24th St. burned in outbreaks of civil disobedience, this militant who didn’t believe in “breaking glass” called for both calm and redress.
She filled her paper with aspirational stories and advocacy journalism that sought to uplift her community and expose injustice. Its banner motto reflected her own ideals:
“Dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that evil shall not thrive unopposed.”
She printed the names of businesses that refused to hire or serve blacks. She carried guest editorials by then-Nebraska Urban League and future National Urban League president Whitney Young. She supported the Omaha civil rights groups the DePorres Club and the 4CL. She observed, “This paper broke down discrimination in this town. They called us troublemakers, nothing but troublemakers. Oh, I’m a militant, always have been.”
Upon her death her niece, former educator Marguerita Washington, assumed command of the Star and she’s still in charge today, giving the publication the distinction of being the nation’s longest running newspaper led exclusively by black women.
Omaha native Cathy Hughes, who sold Star ads in the 1960s, appreciates the paper’s “black woman legacy.” Hughes built a media empire as a single woman.
Brown was in her life from the time she was a little girl. Her parents, William Alfred Woods and Helen Jones Woods, were friends of Brown’s. When Woods graduated from Creighton University as its first African-American accountant, Brown let him office inside the Star.
Asked to assess the influence Brown and the Star had on her, Hughes said, “It’s why you have me on the phone now as the founder and chairperson of Radio One, which is the parent corporation for TV One, Interactive One, Reach Media, Distribution One. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me.”
Seeing a smart, bold black woman totally in charge made an impression on the young Hughes, who says she naturally looked up to “this woman whose personality and physical presence were bigger than life,” adding, “I can still smell the carnations to this day. Every Monday a big box of carnations that went straight into the refrigerator was delivered because she wore a fresh carnation bouquet every day of the week. She wore absolutely beautiful hats, matching outfits, shoes to match the outfits, fresh flowers. She lived in a beautiful apartment behind her business.”
Drivers chauffeured her around in a big shiny sedan.
“She had a good looking husband (Brown’s common-law second husband Max Brownell), she had a wardrobe, she had all the trappings of a media mogul. To me the Star was a conglomerate. She was NBC, ABC, and CBS combined in my mind,” says Hughes.
“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. You had really made it when you made the cover of the Omaha Star. Remember, during these days there were no blacks on Omaha TV, there was no black radio, the World-Herald basically covered crime in North Omaha. There were no alternatives, there was no other place to turn for information about you and your organization, you and your family, you and your neighborhood, you and your existence … other than the Omaha Star.”
Hughes, who’s built a corporate dynasty in the face of sexism and racism, was impressed by the way Brown’s force of nature personality smashed barriers. She recalls her “dogged determination,” adding, “When somebody told Mildred ‘no,’ that they weren’t going to take an ad, she was going to write you up and that write-up would become public record. Mildred combined her activism with her marketing and salesmanship. When people said no to Mildred, she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take ‘no’ seriously. ‘No’ to her meant, ‘Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because ‘no’ is not the right conclusion.’
Marguerita Washington marveled at her aunt’s drive.
“She wouldn’t give up. She was very persistent. I went with her many times to a business place where she would be told the person in charge was not available. A lot of times the boss told their secretary, ‘Just tell her I’m not here.’ Of course, she knew he was, so she would say, ‘Well, I’ll wait on him,’ and she would sit there in the lobby until finally the guy would come out and say, ‘Oh, Mildred, what do you want?’ Nine chances out of 10 she got the sell.
“She was better at the game then they were.”
Star contributing writer Walter Brooks, the 2013 Omaha Star Legacy Award honoree, doubled as Brown’s driver. Going on sales calls with her he saw her operate at parties and meetings, working the room with everyone from small business owners to corporate leaders. He notes in a video interview:
“Mildred Brown was liked by those people. They liked her style. They respected her because they knew quite honestly nobody else could have done what she did. When you think about starting that paper in 1938 and never quitting, never backing down, always moving forward, and then the role of course that the paper played during the civil rights era, and just the fact she was so smooth and tough.”
Brooks saw an assertive woman supremely sure of herself. “Mrs. Brown was fearless. She was not intimidated. When she asked for an ad it wasn’t hat in hand, mealy-mouthed, please-Mr.-Charlie, it was her being received as an equal.”
The late jazz legend Preston Love Sr. was Brown’s contemporary and sometime employee. He sold advertising off and on there for 26 years, His rise to prominence in music paralleled Brown’s in journalism. After she passed he wrote, “It’s the end of an era. The paper was the center of the black community in many ways…Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star have been the most potent forces for the progress and advancement of blacks in Omaha and in this state.”
Hughes says Brown was proud of leading a newspaper that at the time of her death was half a century old and she imagines if Brown were alive today she would be thrilled it’s still going strong.
“I think her crowning glory was the newspaper and its ability to continue – the longevity.”
The Star may not be the primary news source it once was for most readers but outside Revive! magazine it offers Omaha’s only black on black print perspective. It maintains a black press tradition emphasizing positive news, conveying black pride stories of individual accomplishments and informing readers of community events, as well as examining issues of inequity.
Getting people to do the right thing, whether buying ads in her paper or giving blacks equal opportunity, extended beyond the office. Brown was part of a coterie of black professionals, including Cathy Hughes’ parents, who shared similar aspirational-activist values and put them into practice.
“It was less than a dozen of them and they really formed this close friendship and partnership in so many areas – business, education, civil rights – and in that mixture my father and Mildred became best friends,” says Hughes. “Mildred Brown was a member of an organization my parents were members of, the DePorres Club, that challenged Omaha institutions that practiced overt discrimination.”
DePorres Club’s founder, the late Rev. John Markoe, a Jesuit priest at Creighton University, was befriended by Brown after his civil rights work made him persona non grata at the school. She allowed the interracial club to meet at the Star. The paper often printed the minutes of the club’s meetings along with listings of its social action activities.
As a girl Hughes joined her parents and Brown at demonstrations.
“I carried my first picket sign when I was around 4 or 5 years old. I grew up with community service and activism.”
She says her parents and Brown “imbued” her with the mandate “to improve the community” by standing up and speaking out for right.
Though some felt Brown didn’t go far enough, others felt she did all she could.
“She was definitely considered a conservative by the Black Panther Party,” says Brooks, a one-time Panther member. He says she refrained from “the more radical hard push back approach” and instead focused on “collaboration and coalition.” Practical realities of the time constrained Brown from being too harsh in attacking racism.
Love said that “she was militant in that she was persistent in fighting for the cause” but “she wasn’t a firebrand,” adding, “What needed to be done she did it through the medium of this newspaper.”
Dorothy Leavell leaves no doubt about Brown’s activism.
“Milldred was just really an unusual woman. She was a very strong militant activist during the days when women were thought of as at home taking care of children. Mildred was a fighter who fought hard for the rights of blacks.”
Editorially, Brooks says he was given great freedom by her and is given even more by Washington, who’s serializing his new book about the state of black America.
Margeuerita Washington says that because “it’s a different day” than when her aunt ran the paper, she’s given space to more militant voices her aunt would not have accommodated, including former Omaha activist Matthew Stelly and State Senator Ernie Chambers.
The opinion pieces by Chambers can be particularly controversial and that’s why Brown shied away giving him a forum during her reign.
“She was afraid he might turn away some of her advertisers,” Washington says. “When I took over I felt like, ‘Well, give him a chance, and if he goes too far out on a limb. I can always tone him down some. It’s worked out fine. Only once have I had to tell him to cool it…to find another topic.”
She believes the Star remains a relevant voice today. “I think the main thing I’m proud of is this paper has really become the people’s paper. It is a sounding board. We have a number of local columnists. It’s the community’s paper with a diversity of voices.” Ad revenues and circulation numbers are way down from its heyday and took more hits during the recession, but Washington says the paper is slowly “building back.”
Hughes says the Star has a vital role to play in the same way black magazines, radio stations, TV networks and websites do.
“Information is power. I think Mildred Brown understood that. It wasn’t just about a business for her, it was about a community service.”
The clout and wealth Brown earned put her in position to help others and she did.
“She was instrumental in helping St. Benedict the Moore Catholic Church build the Bryant Center,” says Hughes. “She was kind of a one woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue in indigenous communities. She helped a lot of people. If your husband was beating you, you ran to the Omaha Star. Mildred would give you some money, help you check into a hotel. Your child got arrested, it was Mildred people came to asking, ‘Can you loan me $150 to get my child out of jail?’”
Hughes says Brown also assisted young people getting their education.
“She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk,” says Hughes. “She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it.”
After her father died Hughes says Brown drew closer to her. “I think I was that connection for her. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me right up to the time she passed.”
The legacy of the Star is felt by Washington, who is childless and has no plans to hand it off to a relative. Her will dictates the paper will be sold upon her death. That is unless, she says, “some dashing young person comes along who I think this is just the right fit to carry it on.”
She intends continuing as publisher-editor for the forseeable future. “I’m in good health and I’ve still got some energy left.” A project she’d like to see happen is the renovation and expansion of the space-starved Star offices.
Tickets to the April 19 Star gala at the Downtown Hilton, 1001 Cass St., may be ordered at 402-346-4041, ext. 4 or 6.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.