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The St. Louis Argus

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The Birth of the St. Louis Argus

Edwina W. Mitchell

            On April 8, 1912, Joseph E. Mitchell registered the St. Louis Argus, a five-column tabloid-size newspaper, with the United States Post Office. Dr. Thomas Curtis, who had been associated with Mitchell in the insurance business, had suggested the name Argus, meaning a creature with a hundred eyes never closed at the same time. At that point, Mitchell became something of an institution in the Mound City on the Mississippi.

            Mitchell was aware that in order to get political privileges for the Negroes, he ought to have money and organization. He did not have the money, but he could raise political consciousness in the Negroes through a platform. Traditionally blacks had used newspapers to raise the level of consciousness among their people. Why not form a black Newspaper in St. Louis?

            What did this infant newspaper look like? The first edition of the Argus was eleven by fifteen and one-half inches, with five columns. The staff box carried the name of Joseph E. Mitchell as editor-publisher. The newspaper office was located at 2341 Market Street in St. Louis. Operating without a press or any other printing equipment, Mitchell contracted to have C.K. Robinson, a well-known local printer whose shop was near the Argus, to print the paper at a cost of thirty-five dollars a week.

            Before long, however, the publisher had established his own printing plant with appropriate office equipment at 2312 Market Street and had begun to produce the paper in it. Building the Argus was a slow process, but the paper gradually grew in size and importance.

            A primary goal of the St. Louis Argus was to organize the Negro community for political action. This is understandable, since the very name of the paper was to be a never-sleeping crusader for Negro citizens’ political privileges and social justice.

            The immediate cause for the birth of the Argus was political, according to George W. Slavens. Slavens’ statement may have been a bit misleading in terms of the influence of St. Louis’ J. Ray Weinbrenner in founding the Argus. Mitchell was thoroughly convinced of the need to found a newspaper before talking to Weinbrenner. However, he was able to gain a more significant interpretation of the political role a newspaper could play in achieving rights for black people.

            Seizing the opportunity for action, Mitchell telephoned a number of leaders to inform them about his conversation with Weinbrenner. Mitchell talked with these people about the urgency of building an organization that could become powerful in politics by electing Negroes as well as whites to political offices.

            In 1916 Mitchell had decided that the newspaper should always be separate from the insurance company. With his brother William and others he incorporated the Argus Publishing Company. Joseph remained editor and publisher, William the business manager. Official records show these incorporators:

            Joseph E. Mitchell                   410 shares

            William Mitchell                     110 shares

            Benjamin W. James                   15 shares

            Lewis E. Hawkins                     15 shares

            After the establishment of the paper, more than 35 of the publisher’s relatives came to St. Louis from Alabama. J.E. (as he was affectionately called) not only gave them jobs in his business, but providedinstruction and gave them guidance and counsel. Some were trained as linotypists, engravers or skilled workers in other phases of the printing operation.

            The publisher was eager to hire well-educated people when they were available. Richard A. Jackson, first St. Louis graduate of the University of Michigan in journalism, was named city editor and served in the post for a quarter of a century. Another faithful and conscientious worker who joined the staff later was Irving Williamson, a journalism graduate from Ohio University.

            Williamson achieved success as the paper’s advertising manager. Two graduates of the School of Journalism of Lincoln University in Missouri, Otis T. Thompson and Steve Duncan, served the paper in several capacities. Howard Woods, former reporter for the Chicago Defender, became a well-known news-editorial staff member.

            J.E. Mitchell’s own son, J. Orvell Mitchell, and nephew, Frank Mitchell, started out learning the linotype and continued in the mechanical department for many years. Other employees who would gain distinction with the Argus were Herbert T. Meadows, a typography and layout specialist who doubled as amusements editor; Ocie Mitchell, one of the first black press photo engravers; Carl Thomas, linotype and press operator and supervisor; Miss Loretta Owens, writer of a popular youth column and who later became a secretary of the Lincoln University School of Journalism under Dean Armistead Scott Pride; Chick Finney, columnist; Mrs. Ruby Watts, social columnist; Miss Bessie Smith, J.E. Mitchell’s secretary; Miss Loretta Boison, who became head bookkeeper; J. Ford, mechanical foreman; Henry Wheeler, columnist; Mrs. Mary Franklin, Martin McKay, Elijah McCoy, James Roach, Roscoe McCrary and many other valuable and versatile staff members who aided in the growth of the paper.

            Although there was a tremendous need for a newspaper to defend the rights of blacks in St. Louis, unfortunately this endeavor was not a lucrative one. J.E. Mitchell had to struggle against great odds, often by himself, to keep the paper operating. Dr. Symington Curtis, son of Dr. Thomas A. Curtis, succinctly described the early crisis period in these words:

            “During its early years 1911-1925 the Argus did not succeed financially, and the partnership disintegrated. Mr. J.E. Mitchell, however, through much adversity, continued to publish…”

            This determination and foundation enabled the Argus to be one of the approximately 200 black newspapers that survived out of almost 3,000 that had been initiated since 1827. Financial difficulties killed most of the newspapers that died.

            But money parries did not deter the Argus from serving as a vigorous champion of civil rights. As early as 1914 J.E. Mitchell editorialized against injustices reported by the President’s Commission of that time, in spite of some disagreement over the purpose of such a commission.

            J.E. Mitchell wrote: “Of course the Argus does not approve of the Commission to study the proper relations of the races toward each other. We contend that a commission could not tell more than is generally known to the least informed person of the country. Its finding could only be, if truthfully reported, that the colored people are lynched and sometimes burned at the stake because of the most trivial offenses. This could be broken up entirely by making lynching a federal offense.

            “There is also that abominable Jim Crow car system. We hold that…if Uncle Sam does nothing for the protection of the colored people in cases where it is the government’s plain duty, that in itself gives encouragement to all kinds of other evils such as injustices in the courts and other petty discriminations.”

            A big issue of the time was the Ku Klux Klan’s cold-blooded assaults on blacks, a subject on which J.E. Mitchell had first-hand knowledge from his early life in Alabama. In many cases it didn’t matter whether the party attacked was innocent or guilty. All that mattered to the men clad in white sheets was that “a nigguh should know his place.” If some black happened to step beyond the boundaries proscribed for him by the Klansmen, then the reasoning went, “He must be taught a lesson.”

            But what does this have to do with the border state of Missouri? In the early part of the twentieth century several factors combined to focus attention on the role of the Klan in Missouri politics. Restrictive immigration laws helped to stem the flood of Europeans coming to America, and there was massive immigration to Missouri. Social and economic conditions were at the base of the decline of rural activities and the growth of the cities. At a time when many black newspapers, especially those under the Booker T. Washington banner, were toeing the line in humble submission to whatever government policy was advanced, the Argus stood ready to fight any oppressive deeds of the Klan.

            This was a trying period in black American history, and more and more readers came to feel that the Argus was their champion. It appeared that the fighter was in St. Louis to stay.

            (From The Crusading Black Journalist, Joseph Everett Mitchell, 1972).



The St. Louis Argus

            Two years before World War I began, The St. Louis Argus, a five-column tabloid-size newspaper, was registered at the United States Post Office. The paper’s name came from Greek mythology. Argus was a creature with one hundred eyes which were never all closed at the same time.

            From the very beginning, the Mitchell family has operated the newspaper. It was started by two brothers, Joseph and William Mitchell. Originally, they thought it would be a trade paper for their insurance company, but decided it would give greater service as a regular newspaper. The Argus, by 1914 a regular size newspaper, entered into many civic and political fights. It sponsored the Citizens’ Liberty League – the first important political movement of Negro St. Louisans. It helped Negroes obtain more jobs in the Fire and Police Departments and increased their representation in the Legislature.

            Mr. Joseph (J.E.) Mitchell, managing editor, was a fighter for better schools, educational opportunities, and full civil rights for Negro Americans. He was a presidential elector during the Roosevelt Administration and was a personal acquaintance of President Harry S. Truman. He served on the Missouri State Board of Education, and was a YMCA pioneer, and received awards from Lincoln University, the Urban League and the National Newspaper Publishers Association for the paper’s contribution to journalism. His wife, Mrs. Edwina Mitchell, was the women’s page editor for some years.

            William Mitchell, the older brother, was business manager until his death in 1945. His wife, now Mrs. Nannie Mitchell-Turner, carried on his role as business manager. Later she became president and treasurer of the Argus Publishing Company. Under her presidency, The Argus moved from its Market Street address to a new, modern plant at 4595 Easton and started the Argus Awards Dinner. This annual affair recognizes outstanding citizens and groups from all walks of life. Mrs. Turner’s son, Frank Mitchell, Sr., became the first publisher. Directing the writing end of the weekly is executive editor Howard B. Woods, a member of President Johnson’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

            The Argus, now fifty-two years old, is read weekly by thousands of subscribers in St. Louis and in the large cities throughout the nation. A new elementary school now bears the name of Joseph and William Mitchell.

            (From St. Louis Memories Vol. 7).


Argus Makes A Strong Comeback

By Benjamin Israel

            Antonio French is known for his on-again-off-again efforts publishing the Public Defender, a left-of-center alternative paper. French has put the Public Defender on hold for a second time as he and George Jackson work on reviving the oldest African-American newspaper in St. Louis, the St. Louis Argus.

            Late last year Eddie Hasan bought the Argus from Eugene Mitchell, grandson of two of the founders of the Argus, William and Nannie Mitchell. In June, he hired French and Jackson to pump up the news coverage. Jackson is a pseudonym for an African-American journalist who needs to protect his identity to keep his other job.

            “The Argus has always been part of my long-term goals,” French said. “It has a rich tradition being one of the oldest black newspapers in the nation. It used to be one of the best black  newspapers in the nation. Anything 92-years-old tends to atrophy. Look at the Post.”

            One of French’s first tasks was to update technology. “Up to 2003, the Argus was still being done old school – cutting it, waxing it, pasting it onto columns,” French said.

            Now the Argus uses Quark and Photoshop.

            Jackson and French look for stories of interest to the black community that are not being covered elsewhere, and either report themselves or find stringers to do so. And if they can’t find the resources to cover it, they sometimes use the Associated Press, even for local stories.

            Two stories they have followed that have gotten little play elsewhere are the disputed August election for the 4th Ward Democratic Committeeman in the city and the trial of a former St. Louis County Police Lt. Timothy Hagerty for assaulting an African-American woman.

            The Argus had weekly stories about discrepancies in the vote count that led the election board to first announce that Sam Mowore had won by one vote, then that O.L. Shelton won by the same margin. When a spokesman for the election board attributed the discrepancies to “hanging chads,” French wrote that his answer “sounds reminiscent of Florida in 2000.”

            At a time when most media are devoting too much attention to polls and candidate strategies, the Argus has decided to see if the election board counts votes fairly and accurately, Jackson said.

            When a judge threw out the 4th Ward race and ordered a new election, only the Argus and the Arch City Chronicle among print media covered it.

            Years after losing its place as the preeminent African-American newspaper in St. Louis, and after a period when it could not afford to do any serious reporting, the Argus can now be counted on for true news coverage. But unlike its glory days , its coverage is far from comprehensive.

            Jackson and French doggedly pursue some stories and use stringers including Peter Downs, former school board candidate and long-time local journalist, to cover the St. Louis Public Schools.

            French and Downs ran for school board on the same slate. Downs follows the public schools closely and publishes St. Louis Schools Watch, a newsletter about the schools, and writes about schools for Confluence St. Louis. Downs said in an email that French asked him to write for the Argus. Since he attends school board meetings anyway, that was no problem.

            Downs said he is paid, but “not much.” There is overlap between his Argus articles and Schools Watch, but, he said, “There are some things I write about in the newsletter which I think are too specialized for the Argus, and there are some things the Argus wants that I don’t cover in the newsletter (e.g. when a Roosevelt student accidentally shot another student in the ribs outside of school).”

            Jackson said the fact that Downs is white, unlike Jackson and French, poses no problem. “He’s one of St. Louis’ best journalists, that’s good enough for us as far as we’re concerned.”

            More important to Jackson, he said, “We want to get the kind of coverage of the St. Louis Public Schools system that our readers want,” Jackson said.

            And, he noted, the Argus remains black-owned and primarily oriented toward serving the black community.

            Jackson describes Argus owner Eddie Hasan as a hands-on owner who oversees the day-to-day operations of the newspaper. Hasan is also director of MOKAN, a company that helps minority construction contractors and trains minorities for apprentice programs in the construction industry.

            When Hasan bought the paper, it had gone through more than a decade of instability, and, for most of the last two decades, it was a shadow of what it had been when J.E. Mitchell was editor and publisher. Mitchell died in 1952, 4o years after founding the Argus.

            Debra Foster Greene, a history professor at Lincoln University who wrote her doctoral dissertation about the Argus, said in an email that the Argus’ decline began in an era when the African-American press was dealing with the effects of a changing society. Black journalists had greater opportunities to work for the better-paying mainstream press, and African-American readers found more news about their community in the major dailies. In addition, as the black community spread out, it became harder to distribute the paper and cover the community.

            “In the Argus’ case these global changes were happening at the same time – the paper was losing long-term leadership and coming under the control of a part-time publisher/editor. By 1978 where Dr. [Eugene] Mitchell realized the paper needed more hands-on, full-time leadership, long-term employees are leaving either because of death, retirement, or more lucrative jobs,” Greene wrote.

            In the months since he bought it, Hasan increased the press run from less than 3,000 to nearly 15,000. “My goal is to get up to 30,000,” he said.

            He intends to start an online version by the end of the year.

            Hasan said he has tried to beef up the ad sales staff, but turnover has been tremendous. Still, the 12-page paper has gone from almost no advertising to almost three pages. Hasan describes himself as a “custodian of history.”

            “I want to leave it in better shape than I found it,” he said.

            (Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 10/2004.)



Argus At 96: A Proud History

By Benjamin Israel

            When the St. Louis Argus celebrated its 96th anniversary with a dinner on April 26 [2008], readers familiar with its history could look at a recent issue and say that not much had changed since its founding in 1912.

            The April 17-23 Argus included an op-ed piece by attorney Elbert Walton about efforts of his organization, Unity PAC, to elect more African-American candidates to office in North St. Louis County.

            “Our aim is to advance the cause of black people in St. Louis County in order to assure that they too get the benefits that government offers, including jobs and professional contracts given out by our government,” Walton wrote.

            That does not sound too different from this excerpt from an Argus editorial of Oct. 29, 1915, about the Republican Party, which then controlled St. Louis:

            “The Negro is tired of having pre-arranged slates rammed down his throat. He is sick of alternateships and flunky positions where he can be of no use save ornamental. What the Negro wants is real bona fide participation in the councils, work and rewards of victory that concern his party. This much he is entitled to and nothing else will satisfy him.”

            African Americans may be under-represented in elected office in North St. Louis County. However, the schools are no longer segregated. African Americans live in every neighborhood or St. Louis City and much of St. Louis County and work for every large company, even in management. It is undeniable that the black community of St. Louis has come a long way since 1915. The Argus played a role in this progress, especially in its early days.

            The Western Union Relief Association, a mutual insurance company, founded the Argus in 1912 as its newsletter and appointed J.E. Mitchell as its editor. At the time, Charles Turpin was the 9th District constable and the only black elected official in St. Louis history. The police department had six African-American officers called “Negro specials” who could not wear uniforms. There were no black firefighters and the city government employed no African Americans in a position higher than water fountain inspector.

            Although St. Louis had at least three African-American newspapers when the Argus was founded – the Palladium, the Central Afro-American and the Advance – the Argus quickly gained circulation. In 1915, when the Argus became an independent publication with J.E. Mitchell and his brother William as its principal owners, it quickly wiped out the competition and became the dominant black paper in town.

            Working closely with attorneys Homer G. Phillips and George Vaughn as well as other members of St. Louis’ thriving community of black professionals, J.E. Mitchell founded the Citizens’ Liberty League, which ran candidates and built an independent political organization. In 1918, when members believed – with good reason – that Homer Phillips had been cheated out of the Republican nomination for Justice of the Peace, (one of 18), they ran him as an independent in the general election. He lost.

            At the peak of its power in 1920, the Citizens’ Liberty League, with Mitchell and the Argus playing a prominent role, elected Walthall Moore, the first African American in the Missouri General Assembly. It forced the Republicans who ran the city and state to hire the first black firefighters (they worked out of an all-black firehouse) and the first uniformed black police officers.

            In the 1920s and 1930s, the Argus was an economic force in the black community. By the 1930s, it owned a printing plant and office building built with all-black labor in the 2300 block of Market Street. It continued to be a political force. In 1925, it proclaimed its independence from the Republican Party and supported Democrat William Igoe for mayor. Igoe lost.

            In the 15 years after the Argus began, African Americans founded nine other newspapers in St. Louis, Only one other survives – the St. Louis American. In the 1930s, the Argus was a Democratic paper while the American was Republican. The Argus remained dominant through at least the 1980s.

            J.E. Mitchell remained in charge and continued his political activism until his death in 1952. The Mitchell family retained control, first under Nannie Mitchell Turner, widow of J.E.’s brother William, then her son Frank. Her grandson Eugene, a surgeon, took over the paper but was busy with his practice while the paper took a back seat.

            In 2003, Eugene Mitchell sold the paper to Eddie Hasan, who vowed to bring it back to its old glory. It is the oldest black-owned business in Missouri.

            (Printed with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 5/2008).

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