The Savannah Tribune: Pressing on for more than a century

Black History Month

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – In the early days, newspapers were the backbone of the Black community — highlighting both the struggles and successes often left out of mainstream media.

Locally, The Savannah Tribune has provided a voice for more than 145 years.

Originally called The Colored Tribune, the publication was established shortly after the Civil War when the Black press emerged in the south.

“When you go back to The Savannah Tribune,” says publisher Shirley James, “it was founded and established in 1875. I think about that. That’s right after the Emancipation. During the period of Reconstruction. And, John Deveaux and William Pleasant and Louis B. Toomer Sr. were businessmen, and they established The Savannah Tribune.”

Its purpose: to defend “the rights of colored people, and their elevation to the highest plane of citizenship.”

“But when you think about that period of time, it was difficult,” James says. “But they were the ones who had the messages out in the Black community. And they kept everyone in that community apprised to what was going on.

“And they took some stands on some issues during that period of time that were not very necessarily the best thing to do… but it was the best for the African American community.”

With the end of Reconstruction in 1871, many Black publications folded, but the Tribune survived until 1878.

James says there was a period in time that the Tribune ceased to be published, simply because white publishers in the area refused to print the paper.

It reopend in 1886.

In the early 1900s, under the guidance of Savannah’s Sol C. Johnson, the Tribune served as south Georgia and north Florida’s only means for news about the injustices of the Jim Crow era.

Prominent Harlem Renaissance writer, James Weldon Johnson, even served as a correspondent for the paper in the 1920s during his time as executive secretary of the NAACP.

In 1954, Willa Ayers Johnson, succeeded Sol C. Johnson to become the first female owner.

In 1960, the paper again temporarily closed its doors.

But after a 13-year hiatus, banker Robert James re-established the Tribune, serving as owner and publisher until his wife Shirley — a counselor by profession — took the reins in 1983.

“As publisher, I still had my professional position at Savannah State University,” James says, “Which really took the majority of my time, between doing that and being a working mom.

“So, we’ve always had just very good staff members at The Savannah Tribune who really — they’re the ones I have to give the credit to for making sure that we never missed a publication date. Never. From 1973. Even during the period of time when we had the fire in 2006 — which was devastating.”

Today, while many newspapers struggle to remain in operation, the Tribune has pressed on, persistent in its role to provide a platform for people of color.

James says representation is a vital part of ensuring the news reflects the communities which it serves.

“African American newspapers throughout the country have always been the ones that would bring truth to the matter,” she says. “As far as the African American community was concerned, and is still concerned, that’s how we get our information out to African Americans throughout.

“And most of us now, we consider ourselves an interracial kind of newspaper — but we still get the message out that’s pertinent to our community.”

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