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(re)Reflector 01: The Black Press

a woman in a room with magazine covers

by Niya Bates

Growing up in the 1990s, I used to cut posters out of Hype Hair, Jet, and WordUp Magazines while I waited for my mom to get her hair done at Ebony Images hair salon in Charlottesville’s Seminole Trail Shopping Center. Thinking about it evokes a series of memories that are accompanied by the smell of hot hair curlers, the feel of sticky residue from Motions hair spray on the magazine pages, and the sounds of 92.7 Kiss FM when it was our area’s only R&B and hip-hop radio station. Back then, if you wanted to know which fashion was hot (or not), which hair styles to emulate, and get your fill of all the celebrity gossip, you had to read it in Black magazines. The Black press of my childhood was a vital vehicle for the taste-making that Black people were doing in every arena, whether it was music, dance, art, culture, or even politics. The rise of social media (especially TikTok and Twitter) and other digital publications has changed the game for Black newspapers, magazines, and other print media, but they remain a source of inspiration for me. In tribute to these and Charlottesville’s first Black newspaper published in the early 20th century, The Reflector, I have named my new column for Vinegar Hill Magazine “(re)Reflector.” It will be our space to celebrate the power and breadth of our local Black history.

Background on the Black press

In the decades immediately after the United States’ Civil War (1861- 1865), Black Americans viewed literacy as a key tool for uplifting our people. Black scholars and entrepreneurs, those with capital and access to printing presses, used newspapers to reach Black communities throughout the country. Their goals were to use the collective power of the Black press as a venue for fighting back against false stereotypes, promoting Black-owned businesses and products, spreading the ideas and platforms of Black politicians and thought leaders, promoting healthy homes and people through columns written by Black women’s organizations, encouraging freedom of movement by highlighting work opportunities outside of the South, showcasing Black artists and poets, and so much more. The Black press was as much gossip and hot topics as it was a tool and vehicle for Black political organizing and social uplift.

a man seated at a desk

Frederick Madison Roberts (1879-1952) at his desk in the California legislature. Image courtesy of the Oakland African American Museum and Library.

Portrait of William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934). Image courtesy of the Getting Word African American Oral History Project at Monticello.

While Black pop culture magazines of the 1990s and early 2000s were what drew me toward learning about Black media, our local ties to some of the country’s largest Black newspapers at the turn of the 20th century compelled me to learn more about the Black press in Charlottesville. In Boston, for example, prominent early civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter ran one of the country’s most influential Black newspapers called The Boston Guardian from 1901 until shortly before his death in 1934. William Monroe Trotter was a founding member of the Niagara Movement, a predecessor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), along with widely renowned civil rights activist W.E.B du Bois. His Boston Guardian paper survived until 1950. On the West Coast, Frederick Madison Roberts,California’s first Black elected state official, ran the New Age Dispatch, one of the first major newspapers to service the rapidly growing Black population in Los Angeles, from 1912 until 1948. Though neither of these men were born in Charlottesville, both men are descendants of Elizabeth Hemings, one of the matriarchs of the enslaved community at Monticello. To learn more about Trotter and the power of the Black press, you can read historian Kerri K. Greenidge’s book Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter. You can also read more on the Black Press by following the work of the Black Press Research Collective (@BlackPressRC on Twitter) and read more examples from the Howard University Black Press Archives (@HU_BlackPress on Twitter).

a photograph of a newspaper

A cropped detail image of the masthead of The Reflector newspaper. Image source: The Reflector, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

The Reflector

The Reflector was Charlottesville’s first Black newspaper. Edited by Thomas Jerome “T.J.” Sellers, the paper was published on a weekly basis from 1933 through 1935. Sellers’ stated aims for the publication were to “reflect the progress of our community and Race.” Sellers wrote stories about the Jefferson School, Charlottesville’s Social Clubs, and some of the area’s elite Black families, including the Tonslers, Inges, Jacksons, Bells, and Coles. Like other Black newspapers of the era, Sellers’ paper was biased toward the elite “talented tenth,” so called by W.E.B. du Bois, showcasing intellectuals and those who were well to do; but the few remaining copies of the paper still reveal a lot about the rank-and-file members of Black Charlottesville society who had fewer educational opportunities and were part of a less privileged socioeconomic class. There were great debates between middle and upper class Black elites and the largely poor and working class laboring masses about how to best position Black Americans for success against the backdrop of Jim Crow.

a man with glasses

Thomas Jerome Sellers (1911-2006) was editor and proprietor of Charlottesville’s first Black newspaper The Reflector. Image courtesy of the Bridge Builders Project of Charlottesville.

Historians from the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African American Studies at the University of Virginia (UVA), including Scot French and the late Reginald D. Butler, were keenly interested in the stories about Black life and history in Charlottesville that were contained in the few surviving issues of The Reflector. They published a limited number of transcriptions as part of their “Race and Place” project in the early 2000s. Around the same time, two Charlottesville entrepreneurs, Corey Carter and Waki Wynn, revived the paper under the name The African American Reflector and published it on a bi-monthly basis from 2003 until 2005.

Why (re)Reflector?

My new (re)Reflector column is another attempt to capture the essence of what T.J. Sellers put into motion ninety years ago this year. The name (re)Reflector gives what it needs to give for several reasons. First, it pays homage to Sellers and his vision of progress and uplift for Black Charlottesvillians. Second, it speaks to my professional work as a historian who studies the past, and my identity as someone in a constant state of reflection about our collective pasts, presents, and futures. And finally, it pushes back against the idea that our Black history is “lost” or “hidden” or any other word that attempts to downplay how aggressively certain groups have tried to suppress our voices. We haven’t forgotten a thing, and we have all of the receipts. (re)Reflector is guided by my belief that all energy put out into the world is never lost. It is simply converted to another form or reflected. I hope that (re)Reflector will embody the power and spirit of our local Black press and Black media, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as I use this space to highlight local stories from our past.

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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