Celebrate Our History

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History of The Savannah Tribune as cited in The New Georgia Encyclopedia, edited by NGE staff 6/8/18, with additional comments and insertions by Shirley Barber James, Owner, Publisher and Editor

Introduction

The Savannah Tribune has a proud and glorious heritage. A weekly newspaper covering news and issues related to Savannah’s African American community, The Savannah Tribune, originally named The Colored Tribune, was founded and published its first edition in 1875. Three African-American civic and business leaders, John H. Deveaux, Louis B. Toomer, Sr., and Louis M. Pleasant, recognized the need for a newspaper dedicated to serving the African-American community in Savannah. Since it was established, The Tribune has always been in the forefront of positive efforts to improve the plight of African-Americans, and lift the entire community.

Early Years

The years between U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Reconstruction Era that began in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, ushered in a brief period of opportunity for southern African Americans, particularly in the political arena. During those years, a black press emerged in the South. This was a perilous time for African Americans in the South. White resistance to black progress percolated during Reconstruction and eventually resulted in the segregation policies of the 1890’s and the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Despite an unfavorable environment, Savannah native John H. Deveaux established The Colored Tribune with the purpose, as stated in his first issue, of defending “the rights of the colored people, and their elevation to the highest plane of citizenship.”

Deveaux, born in 1848 to a free black family, was a prominent businessman in Savannah and had sufficient personal resources to finance the venture. Many black publications folded with the end of Reconstruction in 1871. However, The Tribune survived until 1878, when it closed because the printers in the city, all white, refused to produce it. Deveaux reopened the paper in 1886 and served as editor until 1889 when he was appointed as the Collector of Customs and moved to Brunswick, GA. Solomon “Sol” C. Johnson then assumed the editorship, and later purchased the paper upon DeVeaux’s death in 1909. With the exception of the hiatuses from 1878 to 1886, and from 1960 to 1973, The Savannah Tribune has operated continuously.

Sol C. Johnson, born in 1868, lived in Savannah since childhood and managed other thriving businesses as well. However, the success of the paper, according to historian Jeffrey Alan Turner, cannot be explained merely in economic terms. As he pointed out, “One does not have to look hard to find black editors in the South who spoke out too strongly against white society. . . . Deveaux and Johnson must have had a sense for when they could criticize the system—as they often did—and when they needed to be cautious.”

During Johnson’s editorship, The Tribune served as south Georgia and north Florida’s only medium for news about the injustices of the Jim Crow era. The paper encouraged its readership to resist segregation, particularly in Savannah’s streetcar system, and covered such contentious issues as the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, lynchings around Georgia, the convict lease system, and the lack of educational opportunities for black children in Savannah.

By the 1920s, the newspaper had moved from a generally conciliatory stance toward whites to a more strident voice for racial equality. It also served as a forum for the black literati. James Weldon Johnson, a prominent Harlem Renaissance writer, served as a correspondent for The Tribune in the 1920’s during his tenure as executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The Tribune faced significant competition in 1928 with the establishment of the Atlanta World (later the Atlanta Daily World), which became the preeminent black newspaper in the state. By the 1930s the Daily World had gained a national readership. Nevertheless, The Tribune continued publication.

Sol C. Johnson ran the publication until his death in 1954. He was succeeded by his Goddaughter, Willa Ayers Johnson who became the first female* owner and editor.  She was a graduate of Talladega College, an Historical Black College and University (HBCU) in Alabama.  When Ayers Johnson moved to Savannah, in addition to serving as The Tribune’s editor and secretary, she also worked at the Department of Family and Children Services. Under Ayers Johnson, The Savannah Tribune continued publication until September 1960 when it succumbed to a national trend in the black media and closed its doors. Industry analysts attribute this decline of the black press in part to a belief among readers that, because racial parity was at hand, black publications were no longer relevant.

Reemergence

After a thirteen-year hiatus, banker Robert E. James re-established The Savannah Tribune in 1973. He was owner and publisher until 1983 when his wife, Shirley Barber James, became the second female* publisher and sole owner. A community leader, Barber James is a Spelman College (HBCU) graduate who earned the Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and served as a Licensed Professional Counselor at Savannah State University.  Under the James’ editorship, local and national news and issues that are primarily of interest to African Americans has dominated the front pages of The Tribune, along with articles about local African American community events. Even as its primary competitor, the conservative Savannah Morning News, has diversified its newsroom and shown an increased willingness to cover issues of concern to a black audience, The Tribune‘s editors and publishers still claim an important niche in the Savannah-Chatham County community and its surrounding areas. The Tribune has continued its legacy which is to champion African American causes and promote a positive image of the African American community.

Another Surge

The Savannah Tribune experienced an unanticipated surge during 2002 when well-known Savannah native and veteran newspaper advertising salesperson, Tanya Milton, returned to manage the day-to-day affairs of the publication as General Manager and Advertising Sales Director. Milton started her newspaper career at The Savannah Tribune in 1975. She relocated to Detroit in November 1978 and joined the sales staff of The Black Secretariat. Several years later, she moved to Kansas City as advertising salesperson for the  Kansas City Star & Times. Milton returned to Savannah in 1981, and spent 21 years as a prominent member of the sales team at the Savannah Morning News. Her return to The Tribune has been key to the newspaper’s success during a period when many have questioned the relevance, and even likelihood of survival, of newspapers, especially small, privately owned weekly newspapers such as The Tribune.

A Phoenix Experience

In January 2006, an electrical fire scathed the inside of the newspaper’s office at 916 Montgomery Street in Savannah. The community rallied around The Tribune in the wake of the fire, and Savannah State University, an HBCU, offered Tribune staff members the use of computers in its journalism department. Also coming to The Tribune’s assistance were The Savannah Morning News and the Savannah College of Art and Design.

During the week of the devastating fire, The Tribune purchased new computers and re-located to another building owned by Robert E. James at 1805 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. The newspaper was able to continue its proud tradition of never missing a publication date since it was re-established by the James family in 1973. The newspaper is still housed in the building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

As of 2018, Shirley Barber James continues as the paper’s owner, publisher and editor, and The Savannah Tribune is ready for another 100 years as “Georgia’s Best Weekly.” proudly celebrating 143 years and included in the 191 history of The Black Press.

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* A note of interest about the two female owners of The Savannah Tribune.  Both  are graduates of HBCU’s and members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Savannah Alumnae Chapter.  Willa Ayers Johnson was among the 13 charter members of the Savannah Alumnae Chapter of the sorority, originally chartered in 1941 as Beta Delta Sigma Chapter.  James has been a member since 1977.

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