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Marguerita Washington: The woman behind the Star that never sets


My interest in Omaha‘s African-American newspaper of record, the Omaha Star, goes back a ways. The woman who founded it and rose to national prominence with it, the late Mildred Brown, I never had the pleasure of meeting.  By the time I began writing and reporting on the black community here she was gone and her niece, Marguerita Washington, was in charge.  I didn’t meet Washington though until a few years later. First, I got to know the Star’s longtime advertising director, the late Preston Love Sr., who was a jazz and blues musician and band leader.  Preston is someone I wrote about quite a lot and he served as a valuable source for me about historic black Omaha. Visiting the Star’s offices to meet with Preston only increased my interest in the Star and I eventually had several stories of mine reprinted in its pages., and it was during that time that I wrote this short piece about Marguerita and her aunt Mildred for the New Horizons.

The Omaha Star is less than generous when it comes to contributing writers like myself, as they seem to view a contributed story as a community service rather than a professional service like any other that requires compensation.  Because my sole living depends on my writing, I usually managed to work out some form of compensation for my work, although not in monetary terms. For example, I received a complementary subscription to the paper for a couple years and once I was paid in the form of a homemade sweet potato pie.

 

Marguerita Washington: The woman behind the Star that never sets

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

When Mildred Brown, the loquacious, living-out-loud founder/publisher/editor of the Omaha Star, died in 1989, the city’s only black newspaper was left to niece Marguerita Washington, a woman as circumspect as her aunt was flamboyant. Even with their differences, the women enjoyed a close relationship. The matriarchal Brown mentored her niece, who was like a daughter to her.

A Kansas City, Mo. native, Washington lived with Brown for a time. Long before passing at age 76, Brown laid out how her niece would succeed her at the Star to carry on the cause of civil rights in its pages. There was even talk of them being partners. Washington loved the paper and its mission, but had other plans, namely to be an educator. When she achieved her dream as a special education teacher and, later, an administrator with the Omaha Public Schools, Brown was “disappointed at first, but she adjusted,” her niece recalled.

But, as usual, Brown got the final say when her will bequeathed ownership of the paper to her niece. For a time, Washington tried doing dual careers, but “it got to be pretty rough, so I took early retirement” from OPS.

All along, Washington said, she’d been groomed to take over the Star.

“When I lived with her, not a day went by she didn’t talk to me about the paper and what happened, how it happened, why it happened. And I don’t care how late I came in on Friday nights, I had to be out there in the front office to take care of the newsboys and girls. She wanted me to study journalism. That wasn’t my thing. But she made me take some journalism classes. In fact, we took some together (at UNO). That was interesting. I remember one time she was giving a presentation and the instructor cut her off because she was too long-winded.”

Washington said her aunt went to school “for the fun of it and also to try and make a point with me. The point being I should be interested in journalism. She wanted me to be prepared because, she said, ‘you never know what might happen.’ She was a very wise lady. She did what she felt she had to do.” Once the Star fell into her hands, the once reluctant Washington embraced the responsibility of taking over a weekly that has continuously published since 1938.

Journalism is something you get attached to. It gets in your blood. On a newspaper you never know from one minute to the next what story’s going to break. Sometimes, nothing happens for awhile. Other times, you’re almost tripping over yourself trying to keep up with everything,” she said. “It’s a learning process.”

She knew the burden she accepted after assuming the reigns as publisher/editor.

“It was a challenge. It’s still a challenge. My goal was to keep the paper basically the same, but to to add to it as the times or the issues dictated. In doing so, this will keep Millie’s legacy alive and the paper will continue for as long as possible.”

Through the crusading Star, Brown made herself a national figure in an era when it was rare for any woman, white or black, to own a paper. The strong stands she took against racism in the Star and on the many community-civic organization boards she served on, brought her and her views to the attention of civil rights leaders and presidents. Wherever she went and whomever she met, Brown worked on behalf of freedom and justice for her people.

The famous declaration of principles in the Star’s mast head — “Dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that evil shall not go unopposed” — was a motto identified with Brown. She, like the paper she used as her mouthpiece, was seen as a champion of the underdog.

 

 

Sufragist parade

Mildred Brown

 

 

As a teen Washington got to see that advocacy in action when she tagged along with her aunt at protests and demonstrations aimed at overturning discrimination in the schools, at workplaces and in public places. “I was right there.” Brown and her paper ardently supported the work of the Urban League, the NAACP, black churches and social action groups such as the DePorres Club and the 4CL.

Advocacy journalism is still at the core of the Star’s mandate under Washington. While she may lack her aunt’s flair, she’s maintained the Star as a mirror for black concerns and, in her own quiet way, made it “a sounding board” for ordinary folks.

“I’m interested in the heartbeat of the community. What’s on the citizens’ minds? What do they feel? What are they interested in? What do they plan to do about it? The main thing I’m proud of is this paper has really become the people’s paper. We have many guest local columnists. Those in the community who have something to say and who can write — mind you I say who can write — they have space to express themselves. Because a paper is not just one person’s idea of what should be. It should be a total thing. It should be a community thing. I think a paper can function a lot better if you have a lot of different opinions…a diversity of voices.”

The Star’s regular columnists include Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers, corporate VP Mike Jones and community activist Matthew Stelly.

While Brown’s garish style made her a public figure that sometimes overwhelmed the paper’s feats, Washington’s demure manner has kept her in the shadows to let the Star shine on its own merits. Two distinct approaches for two distinct women. But there’s no doubt Mildred Brown is a hard act to follow.

Known for wearing gaudy dresses and corsages, making the rounds of business meetings in a chauffeur-driven limousine and talking the ear off anyone if it meant a prospective ad sale, Brown was a force of nature. Her charm was such that despite being perpetually late for everything and reportedly overstating some claims, like the paper’s circulation, she was forgiven all. Selling was her gift. Selling herself was a large part of making the paper a success and outlasting every single competing black newspaper that went head-to-head with it.

Whether it was to close you on buying an ad or to shame you into doing the right thing, Brown was persistent in having her way.

“She was one of those people, whatever she wanted, she eventually got it, one way or the other,” said Washington, who as a teen accompanied her aunt on sales calls. “She loved to talk. And I think sometimes people would go ahead and buy just to get rid of her. But she didn’t care. And she would work on these people to be repeat customers, and usually got ‘em. She could sell the San Francisco bridge”

Even all these years later, the legacy of Brown looms large over the offices of the Star, 2216 North 24th Street, where an entire room is dedicated to her, including dozens of plaques on the walls that represent just a fraction of the 150 or so honors she received in her lifetime. The apartment she resided in in the rear of the circa-1923 brick building is much like it was at the time of Brown’s death. Washington uses the apartment as her personal office, where she and her Lhasa Apso dog, Carman, greet visitors.

Something else that hasn’t changed is the struggle for equality. While Washington sees progress, she’s alarmed by the education-achievement gaps between whites and blacks and decries how slow the redevelopment of north Omaha is proceeding.

“We understand the struggle is far from over. We’ve changed our techniques in writing about it or talking about it, but we’re still working toward the motto we have that if one person is down, then we’re all down,” she said.

That lesson is among many principles Brown taught her.

“She truly believed we should give each other a helping hand in any way we can. Somebody might be down, but you can help to pull them up. And if you don’t, then you’re a part of the problem. Another value I got from her is we all have to work together. We can’t pull apart. Once the link is broken, you can’t accomplish anything. She was also very strong on education. She believed there’s no limit to learning. I believe that also. And there’s always a better way to do something.”

“Education,” she said, “and journalism are really very similar. The only thing is, in education, you’ve got the classroom. In journalism, you’ve got the world.”

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