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Women still calling the shots at the Omaha Star after 81 years


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Women still calling the shots at the Omaha Star after 81 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2019 edition of The Reader (thereader.com)

Native Omaha Days is a biennial, first-week-in-August nostalgia trip for current and former residents reliving the black-is-beautiful experience of their youth. Among the many touchstones of African-American life here is the newspaper serving that community, the Omaha Star.

From its 1938 founding by Mildred Brown, the paper’s continued a legacy of black women publishers and editors. When Brown died in 1989. niece Marguertia Washington took the helm. Upon her 2016 passing, Phyllis Hicks took the reins. With Hicks retiring in early 2019, Frankie Williams has assumed interim publisher-editor roles as the paper’s come under the ownership of the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.

Brown’s matriarchal presence still looms large. The apartment-office she kept at the Star is a shrine in this National Register of Historic Places building. The loud. proud Brown was often the only woman present in the circle of power she convened there.

“She was performing in a man’s role,” Frankie Williams said,” and did it very well.”

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Brown’s trademark white carnation corsage was her calling card at myriad social-community events she made it her business to attend.

Scores of youth worked for her as carriers and sales staff. She paid for many young people’s education and mentored many others.

Paul Bryant credits “Aunt Millie” with supporting him through his “starving student” days. He came to admire her social entrepreneurship.

“Mildred Brown was a fighter who used intellect, tenacity and moral authority to win. She was a visionary trailblazer decades ahead of her time.”

In 1968 Frankie Williams sold ads and edited a teen page for the Star while a Central High School. She recalls Brown holding court.

“This was a gathering place for community leaders.” Williams said of the paper’s offices. When news broke of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she witnessed a procession of leaders seek Brown out there. “It was such a solemn, somber experience, It was silence and then talking and then – where do we go from here. Mildred led the conversation. Hers was definitely a voice of reason. She was a thinker and strategist. I wouldn’t say calm, though, She was a very forceful person.”

Williams and others were on the receiving end of “tough conversations” with Brown.

“I remember the day she told me to order her carnation corsage. I decided she should have a pink one instead of the white. Well, that was something I got called back here for,” Williams said from that same back room. “She told me it wasn’t my decision to make.”

Terri Sanders, a board member of the Mildred Brown Center, grew up in awe of the regal Brown, whom she remembers as “someone to be admired that you could pattern yourself after working in the community.”

The paper’s heyday is long past as it struggles finding sustainability in this tenuous time for print media.

Williams aims to increase visibility. The paper held a July 27 gala screening of The Wiz at Bryant Park and will have a conspicuous display in the Native Omaha Days stroll and parade.

For Williams, heading up the Star is a “full-circle” event. Brown wanted Williams to one day succeed her. It was too far off and daunting a prospect for an 18-year-old to process then. After decades working in youth services in Atlanta and Omaha, Williams returned to the fold 11 years ago to assist Washington and Hicks.

“The paper started going through some really tough times. One of the staff resigned because Marguerita (Washington) just wasn’t able to make payroll,” Williams recalled. When Washington died, Hicks managed her estate. Thus, Williams assumed “more and more Star responsibilities.” Now that she’s in the post Brown groomed her for, she’s fully aware of being a steward.

“I am grateful to be here. I can’t be Mildred. nor would I try to be. The thing I can do is carry her torch and make sure the legacy lives on. I want to take care of it.”

She agrees with Terri Sanders “the paper’s in good hands” with the Study Center.

“There were a lot of people interested in purchasing it, and still are. But I’m happy it happened like this.” Williams said. “I would not have wanted it to go to someone who didn’t understand the legacy and would have no value in Mildred other than the name.”

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Sanders feels the Study Center board and Star staff share a mission. “Part of our job is to reacquaint or introduce people to the Omaha Star and why it is important.”

The Study Center awards scholarships, operates the Junior Journalist Program and feeds the Star interns.

“We’ve had several interns and scholarship recipients go on to do well,” said Sanders, including, most prominently, her own daughter Symone Sanders, a national Democratic Party consultant and news panelist.

Two generations earlier, Urban One founder Cathy Hughes got her media start with Brown, whose example inspired her own entrepreneurial drive.

Despite female-centric leadership. the paper’s been a vehicle for such strong male voices as Ernie Chambers, Matthew Stelly, Walter Brook and Leo Louis and the late Charles B. Washington.

“Mildred Brown’s desire was for the paper to thrive after her departure. I know she would be pleased the Star is still in print,” said Paul Bryant.

Reshon Dixon, who resides in Atlanta, is among the legion of native Omahans living elsewhere who still take the Star to stay connected with Black Omaha goings-on.

It’s how she keeps up with events and deaths.

Sustaining the paper on ad revenues and subscriptions alone is “never enough,” Williams said. “We’re just making enough to keep the doors open.”

Another revenue stream is the fee-based online archive

accessed by students, academics, historians and journalists across the nation, Sanders said.

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Williams aims to increase subscriptions by moving from a column-heavy, soft news pub to a harder news biweekly. “It’s a work in progress,” she said. “Everyone is feeling their way, but I feel assured everyone is working to enhance what we’ve done in the past.”

“Our advantage is we are a trusted source,” she said. “Being relevant is even more important to maintain credibility. One of the tag-lines Marguerita and Phyllis used is: we report positive news. But we’re doing a disservice if we’re not trying to educate and inform our readers. We need to report pertinent news. With the political climate the way it is, we would do a disservice to our community not to talk about the hard topics.

“We have the census and election coming up. It’s our responsibility to educate our community on how the candidates and census impact our lives. We have to be relevant. In the fall we’ll start featuring photos of murder victims whose killings have not been solved and of missing people of color. This stuff is going on around us and we cannot act like it’s not happening.”

Williams is ever conscious of legacy.

“When I make decisions I do think about how Mildred Brown would have handled this.”

Williams said the National Newspaper Publishers Association Brown helped form “takes pride that this is a paper founded by a female and led by females for 81 years.” She added, “It just has to continue like that. It would tarnish the legacy for it not to. It’s our responsibility to groom whoever is next.”

“Black women started it, black women have led it, and it is my hope that will continue throughout the life of the paper.” Sanders said. “To lose that would be to lose the flavor of what the Omaha Star is and was.”

“I think it is wonderful women still run the Star.” Bryant said. “My prayer is that they have as much impact on the community as Mildred Brown did. “

Reshon Dixon seconds the sentiment by saying the legacy is “a testimony to the community.”

Native Omahan Amber Ruffin, writer-performer on Late Night with Seith Meyers, said, “I love the fact the Star has been led by black women for its whole existence. It makes me feel proud to be a black Omahan.”

Williams feels the future is “bright.” She’s impressed by young North O leaders. Perhaps one of them will be the torchbearer taking the paper to its centennial.

“We have a pool of young people to mentor and to help along their journey, and hopefully when the time comes one of them will be able to step up.”

Visit https://theomahastar.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks – The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks

The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the March-April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/articles/an-omaha-star-phyllis-hicks/)

 

 

 

 

When the story of the city’s longest-running African-American-owned newspaper, The Omaha Star, is written, three women will dominate its 80-year narrative.

Founding publisher Mildred Brown ran the ship from 1938 until her death in 1989. Her niece Marguerita Washington (a career educator), who spent time working for her aunt growing up, succeeded her. Phyllis Hicks joined the paper in 2005 and took over more and more of its operations after Washington fell ill. Upon Washington’s 2016 death, Hicks officially became publisher and managing editor; in truth, she had been running things for some time.

Hicks—the last survivor of this troika of black women journalists—never intended getting so deeply involved with the paper. Brown was only an acquaintance and Hicks’ association with the Star was limited to reading and submitting news items to it. She only joined the staff as a favor to her mother, who was close to Washington. Hicks studied journalism in school, but besides writing occasional press releases for her work in the public and private sectors (including her coaching of the Stepping Saints drill team), she had nothing to do with the Fourth Estate.

Fate had other plans, and thus Hicks, like Brown and Washington before her, became the matriarchal face of the paper. She did it her way, too. Lacking the entrepreneurial and sartorial flair of Brown, Hicks nevertheless managed attracting enough advertisers to keep the Star afloat through troubled economic times and declining ad revenues and subscriptions. Without the publishing and academic background of Washington, Hicks still found ways to keep the paper relevant for today’s readers.

After more than a decade with the paper, Hicks—who turns 76 on March 7—is looking to step away from the paper due to her own declining health. She broke her ankle in 2017, and then, last year went to the hospital to be treated for pneumonia; she was discharged with a dysfunctional kidney requiring dialysis.

She is eager for someone to carry the Star torch forward. As this issue of Omaha Magazine went to press, a management transition involving the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center was in progress.

Whatever the paper’s future, Hicks is glad to have been part of its legacy of strong black women. That legacy extends to her late mother, aunts, and grandmother (Emma Lee Agee-Sullivan)—all independent achievers from whom she drew much inspiration.

When Agee-Sullivan was young, she was a member of the church pastored by the Rev. Earl Little (Malcolm X’s father). Agee-Sullivan was with the Little family when a lynch mob came looking for Earl Little. The family hid him and covered for him, and the Littles fled Nebraska the next day. As an adult, Hicks says, Agee-Sullivan was active in the Baptist church and started the state’s first licensed, black-owned home daycare.

Hicks had aunts who worked in finance and another who was a championship golfer (who would have gone professional “if she had come at another time”), she says, adding that her paternal grandfather, the Rev. J. P. Mosley Sr., led a demonstration to integrate swimming pools in Chillicothe, Missouri, in 1954, and “built Mount Nebo Baptist Church from the ground up” in Omaha.

When the challenge of the Star or anything else presented itself, she was ready. “I just did it because it had to be done,” Hicks says.

She followed the path laid out by other “black women taking the leadership role.”

At a time when few black women owned businesses, Brown launched the Star only a year after moving to town. She originally worked for the city’s other African-American paper, The Guide. She left its employment for her startup, which competed against The Guide for advertisers and readers. The Star soon won out thanks to her entrepreneurial savvy and not-taking-no-for-an-answer grit. The publisher made her paper a bastion for civil rights and community pride.

Following Brown’s death in 1989, Washington took command. By the early 2000s, the
paper struggled.

Meanwhile, Hicks’ mother, Juanita, befriended Washington. When Juanita fell ill, Washington helped care for her to allow Hicks to manage the Stepping Saints. Then, when Juanita’s house got flooded, she stayed with Washington for six weeks.

“They kind of adopted each other and threw me in the mix,” Hicks says.

Hicks was retired but, at the urging of her mother, she offered to assist Washington at the Star. Hicks soon took on editorial and business duties.

“I went to do a little marketing for Marguerita, and I’ve been there ever since,” she says. “I discovered there was a lot of help she needed. The paper was in dire straits. And I just started doing some of everything.”

Along the way, Hicks and Washington grew close. “It was a growing relationship that became more of a personal one than a business one,” she says.

Together, they formed the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center as a fundraising and scholarship vehicle.

As Washington’s health failed, Hicks became her caregiver and eventually power of attorney. By the time Washington died of multiple malignant brain tumors in 2016, Hicks transitioned the paper from a weekly to a biweekly as a cost-savings move. She also got the paper’s archives digitized online.

Hicks continued running the paper, she says, because “I just felt an obligation. When I take on something, I try to see it through.”

Woodcut of Phyllis Hicks by Watie White

The Star is believed to be the nation’s oldest African-American paper owned and operated by women. Through the Great Depression, the late ’60s riots, the 2008 economic collapse, the death of publishers, and declining print ad revenue, it has never ceased publication.

Hicks admires how Washington took up the mantle after Mildred Brown died.

“She wanted the paper to go on as a legacy to Mildred because Mildred put her all into the paper. Plus, Marguerita felt the paper needed to be in the community to allow the black community a voice. She felt the newspaper was another way to educate people.

“She made the ultimate sacrifice and put her life on hold to keep somebody else’s dream alive,” Hicks says.

With Washington and Brown as her models, she ensured the Star’s survival.

“I take satisfaction in knowing I kept it from going under because it was close to going under,” she says. “With some personal sacrifices, I’ve been able to keep the doors open and pay people’s salaries. I paid off allThe Omaha Star bills. There were several years of back taxes. All that’s been caught up to date.”

Hicks came to believe, as Brown and Washington did, the Star serves an important role in its “ability to tell it like it is in the community, without it having to be politically correct.”

Just don’t expect crime reporting.

“I’ve tried to keep the paper in the light that Marguerita and Mildred did in positive news,” she says. “We don’t report who got killed, we don’t report crime, we don’t report any of that, because there’s a mess of that being reported already. What we try to do is paint a bright picture of what’s going on in the community—people’s accomplishments. We try to put information out there that builds the community up as well as inspires the community.”

The Star’s long been home to strong voices—from Charlie Washington and Preston Love Sr. to Ernie Chambers and Walter Brooks—calling for change. For many black Omahans, including those living elsewhere, it remains a main conduit to their shared community.

Hicks wishes more young people used the paper as a resource and recognized its role in fighting injustice and championing black self-determination.

“It’s a legacy for them,” she says. “It’s a part of this community’s history, and it’s a vehicle for them to tell their stories. We invite young people to submit stories.”

The Star intersects with young people through internships it offers students and scholarships granted by the Study Center. Engaging with community youth has been a priority for Hicks for years.

Long before joining the Star, Hicks made her community mark as co-founder and director of the Salem Baptist Church Stepping Saints drill team. The team was originally organized in 1966 to perform at a single event. But Saints dancers and drummers wanted something permanent, so the group became a fixture in area parades and at Disneyland, Disney World, Knott’s Berry Farm, and many other attractions across the nation.

Hicks says, the last time she counted, the Saints had performed in 38 states and some 2,000 youths had cycled through the team’s ranks over time. Some veteran Saints have seen their children and grandkids participate, making it a multigenerational tradition.

The Saints celebrated 50 years in 2017. The team is still going strong. Even though Hicks no longer takes an active hand in things, she’s still the matriarch.

Just as she never meant for the Saints to be a long-term commitment, her Omaha Star gig turned into one. Her promise-keeping may be her enduring legacy.

“If I say I’m going to do something, then I’m going to try to see it to the end,” she says.

Hicks wants the paper to remain black-owned and managed and based in North Omaha, where its red brick building (at 2216 N. 24th St.) has landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places.


Visit theomahastar.com for more information.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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