During the late ’60s, Dorothy R. Leavell was a trailblazer in the newspaper publishing business.
And today Leavell is still at the helm of the The Chicago Crusader Newspaper, a community newspaper that has managed to stay relevant for 75 years.
After the death of her husband, Balm L. Leavell, in 1968, Leavell found herself in charge of a publication that was started in an apartment in CHA’s Ida B. Wells public housing.
At that time there were only about five other women publishers in the country.
“They were all like senior citizens. I was a widow at 24 years old with two babies,” Leavell told me in a recent interview.
Leavell was 14 years old when she came to Chicago from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to visit an aunt. The aunt had a friend who owned a rooming house at 45th and King Drive, and the women would often brag about how smart the youngsters were in their lives.
“The rooming house lady told my aunt, if I was that smart I should come here and try to get a job at the Crusader, since one of her roomers worked for the Crusader,” Leavell said.
Leavell ended up working for the newspaper over summer vacation and during Christmas break. When she graduated from high school, Leavell moved to Chicago and eventually married the paper’s founder. He died five years later.
“When he died I had two newspapers (one in Gary, Indiana) and two babies. . . . We were not on a good financial footing, but I decided I was going to try,” Leavell told me. “In those days, you did whatever you needed to do. Everything was hands on and on-the-job training.”
But Leavell said she was prepared for the challenge because of lessons she learned from a high school principal in Pine Bluff.
“He made us feel we could do anything that we wanted to in any realm. That was the philosophy that had been drilled in me. I knew it would be a challenge, but I didn’t know it would be as difficult as it turned out,” she said.
Besides running the community newspapers, Leavell served two stints as president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a black newspaper trade organization. Leavell also served as chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation from 2006 to 2011.
She’s especially proud that during her term as president of NNPA, the group led a delegation to Nigeria to investigate the Nigerian political crisis. While her decision to intercede in Nigeria sparked controversy, it also raised the organization’s international profile.
“I don’t regret doing it. My central theme has been building bridges and that included bridges with Africa,” she told me.
While some question the relevancy of black newspapers, Leavell said she believes the black press is still very much needed today, especially in light of controversial police-involved shootings.
“The black press was never founded to make money. It had a deeper mission. It has been our mission to provide better conditions for black people,” Leavell said.
“The daily newspapers fell from 25 stories high; we were already in the basement. We don’t have a lot of pages, but we try to provide a mechanism for young people to aspire for greater things,” she said.