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Archives from the Negro Leader are a window into 1910s African-American life in the Black Belt

J. H. Forniss

The Negro Leader, founded Oct. 1909 in Uniontown, wasn’t the first African-American owned publication in the Black Belt, or even in Perry County. The Marion Journal Reporter, one of the earliest, was in publication at least as far back as 1871 under the leadership of editor Wm. B. Patterson, and possibly even before that. However, scant archives of this early publication still exist. The Leader, on the other hand, which lasted at least six years under that masthead and at least a few months more as the Uniontown News, has left a fairly complete, and fascinating, record of its existence. The publishers of the Leader, Success Publishing Company, led by Leader publisher and editor J. H. Forniss, were diligent about mailing a copy of each week’s edition to the Alabama Dept. of Archives and History, whose collection was the source for this article.

One thing that makes the Leader unique, compared to other publications of its day, was that it aimed not to focus on just one community—Uniontown, Perry County, etc—but on the Black community of this section of the Black Belt at large: It eagerly followed news from Greensboro, Moundville, Demopolis, Faunsdale, Marion, and Selma, and the smaller communities throughout the countryside whose names have mostly been forgotten now. Its editorial masthead included a number of correspondents from communities in the area, leaders in the churches, farming sector, and social circles of their day.

Editor Forniss was a prominent African-American business owner in the Uniontown of his day, and an obituary notes that at the time of his death, his was the only print shop operating in the town. The Leader’s masthead also lists many pastors, influential men in their churches and communities at large, as contributors: Rev. L. V. Starkey, Rev. Wm. Madison, Sr. Rev. E. Jones, Rev. B. R. Ross, Rev. Wm. Grace of Greensboro, Rev. W. L. Rhone, and Rev. T. D. Lovejoy.

The Leader carried a staggering amount of advertising in its day. The sight of an average page on an average week for them is enough to make a modern-day newspaper publisher’s heart skip a beat.

There are display ads—from little inch-high boxes to a full-page, front-page ad for Marx Mercantile Co. Their advertisers included prominent white-owned businesses of the day, eager to court black clientele, as well as representatives of a vibrant black-owned business community.

“Stop Talking War and Get Ready to Live: Garden Seed Time,” announces grocer Herman Levy. As World War I raged, a reminder that the necessities of life still need to be attended to. Seed potatoes of varieties with names like Irish Cobbler, Early Rose, and Triumph were available for planting, as were seeds for “cabbage, collards, turnips, squash, cucumber, butter beans, okra, peas, string beans, etc.”

And there are line ads—something akin to what we’d call classified ads today—mixed in among the local news items, church announcements, recipes, dispatches from around the world. Many of them are for local businesses but most, just as in the white-owned local newspapers of the day, are for patent medicines. These unregulated drugs might contain large amounts of alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, or opium, and be marketed as miracle cures for everything from dandruff, gout, and menstrual pain to vague-sounding ailments like “low mood.” Considering the ingredients they often contained, altering one’s mood might be the only thing they were good for. While it may seem strange or even quaint to us now, the proliferation of these “quack” medicines gave rise to the movement in this country to regulate the contents of and advertising for medication for the first time. And, of course, drug companies still spend fortunes on advertising—the more things change, the more they stay the same.

But all of this spending on advertising points to an often-overlooked fact: the Leader represented a way for Black-owned businesses, which were flourishing at that time, to reach their potential customers directly. Long before social media and micro-targeting, before television and even radio, local newspapers were both fountains of information of local interest and a window to the wider world for many readers.

And speaking of social media, a flip through the pages of the Leader reveals another important, often-overlooked function many local newspapers served for their readers, right up until the dawn of websites like Facebook and Instagram: documenting the comings-and-goings of the the people in the communities they covered. Obituaries, weddings, and birth announcements are relatively few (not many of those happen in a small town in a given week, then or now) compared to items like, “Miss Willie Thompson returned to the Lincoln school at Marion last week, where she goes to enter upon her senior year.”

Patent medicines and mentions of schools and businesses that closed years ago aren’t the only identifiers that the Leader comes from a different era. At that time in American culture, there had been a prolonged explosion of membership in lodges, fraternal orders, and other societies. Some of these are still around. Some, like the “I.O.B. and S. of C.,” of which the Leader coincidentally identifies itself as the official organ, have vanished almost entirely.

J. L. Christian, W.S., and Mrs. Sue Allen, B.Q., of Hopewell Lodge, I.O.B. and S. of C. published an announcement inviting visiting members to attend their meeting on the first and third Monday night of the month at 7:30. No clue is given as to what I.O.B. and S. of C. stands for, but the society was likely a form of mutual aid society structured within a lodge system.

Organizations like the Freemasons, with their commitment to aid a brother in need, gave inspiration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to a widespread system of “lodges” founded mainly for the mutual social support they could offer. In the days before insurance, these lodges, whose members wore regalia including aprons and white gloves like their Masonic counterparts, and who had their own titles and rituals, would collect dues that could be distributed to members as aid in the event of sickness, disaster, or to bury the dead.

Unionbell Lodge, another I.O.B. and S of C. lodge, met on the first and third Tuesday nights of each month at 7:30 at Atwaters’ Hall. St. Paul Lodge, another lodge of the same society, located in Moundville, announces its twice-monthly Friday night meetings, led by W.G. Gaines, Mrs. Ella Richard, and Mrs. Hattie Stewart.
A later edition of the paper mentions that Fairhope lodge, yet another lodge of the I.O.B. and S. of C., is adding new members rapidly. Fairhope, better known as the Fairhope Benevolent Society, is located between Uniontown and Faunsdale, near the Perry-Hale county line. It is the organization whose annual reunion took on a life of its own over the centuries and grew into the event now known as Footwash.

Other lodges, as well, catalogue their meetings in its pages: “Knights of Pythias Union Lodge No. 38 meets every first and third Thursday nights at the castle hall, 7:30 o’clock, in the school house building; all visiting brethren are cordially invited.”

There was an Odd Fellows lodge meeting regularly (See J.L. Christian or W.E. Freeman for more information on that), two Odd Fellows women’s auxiliaries: the I.O.O. Calanthe under the leadership of Mrs. A.L. Banks, W.C., and Mrs. Pearl Phillips, R. of D., and the Household of Ruth, led by Mrs. R.E. Pitts, M.N.G., and Mrs. Lula Shaw, W.R.

Interestingly, only one Masonic lodge, Cyrene No. 231, lists its regular communication among the extensive “Lodges” section of the Leader. J.L. Christian was an officer there, as well, serving as Worshipful Master, and W.E. Hudson was the lodge secretary at that time.

While the Leader, like all local weeklies of its day, was primarily concerned with the comings and goings of its community’s people, it followed the news of the day, as well. Writing for an African-American audience, it did not shy away from covering the grave issues facing its readers as they moved in the world at large.

As early as 1914, it reprinted items from other states, warning about the encroachment of “Jim Crow” laws even on the country’s railroads, and what that could mean for readers of papers like the Leader. In 1911, its front page noted, with disappointment, President William Howard Taft’s walking back a hard line on lynching: “TAFT NOT TO SEND LYNCHING MESSAGE: A MATTER FOR EACH STATE.”

The paper includes items indicating support for the expansion of voting rights, including this quote from Rev. R. S. MacArthur of New York City: “The ballot box seems sacred to me, and I never voted without removing my hat. The men in the voting booths are always amused at this attitude, but to me the voting privilege will be always treated with great respect. A man should pray as he votes and vote as he prays.”

The Leader also, in an analysis of Alabama’s upcoming gubernatorial election by way of the one we had in 1892, gives some clue as to how long accusations of voter fraud have been common in the Black Belt. Editor Forniss writes that African-Americans in the region were used as pawns by the white politicians of the day: “Negroes, dead or alive, at the polls or away, voting or not voting, were counted. The Black Belt witnessed a saturnalia of fictitious and factitious votes; there was a tragedy in our body politic, and the wounds have not yet healed.” That year, Thomas Goode Jones, a conservative Bourbon Democrat representing the interests of the state’s moneyed large planters, beat out the populist small farmers’ candidate Reuben Kolb, with an unlikely strong showing among African-American voters in the Black Belt.

The Leader touched on controversial local issues, as well, once admonishing local readers (and leaders) to, “Make good or get down!” with regard to community support for the schools in Uniontown for African-American children. “Uniontown Colored School Going Back—No Interest is Being Manifested and the System is in a Deplorable Condition,” screamed the headline.

Stories about political strife and tips at homemaking, again, as in most local papers, got equal weight in the Leader. One article gave several different recipes for bread cake, made with leftover (uncooked) bread dough. This “Sunday pudding” went as follows: “Add two cupfuls of soft bread dough—ordinary bread dough may be used with the addition of a spoonful smooth and then add one cupful of sugar, one egg, a little nutmeg, and a piece of butter the size of an egg. Beat all together until perfectly smooth and then add one cupful of raisins, previously boiled whole in as little water as possible. Bake about three-quarters of an hour in a moderate oven after it has risen half of an hour. When you wish to use it, place it in a steamer, loosely covered, sprinkle with water and set in the oven until heated through.”

And it’s as simple as that—from World War I to advertisements for spring garden seed, and from lynchings and Jim Crow to recipes for bread cake, the Leader strove to give its readers, in their corner of the world, all the news they needed, big and small. In its archive, it has left a fascinating and illuminating record of African-American life in the Black Belt in the early days of the 20th century.