For centuries now, redevelopment, urban renewal, and gentrification have threatened Black communities, and the physical spaces that have meant the most to us, including our homes and places of business. While many have been bulldozed, “repurposed”, or left to rot, activists have worked tirelessly to preserve what they can. In the most recent round, Black press buildings are on the line, and have been for quite some time. Currently, three buildings in downtown Topeka, Kansas have become the center of the debate around the safeguarding of historical memory.
In between 112 and 118 SE Seventh Street in Topeka sit a trio of buildings named for African American journalist Nick Chiles, and the Plaindealer, the newspaper he established. Despite the significance of the publication, the building, and what they both meant (and still represent) for the Black community of the city, plans were unveiled at the end of 2021 to tear it down. However, activists quickly mobilized to fasttrack the building to landmark status in order to save it.
While some may believe that the legacy of Chiles and the Plaindealer could have been commemorated with an on site open-air museum as proposed by AIM Strategies, what was made clear in the refusal by activists, is that there is a deeper tie that connects the people to not just the publication, but to the building itself. The Plaindealer is one of hundreds of publications that made up The Black Press, and in its heyday, “boasted the largest circulation of any Black periodical west of the Mississippi River,” according to The Washington Post. And while The Black Press is monumental in itself, the greater ties lie in the fact that the buildings served as more than just a place to print.
The brick and mortar offices that housed these publications nationwide, were also art galleries, exhibition spaces, community gathering spots, and performance venues. Cultural hubs to connect and chop it up about politics, the status of the Black family, the arts and more. Because of this, these spaces also became targets of vandalism, break ins, and bombings. And yet, they persevered, telling our own stories with our own voices.
Take for instance the Conservator, the Whip, and the Defender out of Chicago. During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Black publications of the city told the stories of the vast migration from Southern states to the “Black Metropolis” as it became known. Newer publications such as Jet and Ebony magazines solidified the city as a “Black print capital.”
Sadly, Black publications all over the country have been in a financial decline since the late ‘60s. And these days, digital media, the integration of mainstream newsrooms, and now, a pandemic have threatened what little there is left. The Plaindealer went out of business in 1958, and 60 years thereafter, others are struggling to hold on, the buildings in which they were once housed following closely behind.
When the Johnson Publishing building went up for sale in Chicago, activists quickly made efforts to preserve it as well. The truth is that there are hundreds of buildings across the U.S. that once contained thriving Black businesses, community centers, and yes, historical print publications at risk of being wiped from our cities. While this might not matter to some, for those who feel rooted by these legacies, it means the world. And those folks are proving that they will show up for the fight every time.