St. Louis American publisher Donald M. Suggs speaks about the importance of community journalism, after receiving the 2015 Media Person of the Year award from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis. “As a community newspaper, we see ourselves as a journalistic enterprise that is strongly identified with its community, its unique experiences and concerns,” he said. (Photo by Lawrence Bryant/The St. Louis American).
By Rebecca Rivas/News from the States
At that time, the Black weekly newspaper was an eight-page tabloid with a circulation of about 2,000.
More than 95 years later, The American reaches about 300,000 people each month through the print newspaper and website. It’s the largest weekly newspaper in Missouri and among the largest Black newspapers in the country.
For 40 of those years, Dr. Donald M. Suggs — a retired oral surgeon — has been its publisher. This September, he was inducted into the Missouri Newspaper Hall of Fame.
“Medicine is like a calling for most people who operate in that profession,” Suggs said during his acceptance remarks at the Missouri Press Association’s convention in St. Louis. “Journalism is as well. The highest level of journalism, in my view, is a calling.”
As a former reporter at The American for 11 years, I’ve come to understand that Dr. Suggs deeply appreciates investigative, hard-hitting news stories. But that alone is not what he means when he says the “highest level of journalism.”
The Ferguson uprising of 2014 offers one of the clearest glimpses of this.
With the community’s outrage over Michael Brown’s killing, The St. Louis American found itself at the epicenter of the most promising civil rights movement since the 1960s. Many of the initial demonstrators — including many who emerged as as leaders within the the Ferguson movement — were young Black people new to the arenas of politics and community engagement.
“Here is a situation where these other media outlets had no training whatsoever in writing about and featuring young Black leaders — but The American specialized in it,” said Stefan Bradley, a professor of Black studies at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.
Bradley is writing a book that centers the role of youth in the Ferguson uprising. In his research, he found that many mainstream media outlets covering the movement had “an inability to sympathize with Black youth” because historically the outlets had portrayed young Black children from a “deficit perspective.”
“But what I saw with The American was the ability to portray Black children in all of their humanity,” he said.
Even in the moment, Kenya Vaughn, The American’s former website editor for 14 years, believes the coverage helped spur history.
“If you feel like you have a voice in this situation where somebody is being fair and balanced,” Vaughn said, “and really speaking to the issues that brought you out in the first place, it energizes you to go back out.”
And it also gave The American unparalleled access to movement leaders, she said.
The daily protests have ceased, but the movement has continued on. When I was on staff, I remember Dr. Suggs walking into our weekly staff meetings buzzing with energy and beaming with pride that the youth were challenging oppressive systems.
That energy has not waned, said Kevin Jones, longtime CEO of The American.
The American has won the state press association’s top honor – the Gold Cup – seven of the last 11 years.
“Under Suggs’ leadership, the role of The American has been instrumental in informing policy, shaping politics and being an advocate for people who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice,” Vaughn said.
Helping Black youth see themselves as leaders — even in small ways — was always a big part of his role as editor, King said.
King remembers getting a letter from a young man incarcerated in the St. Louis County jail whose little sister was running a book club. He felt he could help his sister by asking The American to write a story about her.
“I ran his letter as a front page news story with his byline,” King said. “Now what publisher would have said ‘yes’ to that? I don’t think anybody but Donald Suggs. Respecting and empowering Black youth, it’s just what animates him. It always has.”
Fred Sweets, contributing editor for The American and longtime friend of Suggs, said Suggs sometimes talks about what he hopes people will see as his legacy.
And it’s the same as it was for Sweets’ late father, Nathaniel, who was The American’s publisher for more than 45 years.
“It’s so moving to me because my father started [The American], and he wanted the education of our youth to be an important part of our mission,” Sweets said. “Donald continued in that. And that’s what he’d want his legacy to be — making a difference in the lives of Black children.”