Published April 12, 2023

This story is part of a series highlighting stories from the front lines of local news reporting in Virginia. We hope you’ll join us in Richmond, Virginia from April 20 to 21 for our Virginia Local News Summit, co-hosted with the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy.

By Christopher Connell for Foothills Forum

Claudia A. Whitworth was 18 in 1945 when she began working with her father on the Roanoke Tribune, the African-American weekly he founded shortly before World War II. In its columns, the Rev. F.E. Alexander — Baptist minister, journalist and printer — sounded a clarion call for the South to turn the page on racism and segregation.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, he wrote: “In striking down segregation in public schools, the court struck the shackles from the souls of all southern white people and enthroned for the first time in nearly 300 years human dignity for all mankind of this nation without regard to race, color or creed.”

When an auto accident in 1971 forced Alexander to retire, Alexander sold the paper to his daughter, who carries it on to this day. “We haven’t missed an issue. It’s a family affair,” said the 95-year-old editor and publisher, reached at the office where she comes every day to work with her son, Stan R. Hale, the associate editor, and daughter Eva Joanna Shaw, the manager. Grandchildren and other family, friends and volunteers join them on Wednesday afternoons to fold and mail the paper.

“We have 4,500 subscribers,” including some who moved out of the Roanoke area long ago but kept their subscriptions, said Hale. “They call it the little letter from home.”

A recent front page bannered the entry of a Black Roanoke city councilwoman into a race for a state Senate seat. The page also reported the retirement of a local pastor after 50-plus years and the win of a local high school track team in the 4 x 200 relay at the Nike Indoor Nationals Track and Field Championships in New York in the torrid time of 1:28.40.

“We haven’t missed an issue. It’s a family affair.”

Claudia A. Whitworth

The speedsters’ feat was all over the airwaves and in other papers. The prominent play in the Tribune signaled its desire to attract younger readers as well as the graying audience that has stayed with the paper for years, Hale said. “We try to balance it out with stories that tap into the young people’s interests.”

The Tribune website is not kept up to date. In a difficult era for newspapers, Hale said the Tribune’s business is “not great but not terrible.” Circulation and revenues were once down by half,  “which gets a little scary, but then it started to bounce back and we’ve now kind of stabilized,” he said.

“You have to be an optimist,” said Hale, 69, whose mother reminded him to mention that he had attended President Biden’s recent State of the Union as a guest of Rep. Ben Cline, R-Va., whose district runs from Roanoke up the Shenandoah Valley to Staunton.

“At our 40th anniversary, Jack Gravely, who was president of the NAACP in Virginia, said something that stuck with me,” said Hale. “He said, ‘No one can write about us like we can about ourselves.’ And that’s kind of what we do. We bring the African-American perspective and we push it forward.”

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