"Always the positive" -- Chronicling Roanoke's African American Community

Jul 23, 2020

As America loses many of its weekly community newspapers, the Roanoke Tribune forges on. It’s been chronicling Roanoke’s African American community for some 80 years.

Positivity has been a key element.

Wednesday nights are the busiest part of the week at the Roanoke Tribune.

That’s the day that 4,500 copies of the weekly paper show up from the printer. It’s all hands on deck as the staff gathers to fold, label and stack each paper so they can go to the post office before the day’s last mail run.

The Roanoke Tribune isn’t just a community paper. It’s a family paper, owned and operated by a family that has been doing this for four generations. And three generations are here this evening.

Klaudia Shaw is the youngest to have picked up the family business.  "Probably started about five or six folding papers," she remembers.

Her mother, Eva Shaw-Gill, started working at the paper as a child too.  "Most kids have chores to wash dishes and make the bed. We had to come to the Tribune."

Then there’s Stan Hale, Eva’s older brother.  "I’ve been everything, worn all the hats from time to time," Hale notes.  "Been here since... well actually I started when I was about 11 years old."

Roanoke Tribune publisher Claudia Whitworth prepares copies for mailing.
Credit Mason Adams

In the eye of the paper-folding storm stands publisher Claudia Whitworth, age 92. Claudia started in the newspaper business in 1945. She bought the paper from her father in 1971 and continues to publish today. Her philosophy? To shine a positive light on Roanoke’s Black community.  "Always the positive. I say no negative. Like a letter from home,"Whitworth says.

Claudia’s father, the Rev. F.E. Alexander founded the Roanoke Tribune in 1939. Claudia went to work there six years later, but she quickly grew frustrated, partly because her father limited what she could do because she was a woman. So she started a pattern of moving to work on Black newspapers elsewhere, then coming back home. Claudia worked at newspapers in Dayton, Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, and in New York City. But she never forgot where she came from.  "My intention was always to come back and take care of my own paper," she remembers, "but I just needed experience on more experienced papers."

Claudia took full control of the Roanoke Tribune in 1971, when she bought it from her father. She since has forged a powerful legacy with the Roanoke Tribune. For the nearly 30% of Roanokers who identify as African American, according to the U.S. Census, the Tribune serves as a positive reflection of their community. She’s kept it going even through a time when newspapers around the country are struggling to stay in business.

"She's a force of nature is exactly what she is. She's a larger than life personality. She is a very driven woman. She always has been," says Reginald Shareef, a political science professor at Radford University who grew up in Roanoke and literally wrote the book on the city’s Black history. The Tribune has been a consistent presence his entire life.  "It was a way for everybody in Roanoke to keep up with what was going on in the Black community, but also for those who have moved away. At a time when many African American people felt invisible in our communities, those black newspapers both locally and nationally, kept us informed."

It kept people informed even during difficult periods. Beginning in the 1950s, Roanoke city government demolished dozens of neighborhood blocks to make way for a new interstate, civic center, and other redevelopment. Urban renewal also destroyed much of Roanoke’s Black business district—a longtime cultural hub that attracted touring jazz musicians and pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

The Roanoke Tribune was located there, too. Claudia remembers how she learned that the Tribune was being torn down.  "My phone rings at eight o'clock in the morning. They said, do you know they’re bulldozing the Tribune? They bulldozed the Tribune, and everything, over that night. I come there and my stuff is all over the sidewalk and everything. They had bulldozed everything." Even through all that, Claudia Whitworth never missed an issue. She had kept photosetting equipment at home and so was able to keep publishing, even after her building was destroyed.

The Roanoke Tribune carries on, even as the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down most of America. But the Tribune is still going. It’s still publishing. It’s survived Jim Crow laws. It survived the destruction of its building during urban renewal. And now it’s surviving the pandemic and the death of print. The reason why can be found on Wednesday nights, when the staff gathers to process papers and deliver them to their community. This isn’t just a newspaper; it’s a family.