'The Chronicle' was founded 50 years ago this week | Sam Spence photo

The Charleston Chronicle is celebrating a half century of being the community paper of record for local, state and national issues pertinent to concerns and issues confronting Charleston’s Black community.

Retired Navy journalist James J. “Jim” French established what has become one of South Carolina’s premier publications and one of the most-esteemed Black newspapers in the country — The Charleston Chronicle — some 50 years ago, Aug. 19, 1971. French died July 31 at age 94.

But after all that time, the future of the newspaper, however, is uncertain. The newspaper’s website was online until recently, but headlines dated back more than a year. Current operators of the newspaper did not answer questions for this story.

A Kansas City, Kansas, native, French moved to Charleston during the late 1960s while still in the Navy. Retiring here in 1969, French began publishing The Chronicle two years later. French cut his teeth as a writer while still in high school, but it was in the Navy where French honed his skills as a journalist.

While in the military, French was a photojournalist. He also was a manager for radio and television stations on naval bases in Spain, Cuba and Puerto Rico. While serving at various naval stations around the country, French also worked part time for Black newspapers such as Detroit’s Michigan Chronicle. He eventually borrowed part of that name when establishing his own paper.

For years, The Chronicle has had its office on upper King Street | Sam Spence photo

A staunch advocate for civil rights and the Black community, French drew upon his experiences as a Black man coming into adulthood in an America immersed in the Jim Crow era. The son of a pool-hall operator and a domestic worker, French grew up in relative poverty as the second youngest of Tom and Anna French’s 10 children who survived infancy.

In 1948, the Navy became an attractive option for young Jim, who often recalled the abhorrent smell and taste of blood while working in Kansas City slaughterhouses. But the service also presented challenges for a Black man in the early days of a formally integrated military. He began as a waiter in Annapolis. He would recall that it was a white chief petty officer who recognized his writing abilities and made it possible for him to join the Navy press corp. That off-chance interaction would ultimately lead to French being named among the nation’s premier Black newspaper publishers.

Although the paper French founded would eventually enjoy prestige and prosperity, facilitating its start was a challenge. French began publishing a paper that would become The Charleston Chronicle from the kitchen of a North Charleston apartment. He called that paper The Checkerboard, named for the black and white checkered tablecloth of his wife’s kitchen table.

In his early days in Charleston French worked as an ad salesman for Charleston’s Black-formatted radio station, WPAL-AM. When it came time to create his newspaper, it was relationships he had as a salesman for WPAL that helped get the paper off the ground.

An outsider in Charleston’s intimately connected business and social circles, French won the favor and confidence of two prominent Black businessmen: Benjamin ‘Bennie’ Brooks and his younger brother Albert Brooks. The brothers vouched for French when he sought a business loan from a local bank.

Starting out as a one-man operation in a small storefront at Cannon and King streets downtown, French sold ads, gathered news, took photos, laid out and distributed his own newspaper. Committed to the credo of the Black press —  to serve as advocates and informers for Black communities — French and his paper quickly earned a reputation as a voice and venue for the Black community.

Naomi White, who, with Mary Moultrie, was one of the first nurses to walk out of the wards at the Medical College at the beginning of the 1969 Charleston hospital strike, recalled French offered his office as a meeting place for organizing nurses. Future Charleston city councilman and state Senator Robert Ford came to Charleston as an organizer for the United Methodist Church Black Community Developers Program working with the striking nurses. He found a home at French’s paper selling advertising.

Ford’s aggressive and relentless methodology earned him a seat on Charleston City Council and ultimately, in the South Carolina Senate. He was equally aggressive as an ad salesman. The relationship was reciprocal: The paper offered Ford a platform.

Another preeminent advocate for the paper was the late Rev. Fredrick Douglass Dawson, who had an unshakable sense of right and wrong. Often picketing for fairness in advertising for the paper and economic justice for the Black community, French recognized Dawson’s support and activism by naming the conference room at The Chronicle’s office on upper King Street in Dawson’s honor.

The paper’s history is marked with support from local Black churches, which served as the paper’s primary distribution point when circulation was at its highest. Cornerstones of the community, the leaders included United Methodist Church ministers Frank Portee and the Rev. Willis Goodwin, Baptist minister the Revs. A.R. Blake and Ed McClain and Presbyterian minister the Rev. Robert R. Woods — all of whom gave the paper personal support as well as that of their congregations.

With French’s unique ability to identify talent that could help in the development of the paper — writers such as yours truly, Jesse Taylor, Hakim Abdul Ali, Beverly Gadsden Birch, Tony Robertson, Bob Small and various syndicated writers — the paper became a mainstay representing excellence in journalism and Black advocacy.

The legacy of The Chronicle has been entrenched in a philosophy of freedom of speech. French channeled that right through The Chronicle’s pages to those who agreed with him and those who didn’t. Despite the financial hardships of pressing forward in an often hostile business environment, the paper earned recognition from the National Newspaper Publishers Association, S.C. Press Association and The Charleston Branch NAACP, among others.

French relinquished daily control of the business in 2015 to his two grandsons, Tolbert and Damion Smalls, who were unreachable for comment for this story. They are the third generation of Frenches to work at the paper he established in 1971.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.