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How publisher Cecil Newman made his mark on the Minnesota newspaper industry

In both the Minneapolis Spokseman and the St. Paul Recorder, Newman pledged to “speak out fearlessly and unceasingly against injustices, discriminations, and all imposed inequities.”

photo of cecil newman
Cecil Newman, ca. 1965. Photograph by Rohn Engh.
Cecil Newman was a pioneering newspaper publisher and an influential leader in Minnesota. His newspapers, the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder, provided news and information to readers while advancing civil rights, fair employment, political engagement, and Black pride.

Cecil Earl Newman was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1903. He transcended the limits of segregated education, becoming the editor of his school paper. As a teen, he delivered African American newspapers as he hoped for a future in the publishing business.

In the early 1920s, Newman headed north to distance himself from the reach of southern racism, settling in Minneapolis. Work as a porter in the railroad industry offered him a decent wage. When he applied for work with mainstream newspapers in the Twin Cities, however, he was refused on the basis of race, so he began working with the long-standing Black paper the Northwestern Bulletin. He also wrote as a freelance reporter or “stringer” for notable Black newspapers, including the Chicago Defender. In 1927, he took over as editor of the Twin City Herald, a Black paper based in Minneapolis.

After seven years at the Herald, Newman resolved to become the publisher of his own publications, and the summer of 1934 saw the first edition of the Minneapolis Spokesman roll off the presses. Its twin, the St. Paul Recorder, followed. In both papers, Newman pledged to “speak out fearlessly and unceasingly against injustices, discriminations, and all imposed inequities.”

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Like other Black papers of the era, the Spokesman and the Recorder were filled with local and national news, entertainment, social and church affairs, and other content of interest to African Americans. The early version included a gossip column called “Inquisitive Sal,” comics and cartoons drawn by Black artists, sports coverage, and classified ads aimed at African Americans.

Newman also saw speaking to white readers — and white advertisers — as important to furthering equity and inclusion. The Spokesman and the Recorder became training grounds for Black leaders and literary luminaries like Era Bell Thompson, Gordon Parks, and Carl Rowan.

Newman’s pledge to utilize the printing press as a clarion for civil rights led to a confrontation with the local beer industry. The 1933 repeal of Prohibition had led to growth for Minnesota’s brewers, and the Spokesman charged that despite the expansion of jobs, these breweries refused to employ a single African American. Newman called for a boycott of local breweries, including Hamm’s and Gluek’s, in the spring of 1935. The effective campaign featured opinion pieces from Newman and front-page editorial cartoons ridiculing the brewers.

During World War II, Newman successfully fought for African American access to jobs at local munitions plants, including the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP). Two decades later he would push the owner of the newly arrived Minnesota Twins to desegregate spring training lodgings.

Newman’s close connection with Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey began a decades-long alliance with the statesman. When Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson won the White House in 1964, there was an opportunity for Newman to join his old friend on the national stage, according to Newman’s granddaughter Tracy Dillard Williams. However, he demurred, choosing to stay in South Minneapolis and continue his journalistic and civic leadership in Minnesota, where he gained membership to several fraternal, civic, Civil Rights, and business leadership organizations.

Newman’s network wasn’t limited to the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL). In his lifetime he claimed a connection to every Minnesota governor since the 1920s. He was also close to moderate, business-minded Republicans like Wheelock Whitney Jr., to the chagrin of some progressives in the Black community. In the late 1960s, a rock was thrown through the window of the Spokesman building, allegedly by Black radicals who saw Newman as out of touch (according to reports of the incident).

With the rise of new and more radical leadership in the Civil Rights movement, and now in his later years, Newman receded into the background of civic and civil rights activity. He died in February of 1976. Activist, youth worker, and community leader Spike Moss eulogized the late publisher with the simple, powerful affirmation, “Cecil Soldiered.”

Following the leadership of Newman’s widow, Launa Newman, Newman’s granddaughter Tracy Williams-Dillard took the helm of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, and it was among a dwindling number of historic Black newspapers that survived into the 2020s. With his decades of journalism, his legacy as one of Minnesota’s great civic and Civil Rights leaders, Cecil Newman could be called, like his paper, Spokesman.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.