Ashley-Ward, Amelia 1957–
Amelia Ashley-Ward 1957–
Journalist, newspaper publisher
When Amelia Ashley-Ward assumed editorial control of the Sun Reporter Publishing Co. in 1994—and acquired it in 1997—she knew she was continuing in the footsteps of a giant: Dr. Carlton Goodlett, the co-founder of the Sun-Reporter and probably the most important African American civil rights and humanitarian activist in San Francisco history. If this was not enough, the paper’s other co-founder, Tom Fleming, was among the country’s greatest African American journalists. But Ashley-Ward was already a veteran journalist herself, and knew that she had the skills to keep this illustrious tradition alive.
She has succeeded tremendously. In fact, few were surprised when Ashley-Ward won the 1998 Publisher of the Year award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association (The Black Press of America). An accomplished reporter, editor, and photojournalist, and versed in every aspect of running a newspaper company, Ashley-Ward has maintained the papers’ outstanding editorial integrity and writing standards. The publications remain central to the political and intellectual life of the San Francisco area’s African American community.
Ashley-Ward was born in Mississippi in 1957. Her parents, Amile and Louise James Ashley, moved the family to San Francisco when she was five. While attending junior high and high school during the 1960s and early 1970s, Ashley-Ward was protected for the most part by her parents from the racial problems and political upheavals that were occurring. However, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King left a deep impression on her. As she told Contemporary Black Biography in an extensive interview, “The death of King was big; it had an impact. The Kennedys too.”
Ashley-Ward’s interest in writing emerged in high school. As she recounted to CBB, “We had something we called ‘The Slang Book’—where we’d write down thoughts, lyrics to songs, whatever. We’d pass it around. It was a way to express ourselves. And I had a flair for words. I was into poetry, and I worked on the school newspaper.” Among the writers especially important to her were Frederick Douglas and the poets Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes.
While attending San Jose State University, Ashley-Ward first majored in sociology. But that subject was not dynamic enough to hold her interest, and so she majored in journalism. “But I was a little bored by journalism just by itself,” Ashley-Ward told CBB,” so I added photojournalism.” That combination greatly appealed to her, and she graduated in 1979 with a degree in those two areas.
Ashley-Ward was fortunate enough to have a strong mentor. As she related to CBB , “Professor Mozelle
At a Glance…
Born Amelia Ashley, in Mississippi, September 17, 1957. Lived in San Francisco from age of five; married to Lovie Ward; children: Carlton, Education: San Jose State University, B.A., in journal ism/photojournalism, 1979.
Career: Reporter and photojournalism Sun-Reporter Publishing Co., 1979-85, managing editor, 1985-94, publisher, 1994-.
Awards: Photojournalism Award, National Newspaper Publishers Association (The Black Press of America), 1980; Feature Writing Award, NNPA, 1981; Publisher of the Year, NNPA, 1998.
Addresses: Office —Sun Reporter Publishing Co., 1791 Bancroft Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94111.
Watson, who taught African American studies, was a big influence. She really pushed me to develop my writing abilities. And she helped me realize that racism is alive and well. I had a few bad experiences—especially with one white male teacher—where I felt I had been treated very unfairly, and didn’t get the grades I deserved. Professor Watson helped me see what was going on.”
Ashley-Ward had always been familiar with the Sun Reporter. The paper and its two sister publications, the Metro Reporter and the California Voice, were main-stays in the San Francisco African American community. With the legendary Dr. Carlton Goodlett at the helm, these publications were strong advocates for justice, equality, and human rights. For many years, they represented the only public expression for the hope, pain, and outrage of the area’s large African American constituency.
While Ashley-Ward was still an undergraduate, her mother suggested that she try to get a job at the Sun Reporter Publishing Co. Ashley-Ward thought that this was a great idea. “I never wanted to work for the dailies,” she told CBB. “My philosophy—and it was the philosophy of the times—was to bring something back to the community.” During the ‘winter session’ break in her senior year, Ashley-Ward approached executive editor Tom Fleming to apply for an internship, and he immediately said “yes.” Not only was Fleming a co-founder of the Sun-Reporter itself, but he was—and is—among the most prominent and accomplished African American journalists in the country. Fleming has been one of Ashley-Ward’s greatest mentors, as well as the paper’s most illustrious and prolific writer. As she described him to CBB, “Fleming is a walking encyclopedia and dictionary. At nearly 92, he’s still brilliant—his editorials are still very sharp.”
However it was Dr. Carlton Goodlett, more than any other individual, who was the singular voice for the region’s African American community. He was a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War, and made no apologies for his decisively left-wing political and economic views. A pediatrician as well as a civil rights leader and the Bay area’s journalistic conscience, Goodlett was revered by the African American community and by the progressive wing of the white population. “When Dr. Goodlett died,” Ashley-Ward told CBB, “[Mayor] Willie Brown said it perfectly: ‘The progressive community has lost its strongest leader.’” She recalled for CBB that “my greatest joy was meeting Goodlett—The Good Doctor.’ I finally got to see him in his white coat. He was very warm. He really embraced young people, especially those of us who were pursuing education. Dr. Goodlett was a very big part of the life of the community and of black publications nationwide. He was the president of the Black Press of America three times—and he was the first one to get them into the White House.”
During Ashley-Ward’s internship, Goodlett had guaranteed her a job upon her graduation. “I graduated from college in May of 1979, and I started working here the very next week.” she told CBB. With her training in photojournalism as well as verbal reportage, Ashley-Ward was the proverbial switch-hitter. As she told the San Francisco Examiner, “I was able to write the stories. I was able to take the pictures. It was two-for-one with me. [Goodlett] loved it.” Ashley-Ward was so delighted to be working at the paper that she did not even broach the subject of money. As she told CBB, “My first two or three weeks here, I was in deep suspense about what I was being paid. Then payday came, and I found out: $ 140 a week. Not much, even back then, but I was just very thrilled to be here.”
Working with Goodlett, Ashley-Ward continued, offered incredible opportunities for a recent college graduate. “I was able to travel, through exchanges and trades. Dr. Goodlett took me to all the conferences, exposed me to a lot; unforgettable experiences.” As for whether it was clear she was Goodlett’s protege, Ashley-Ward told CBB, “Yes, very much so. I felt like his daughter. And it was the same with [Tom] Fleming. He more or less protected me. I was one of the first college-educated staff members here, and that caused some problems.”
Ashley-Ward was a high achiever from the beginning. In addition to her abundant work for the Sun-Reporter, she had photographs published in People and Jet magazines, and wrote a feature story about the Rev. Cecil Williams for the now-defunct African American magazine Sepia. Williams was the minister who transformed the small Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco into one of the country’s most socially active, famous, and ethnically and economically diverse religious institutions—the one which Oprah Winfrey termed ‘America’s Church.’” Ashley-Ward also won back-to-back national awards: in photojournalism, for a 1980 sequence on poor African American women in Mississippi, and in feature writing for a 1981 piece about an African American woman from a difficult background who eventually became a neurosurgeon.
Over the ensuing 19 years, Ashley-Ward has occupied a series of positions at the Sun-Reporter: reporter, women’s editor, managing editor, and finally editor and publisher upon Dr. Goodlett’s resignation in 1994. As she was assuming control of the paper that Goodlett and Fleming built, a number of medium-sized and large advertisers pulled out their business. A variety of factors were in play, which Ashley-Ward described to CBB : “some advertisers had jumped ship before Carlton had left. A couple were actually angry with him. Mostly, though, it was just very tough economic times. Emporium and other chain stores were closing down. Some advertisers went into bankruptcy. A lot of the supermarkets were cutting back on ad budgets. It was a fairly traumatic phase.”
Despite the difficulties, Ashley-Ward was able to keep the paper on track and moving ahead. As she told CBB, “I had to muster the resources, and I succeeded.” In Essence, Ashley-Ward related that “I rallied and got support from the NAACP, which brought in new advertising clients and stabilized the catastrophe.” Tom Fleming also helped. After this phase of adversity passed, no one doubted whether this young African American woman could handle the responsibility and challenge of running a newspaper company. As Ashley-Ward said of herself to CBB, “I’m not someone who sits around and plays with Barbie Dolls.”
In 1997, Ashley-Ward moved the newspaper’s offices across town, from San Francisco’s Fillmore District to Bayview Hunters Point. Soon after, Fleming—who had been helping to manage the paper’s editorial operations—decided to retire from daily work life and to devote his time to writing editorials and his memoir. As Ashley-Ward told Editor & Publisher, “We’ve changed a lot. We used to put the murder and mayhem on the front page to sell the paper. But now we do more features, issues, and focus on people.” Ashley-Ward has enjoyed the respect and support of the staff, as this section from one of the paper’s columns indicates: “… the Sun-Reporter survives. And, if there was any doubt about its survival, Amelia Ashley-Ward has dispelled it with the smooth transition of its new operation.… Moving is always tedious, but Amelia has carried it off with grace and efficiency, and we applaud her very capable skills in doing so. We will miss the physical presence of the Sun-Reporter in the Fillmore [district], but we feel the move will allow Amelia to develop her own individual dream of publishing a paper that still champions the cause of equality, justice, and freedom for Black America.”
Also in 1997, Ashley-Ward bought the Sun-Reporter Publishing Co. from Goodlett’s son, for an undisclosed sum. Her vision of the company’s present and future are very much aligned with the mission Goodlett and Fleming established. She’s understandably proud of the three papers’ historical substance, as she told CBB . “The California Voice is the oldest African American paper west of the Rockies: it was started 80 years ago. And the Sun-Reporter —our flagship paper—goes back to 1945. The Metro is about 27 years old. We have the benefit of being a three-times-a-week news publisher.”
Ashley-Ward’s overriding goal for the papers is straightforward. As she said to CBB, “we’re working for being the best African-American publication in the country, in every way we can be.” The company’s publications still have a huge impact within the community. For example, when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was pushing a plan to build a stadium for the 49ers in a neighborhood where job creation was needed, the Sun-Reporter ran a supplement that strongly endorsed ballot initiatives to permit the project. When these initiatives passed, Ashley-Ward said to the San Francisco Examiner: “everyone is taking credit for that 5,700-vote victory for the 49ers. We like to think we were part of that.”
The Sun-Reporter ’s tell-it-like-it-is coverage of African American victimization is one of its strongest assets. Ashley-Ward detailed a widely known example for CBB . “In 1997, we published the story about an African American minister [Rev. Thomas S. McCall] who was ripping off people, particularly the elderly. He was taking their life savings and spending it on a lavish lifestyle in Southern California. And then it went national. It was featured on ‘Prime Time Live’ [on June 17, 1998]. And we got the credit for breaking the story. Not everybody was happy about that, because they think we should be keeping it ‘in house.’ Traditionally, people don’t see the black press as fighting abuse within the community. But that’s part of what we do. We’re crusaders! We stand up for our people when they’re being taken advantage of or oppressed, regardless of who’s doing it to them. Our goal was to make people aware—especially the elderly—and to think twice about giving anyone their life savings. I’m still not popular with a lot of preachers. When it comes to religion, you know, it’s real personal.”
As Ashley-Ward told Editor & Publisher: “It’s still the African American community we are focused on, and it is still a fight for justice and fairness. But, believe it or not, the injustices are even more blatant today, ranging from crime to corporate America.” On the same theme, she remarked to CBB, “There are a lot of racism stories right now. There is good stuff happening too, of course: African Americans being elevated in some places. But lately, most of the developments have been negative. And no one else can tell it as well as we can. After all, it’s our story, our struggle. That’s why the black press will always be around—we have to be the voice fighting against injustice. Even if the world became a perfect place—we’d still be necessary. No one can tell our own story as well as we can.”
Editor & Publisher, July 2, 1994, p. 42.
Essence, October 1998, p. 86.
San Francisco Examiner, August 11, 1997.
The Sun-Reporter (San Francisco), May 8, 1997.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Contemporary Black Biography on October 7, 1999.
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