Leavell, Dorothy R. 1944–
Dorothy R. Leavell 1944–
If the mark of a great journalist is a willingness to report the facts as she sees them, regardless of how unpopular those facts may be, then Dorothy Leavell qualifies as a great journalist. As president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and publisher of two of the Midwest’s most important African American newspapers, Leavell has become one of the African American media’s most influential representatives. For more than 30 years, she has worked to present to the African American community a view of local, national, and world events that is relevant to their lives, but unavailable through mainstream channels.
Leavell was born Dorothy Gonder on October 23, 1944, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the second surviving child of Sallie and Blane Gonder. After graduating as valedictorian of her class at Pine Bluff’s Merrill High School, she moved north to further her education at Roosevelt University in Chicago. At Roosevelt, she majored in psychiatric social work. Leavell later joked, according to a 1995 NNPA press release announcing her election to its presidency, that her training in psychiatric social work was “good preparation for the many different types of individuals that a publisher must deal with each day.”
In 1961 Gonder left school to take a job as office manager for the Chicago Crusader, a black newspaper founded and published by Balm L. Leavell, Jr. in 1940. Balm Leavell established another newspaper, the Gary (Indiana) Crusader, the same year he hired Gonder. The relationship between Gonder and Leavell quickly became personal as well as professional, and the pair got married shortly after they began working together. Dorothy served as office manager at the Chicago paper until 1964, when she was promoted to the position of business manager. As business manager, Leavell functioned as her husband’s primary aide, enabling her to absorb all the details involved in the day-to-day operation of a newspaper. Meanwhile, the busy couple found time to have two children, Antonio and Genice Leavell. The Leavells also raised a niece and a nephew, Sharon and Leonard Gonder, as part of their household.
When Balm Leavell died in 1968, Dorothy Leavell took over as owner and publisher of both the Chicago and Gary Crusader newspapers. She also assumed editorial leadership of both papers. Once in charge, Leavell set out to modernize the operations, as well as to stabilize them financially. She purchased the buildings in which both of the publications were housed. She also updated the two papers’ technology, in order to make them more productive and cost efficient.
In addition to her work at the Crusader newspapers, Leavell became active in Chicago’s African American community in other ways. In the 1970s, she donated a personal art collection—containing more than 150 commissioned
At a Glance…
Born Dorothy R. Gonder on October 23, 1944, in Pine Bluff, AR; daughter of SailJe and Biane Conder; married Balm L. Leaveil, Jr., v. c. 1961 (he died in 1968); children: Antonioand Cenice; later married John Smith. Education: attended Roosevelt University, Chicago IL.
Career: Chicago Crusader, office manager, 1961-64; business manager, 1964-68, publisher, 1968-; Gary Crusader, publisher, 1968-; National Newspaper Publishers Association, assistant secretary, 1976, treasurer, 1983-87, 89-95, president, 1995-.
Awards: NNPA Publisher of the Year, 1989; Operation PUSH “Family Affair” Award; Gary, IN, Fourth District Community Improvement Association Award; National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club, Publishing Award; Dollars and Sense Award; Mary McLeod Bethune Award.
Addresses: Office— Chicago Crusader, 6429 S. King Dr., Chicago, IL 60637.
pieces worth over $50,000—to Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African-American History. The collection was also loaned to the City of Chicago for display at the Richard J. Daley Center Plaza as part of the city’s 1976 celebration of the nation’s bicentennial.
Over time, Leavell became increasingly active in the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), the trade organization that represents more than 200 African American newspapers. In the 1970s, she served as a member of the organization’s board of directors, and she was also the assistant secretary for a time. In 1983 Leaveil hosted the NNPA Convention when it came to Gary that year, and again in 1990 when the convention was held in Chicago. From 1983 to 1987, Leaveil served the first of her two terms as NNPA treasurer. She also held that position between 1989 and 1995. Leaveil received credit for a number of gains made during her tenure as treasurer. All of the association’s record-keeping was computerized during her watch. Leaveil also initiated the production of detailed annual budget analyses, and she was instrumental in the acquisition of a building for the organization’s national headquarters. In 1989 she was named NNPA’s Publisher of the Year for her work at both the national level and at her own newspapers.
Throughout her career in journalism, Leaveil has maintained a fairly high profile among her peers and colleagues. On many occasions, she has been the point person in making the views of the African American newspaper publishing community known to the mainstream press. An example of this took place during Nelson Mandela’s 1990 12-city tour of the United States. When planners of Mandela’s visit failed to include on his itinerary a stop at the 50th Anniversary Convention of the NNPA in Chicago, Leaveil expressed outrage on behalf of the “Black Press” nationwide. She was also appalled that Mandela, while snubbing black-owned and operated newspapers, agreed to lengthy interviews with the New York Times and Washington Post.
Leavell’s years of service to the NNPA were rewarded in 1995, when she was elected president of the organization at its national convention in Oklahoma City, only the second woman ever named to the position. Under her leadership, the group’s mission, as she related it in a 1995 Jet interview, was to “remain fully in the forefront of the continuing struggle for Black rights.” She also expressed the intention to work hand in hand with such organizations as the NAACP, the National Urban League, Operation PUSH, and the National Rainbow Coalition in order to pursue that mission.
Nigeria Trips Rankled Mainstream Media
In 1996 Leaveil became the focal point of controversy when she led a delegation of black newspaper publishers on a trip to Nigeria. The purpose of the trip was to provide balance to the negative view of that country being presented in the mainstream American media. At the time of the visit, Nigeria was being criticized in the American press for the heavy-handed ways of its government, led by General Sani Abacha. In particular, many people were outraged by Abacha’s treatment of internationally-renowned writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was awaiting execution for murder. In the United States, the prevailing view was that the charges against Saro-Wiwa were false, and the case had more to do with his vocal opposition to the Nigerian government and its alliance with Shell Oil Company. Those critical of Nigeria’s handling of Saro-Wiwa were shocked to find many NNPA-member papers running flattering public relations material about Nigeria and its government. Leaveil defended the trip and her newspapers’ coverage of events in that country, stating at a press conference that, “there was no evidence of a dictatorship or thug-ocracy in Nigeria, contrary to widespread media reports.… We wish to say that everyone in America who has an interest in Africa and Nigeria should start to look to the pages of black newspapers across the country.” Leavell led another group of publishers on a trip to Nigeria in March of 1997 to observe local elections there. She also embarked on a 10-day tour of Egypt as part of an effort to promote tourism to that country by African Americans.
Leavell was reelected to a second two-year term as NNPA President at the organization’s 1997 convention, held in Norfolk, Virginia. Upon her reelection, Leavell pledged to continue to pursue the group’s ongoing mission of broadening the NNPA’s role in affecting the public’s perception of national and international events, as well as improving networking among black newspapers and other organizations serving the African American community. For all her rhetoric about increasing the national and global influence of the NNPA, however, Leavell is above all a journalist. Her overriding mission is to provide readers of her newspapers with information essential to their progress as a community. After all, “the power of the press,” her NNPA press material states, “is in the people it serves.”
Jet, July 16, 1990; July 3, 1995; August 11, 1997.
PR Newswire, June 12, 1995.
The Progressive, June, 1996.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from material provided by the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the Chicago Crusader.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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