Cecil Newman’s old Woodstock typewriter rests in Tracey Williams-Dillard’s closet. His old notarizing stamp and timecard machine decorate her office at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.
And Williams-Dillard, the Spokesman-Recorder’s CEO, still sits at her grandfather’s wooden, L-shaped desk.
A soft-spoken but politically connected civil rights advocate, Newman founded the Minneapolis Recorder and the St. Paul Spokesman newspapers in 1934 during the depths of the Great Depression. He ran the papers, which later merged, from that desk until his death in 1976.
As a teenager, Williams-Dillard would visit Newman at work. “I remember his desk would be piled with papers and I wondered how he got anything done,” she said. “But he always did.”
Newman “was quiet and humble, not one of those loud radicals. He knew there was a huge, vast need, and he was determined to help his people by giving them a voice to tell their stories.”
A grandson of slaves, Cecil Newman was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1903. His father, Horatio Oscar Newman, worked as an attendant at an all-white club. Cecil hawked newspapers as a teenager and worked in the office of the Kansas City Call, a black community paper.
He and his first wife, Willa Coleman, moved to Minneapolis in the 1920s with their son, Oscar Horatio.
“He felt Kansas City was still too racist, so he decided to head north to the land of opportunity,” Williams-Dillard said.
When Newman sat down at a Minneapolis restaurant shortly after his arrival in 1922, however, he learned that the Twin Cities also could be intolerant.
“He ordered a hamburger and it came laced with salt,” Williams-Dillard said. “He knew he had a lot of work to do.”
Newman wrote for the Northwestern Bulletin, then published the Twin Cities Herald and the Timely Digest while working as a bellhop at the Elks Club and later as a Pullman porter. He saved and borrowed enough money to launch the Spokesman and Recorder from a barbershop in southeast Minneapolis.
“I didn’t have enough money to begin one newspaper,” he later joked, “so I began publishing two.”
He tried to do his social justice work from inside the system — or as close to the inside as a black man was permitted — allying himself with young white politicians such as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.
“He embraced the political structure,” said Williams-Dillard.
In 1948, Newman juggled his newspaper duties with a new position: president of the Minneapolis Urban League. He was the first African-American to hold that office.
“His influence shaped opportunities for black people and provided them with a source of news and information not found in local white newspapers throughout the state,” according to the African American Registry, a nonprofit educational group (aaregistry.org).
Newman took over the Urban League during Humphrey’s second term as mayor of Minneapolis in the late 1940s. He advised the future vice president to tamp down his outspoken zeal to combat racial intolerance.
“Soft-pedal this civil rights stuff,” Newman told Humphrey before his 1945 election, saying he’d rather see him safely elected “than to let some of these bigots start attacking you as a Negro-lover.”
Newman was well aware that the black community made up a small slice of the Twin Cities’ population — about 15,000, or 2 percent — and that they lived in unofficially segregated neighborhoods restricted through housing covenants and hard-to-access bank loans. But he toiled to make the tiny subset of African-Americans a powerful political force.
Shortly after launching his newspapers, Newman organized a boycott of the local brewing industry, whose all-white unions banned black workers. In 1935, he helped organize pickets against Barney’s Cafe for mistreating black customers; a black counter person was soon hired.
His newspaper trumpeted back-pay wage concessions to waiters at the Curtis Hotel. And Newman used the power of his presses to protest the barring of black golfers at the 1948 St. Paul Open golf tournament.
Wiliams-Dillard remembers a less combative side of her grandfather.
“He was a bookaholic,” she said. “Always reading in his den.”
In the 1950s, Newman designed a simple one-story building for his newspaper business at 3744 4th Av. S. in Minneapolis. It’s still the headquarters for the operation, and the paper boasts that it’s Minnesota’s longest running black-owned business.
Newman lived four blocks north of the paper, in the Central neighborhood. He met his second wife, Launa, in 1962. When he died 14 years later, Launa Newman took over the newspapers.
“She held onto the reins until she was 86,” her granddaughter said.
Asked if there are any offspring interested in carrying on Cecil Newman’s legacy, Williams-Dillard chuckled and mentioned his great-great-grandson, Manuel.
“My 5-year-old grandson was visiting the other day,” she said. “I stepped away for a minute and when I came back to the office, he was sitting in my chair and looked pretty comfortable behind the desk.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.