If you’re not from Omaha or you don’t live here then you may be surprised to learn this nondescript Midwesten city is the home to a sizable African American community with a rich history. It may further surprise you to know that a significant figure in the American black press of the mid to late 20th century was a transplanted Omahan and a woman to boot, Mildren Brown, who founded, published and edited the Omaha Star, which became the leading and eventually only black owned and operated newspaper serving the community. As my story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) reveals, Brown heavily influenced two black women who became media titans: Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes. When Brown died in 1989 the paper passed onto to her niece Marguerita Washington, thus continuing the publication’s black woman legacy.
NOTE: The story posted here is a longer version than the story that appears in The Reader.
The Omaha Star Celebrates 75 Years of Black Woman Legacy
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In this fluid transmedia age an old warhorse of a newspaper, the Omaha Star, celebrates 75 years of continuous publication at an April 19 Scholarship Banquet benefiting the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.
The Star may not be known for exceptional reporting but it does own a groundbreaking gender and activist lineage. Its late publisher, Mildred Brown, was among very few women, white or black, to run a newspaper of its size and reach. She and her first husband co-launched the Star in 1938 though Brown was the real driving force behind it. Within a few years she divorced and from that point on served as sole publisher and editor until her death in 1989.
A black woman at the head of a successful media enterprise inspired Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell, the featured speaker at the April gala, and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes.
Though several years younger, Leavell’s career paralleled Brown’s when her first husband, Balm Leavell Jr., who founded the Crusader, died and she took over as a young single mother. She expanded the Crusader empire to reach hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Leavell’s also served as president of the National Newspapers Publishers Association, a trade organization representing hundreds of African American newspapers, and chairperson of Amalgamated Publishers, a company thats sells national advertising to black papers.
As a fledgling journalist Leavell pattered herself after the “strong black woman” she saw in Brown. She admired the way Brown handled herself amid their mostly male peer publisher colleagues.
“She had a profound affect on me because…the men would try to discount you but they couldn’t discount Mildred. She was a strong personality, She would stand her ground. I always say, Mildred put the ‘n’ in nerve. Mildred was no-nonsense with those guys.
“Seeing how she would not let them relegate her to a female role was certainly an influence on me and as a result when I became a publisher I insisted I be accorded the same courtesy and respect accorded the males. I would net let anyone take me lightly because they did not take Mildred lightly.”
The history of the Star, located in a former mortuary at 2216 North 24th St., is bound up in the story of Brown. The dynamic entrepreneur became synonymous with the paper for her front page editorials, out-front activism, personal style and legendary salesmanship. She often sported a fresh carnation pinned to her shoulder, a hat crowning her head and fitted gloves over her hands,
The Alabama native and former educator migrated north with her then-husband, Shirl Edward Gilbert, a pharmacist. The couple started a newspaper, the Silent Messenger. in Sioux City, Iowa. In 1937 they were recruited to Omaha to work for the city’s then-black newspaper, The Guide, whose co-publisher, Charles Galloway, Brown remained friends with even after she quit to start the Star.
The Star chronicled black people’s lives through the Depression, World War II, the Great Migration, the civil rights movement and America‘s changing face post-Vietnam and Watergate. When North 24th St. burned in outbreaks of civil disobedience this militant who didn’t believe in “breaking glass” called for both calm and redress.
She filled her paper with aspirational stories and advocacy journalism that sought to uplift her community and expose injustice. Its banner motto reflected her own ideals:
“Dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that evil shall not thrive unopposed.”
She printed the names of businesses that refused to hire or serve blacks. She carried guest editorials by then-Nebraska Urban League and future National Urban League head Whitney Young. She supported the Omaha civil rights groups the DePorres Club and the 4CL. She observed, “This paper broke down discrimination in this town. They called us troublemakers nothing bit troublemakers. Oh, I’m a militant, always have been.”
Upon her death her niece, former educator Marguerita Washington, assumed command of the Star and she’s still in charge today, giving the publication the distinction of being the nation’s longest running newspaper led exclusively by black women.
Omaha native Cathy Hughes, who sold Star ads in the 1960s, appreciates the paper’s “black woman legacy.” Hughes built a media empire as a single woman. Her son Alfred C. Liggins III succeeded her as Radio One CEO but she wishes she also had a daughter to pass things onto.
“I love my son. I can’t tell you how much I thank God and appreciate the fact he embraced my vision and followed in my footsteps but my only regret is that I didn’t have a daughter to go along with him because I really would have liked to continue this legacy under the banner of female leadership.”
Hughes knew many sides of Brown. who was in her life from the time she was a little girl. Brown was a friend of her parents, William Alfred Woods and Helen Jones Woods. When her father graduated from Creighton University Brown let him office inside the Star.
Asked to assess the influence Brown and the Star had on her, Hughes said, “It’s why you have me on the phone now as the founder and chairperson of Radio One, which is the parent corporation for TV One, Interactive One, Reach Media, Distribution One. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me.”
Seeing a smart, bold black woman totally in charge made an impression on the young Hughes, who says she naturally looked up to “this woman whose personality and physical presence were bigger than life,” adding, “I can still smell the carnations to this day. Every Monday a big box of carnations that went straight into the refrigerator was delivered because she wore a fresh carnation bouquet every day of the week. She wore absolutely beautiful hats, matching outfits, shoes to match the outfits, fresh flowers. She lived in a beautiful apartment behind her business.”
Drivers chauffeured her around in a big shiny sedan.
“She had a good looking husband (Brown’s common-law second husband Max Brownell), she had a wardrobe, she had all the trappings of a media mogul. To me the Star was a conglomerate. She was NBC, ABC, and CBS combined in my mind,” says Hughes.
“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. You had really made it when you made the cover of the Omaha Star. Remember, during these days there were no blacks on Omaha TV, there was no black radio, the (Omaha) World-Herald basically covered crime in North Omaha. There were no alternatives, there was no other place to turn for information about you and your organization, you and your family, you and your neighborhood, you and your existence in Omaha, Neb. other than the Omaha Star.”
Hughes, who’s built a corporate dynasty in the face of sexism and racism, was impressed by the way Brown’s force of nature personality smashed barriers. She recalls her “dogged determination,” adding, “When somebody told Mildred no, that they weren’t going to take an ad, she was going to write you up and that write-up would become public record. Mildred combined her activism with her marketing and salesmanship…When people said no to Mildred she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant, ‘Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because no is not the right conclusion.’
“Nothing stopped Mildred.
Marguerita Washington marveled at her aunt’s drive.
“She wouldn’t give up. She was very persistent. I went with her many times to a business place where she would be told the person in charge was not available. A lot of times the boss told their secretary, ‘Just tell her I’m not here.’ Of course, she knew he was, so she would say, ‘Well, I’ll wait on him,’ and she would sit there in the lobby until finally the guy would come out and say, ‘Oh, Mildred, what do you want?’ Nine chances out of 10 she got the sell.
“She was better at the game then they were.”
Star contributing writer Walter Brooks, the 2013 Omaha Star Legacy Award honoree, doubled as Brown’s driver. Going on sales calls with her he saw her operate at parties and meetings, working the room with everyone from small business owners to corporate. He notes in a video interview:
“Mildred Brown was liked by those people. They liked her style. They respected her because they knew quite honestly nobody else could have done what she did. When you think about starting that paper in 1938 and never quitting, never backing down, always moving forward, and then the role of course that the paper played during the civil rights era, and just the fact she was so smooth and tough.”
Mildred Brown and Hubert Humphrey
Brooks saw an assertive woman supremely sure of herself. “Mrs. Brown was fearless. She was not intimidated. When she asked for an ad it wasn’t hat in hand, mealy-mouthed, please-Mr.-Charlie, it was her being received as an equal.”
Hughes says Brown was proud of leading a newspaper that at the time of her death was half a century old and she imagines if Brown were alive today she would be thrilled it’s still going strong.
“I think her crowning glory was the newspaper and its ability to continue – the longevity.”
The Star may not be the primary news source it once was for most readers but outside Revive! magazine it offers Omaha’s only black on black print perspective. It maintains a black press tradition emphasizing positive news, conveying black pride stories of individual accomplishments and informing readers of community events, as well as examining issues of inequity.
Brooks says before today’s multimedia platforms the Star was Omaha’s only reliable media source for what was happening in the black community.
“If it wasn’t in the Star in many ways it didn’t exist,” he says. “It’s primary value has always been as the one outlet we could count on to represent the black community.”
In a documentary tribute to Brown the late Omaha musician Preston Love Sr. articulated what her paper meant to its readership.
“She gave every little person on the street a shot at getting some recognition. Families were publicized for constructive things they did and successes. It’d have the picture of some young man or woman on the front page who’d got their master’s degree and that was important to people. Everybody likes publicity. If they tell you differently, they’re lying.
“People who never had their picture in the paper for anything else, there they were in the new dress they got for the dance or the affair, the new tuxedo for the guys. We were impoverished people and we had no other means of getting recognition, especially in this town.”
Its interest in the whole gamut of African American life provided fairly comprehensive coverage of goings-on in the black community.
“And because it goes back eight decades it is actually an historical repository because no one else was consistently capturing events and things taking place in the black community week after week,” notes Brooks.
Now that the Star’s archives are being digitized a new resource will soon be accessible online to anyone researching people, places and events covered by the paper over much of its history.
Today, the black owned and operated weekly remains a voice for a community not always well represented by traditional mainstream media. Subscriptions and advertisements are the lifeblood of any print publication and Brown scored ads like nobody else, sometimes using moral indignation to guilt whites into buying space.
“Especially with a tough customer or potential customer she would try to appeal to his or her conscience,” says Washington.
“She had a way of relating to business people to get them, sometimes with a little arm twisting, to advertise in her newspaper,” says Leavell.
Getting people to do the right thing, whether buying ads in her paper or giving blacks equal opportunity, extended beyond the office. Brown was part of a coterie of black professionals, including Cathy Hughes’ parents, who shared similar aspirational-activist values and put them into practice.
Mildred Brown with Father John Markoe (seated)
“It was less than a dozen of them and they really formed this close friendship and partnership in so many areas – business, education, civil rights – and in that mixture my father and Mildred became best friends,” says Hughes. “Mildred Brown was a member of an organization my parents were members of, the DePorres Club, that challenged Omaha institutions that practiced overt discrimination.”
The DePorres Club’s founder, the later Rev. John Markoe, a Jesuit priest at Creighton University, was befriended by Brown after his civil rights work made him persona non grata at the school. She allowed the interracial club to meet at the Star. The paper often printed the minutes of the club’s meetings along with listings of its social action activities.
As a girl Hughes joined her parents and Brown at demonstrations.
“I carried my first picket sign when I was around 4 or 5 years old. I grew up with community service and activism.”
She says her parents and Brown “imbued” her with the mandate “to improve the community” by standing up and speaking out for right.
Brown’s Star promoted aspirational pursuits. She often included news about herself, such as meeting visiting dignitaries or receiving some award, because she enjoyed the attention and the affirmation it provided.
Washington says, “There wasn’t a camera she didn’t like.” Some readers disapproved of Brown’s frequent appearances in the paper but Washington says, “she didn’t care.” Besides, she adds, “her being in there a lot of times was noteworthy, like when she met presidents and what have you. She hoped people would be inspired.”
Preston Love Sr. was Brown’s contemporary and sometime employee. He sold advertising off and on there for 26 years, His rise to prominence in music paralleled Brown’s in journalism. They maintained a mutual respect. After she passed he wrote, “It’s the end of an era. The paper was the center of the black community in many ways…Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star have been the most potent forces for the progress and advancement of blacks in Omaha and in this state.”
Though some felt she didn’t go far enough, others felt she did all she could.
“She was definitely considered a conservative by the Black Panther Party,” says Brooks, a one-time Panther member. He says she refrained from “the more radical hard push back approach” and instead focused on “collaboration and coalition.” Practical realities of the time constrained Brown from being too harsh in attacking racism.
Love said that “she was militant in that she was persistent in fighting for the cause” but “she wasn’t a firebrand,” adding, “What needed to be done she did it through the medium of this newspaper.”
Dorothy Leavell leaves no doubt about Brown’s activism.
“Milldred was just really an unusual woman. She was a very strong militant activist during the days when women were thought of as at home taking care of children. Mildred was a fighter who fought hard for the rights of blacks.”
Even near the end Brooks says Brown still “was totally hands on…totally in charge. Nothing went in that paper she didn’t sign off on. She was still much willing to say, ‘No, I don’t like that.’ Still very much focused on the political bent that she wanted the paper to be. She was like, ‘Yeah, I know it’s the 1980s now but this is what has worked, this is what the people want it to be, this is want the advertisers want to see.’ It was very much, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That was very much I feel her attitude.
“Not only was it hard to argue with that, but there’s the door, if you really just have a problem with this, hey, thank you for your service…”
Editorially, Brooks says he was given great freedom by her and is given even more by Washington, who’s serializing his new book about the state of black America. Outside of the late Charles B. Washington, who got his start in journalism under Brown, the Star’s not groomed any black journalists, though Washington says the Mildred B. Brown Memorial Study Center and its Junior Journalist Program is an attempt to do that.
Margeuerita Washington says that because “it’s a different day” than when her aunt ran the paper she’s given space to more militant voices her aunt would not have accommodated, including former Omaha activist Matthew Stelly and Neb. state senator Ernie Chambers.
The opinion pieces by Chambers can be particularly controversial and that’s why Brown shied away giving him a forum during her reign.
“She was afraid he might turn away some of her advertisers,” Washington says. “When I took over I felt like, ‘Well, give him a chance, and if he goes too far out on a limb. I can always tone him down some. It’s worked out fine. Only once have I had to tell him to cool it…to find another topic.”
She believes the Star remains a relevant voice today. “I think the main thing I’m proud of is this paper has really become the people’s paper. It is a sounding board. We have a number of local columnists. It’s the community’s paper with a diversity of voices.” Ad revenues and circulation numbers are way down from its heyday and took more hits during the recession but Washington says the paper is slowly “building back.”
Hughes says the Star has a vital role to play in the same way black magazines, radio stations, TV networks and websites do.
“Next to the black church black-owned media is the most important institution in our community. I think too often African Americans have looked to mainstream media to tell our story. Well, all stories go through a filter process based on the news deliverers’ experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate. But the reality is we have to be responsible for the dissemination of our own information because that’s the only time we can be reasonably assured it’s going to be from the right perspective, that it’s going to be from the right experience, and for the right reasons. I think the black community just intuitively understands that.
“Information is power. I think Mildred Brown understood that. It wasn’t just about a business for her, it was about a community service.”
The clout and wealth Brown earned put her in position to help others and she did.
“She was instrumental in helping St. Benedict the Moore Catholic Church build the Bryant Center,” says Hughes. “She was kind of a one woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue in indigenous communities. She helped a lot of people. If your husband was beating you, you ran to the Omaha Star. Mildred would give you some money, help you check into a hotel. Your child got arrested, it was Mildred people came to asking, ‘Can you loan me $150 to get my child out of jail?’
“Charlie Washington had a very troubled background and yet because of her he rose to being respected as one of the great journalists of his time in Omaha. Dignitaries would come and sit on Charlie’s stoop and talk to him about what was going on. He was considered iconic because of Mildred Brown.”
Hughes says Brown also assisted young people getting their education.
“She’d put them through school in a minute, go up to Creighton raising hell, going up to Duchesne (Academy) when my mother didn’t have the tuition and telling them, ‘You just wait, we’re going to get you your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out of school.’”
Washington says her aunt sponsored many college students. After her death a Creighton University journalism scholarship was established in her name. It goes to black students from Omaha area schools.
“She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk,” says Hughes.
“She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it.”
After her father died Hughes says Brown drew closer to her. “I think I was that connection for her. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me right up to the time she passed.”
The legacy of the Star is felt by Washington, who is childless and has no plans to hand it off to a relative. Her will dictates the paper will be sold upon her death. That is unless, she says, “some dashing young person comes along who I think this is just the right fit to carry it on.”
She holds out little hope someone will, in effect, endow the paper’s future operations.
“No Warren Buffett is going to come and help us,” she says, referring to the billionaire’s recent World-Herald purchase. “Unlikely.”
She intends continuing as publisher-editor for the forseeable future. “I’m in good health and I’ve still got some energy left.” A project she’d like to see happen is the renovation and expansion of the space-starved Star offices.
Tickets to the April 19 Star gala at the Downtown Hilton, 1001 Cass St., may be ordered at 402-346-4041, ext. 4 or 6.
UPDATE: On February 17 Cathy Hughes received the NAACP Chairman’s Award, joining some distinguished company in the process. As the NAACP website reports, the award is chosen by chairman Roslyn M. Brock in recognition of special achievement and distinguished public service. Past honorees include U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, Tyler Perry, Former Vice President Al Gore and Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, Aretha Franklin, Bono, then-Senator Barack Obama, The Dave Matthews Band, Danny Glover, and Aaron McGruder.
“I am thrilled to offer Cathy Hughes the NAACP Chairman’s Award,” says Brock. “ This recognition is long overdue for her accomplishments as a trailblazer in the media industry. As the founder of Radio One and TV One, an advocate for small business entrepreneurship, and philanthropist, Cathy Hughes reminds us that collectively and as individuals, we can make a difference. Her presence at the Image Awards continues the NAACP’s quest to celebrate and uplift individuals who model principles of hard work, perseverance and community empowerment.”
“This is the most humbling honor to ever be bestowed on me,” says Hughes. “Those who have received the Chairman’s Award in the past are counted among the very best that America has ever produced, and I am honored and very humbled to be included in their ranks.”
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I remember reading something about Cathy Hughes somewhere years ago and after digesting the fact this African-American woman was a major media mogul born and raised in my hometown my next reaction was: Why didn’t I know about her before? I mean, she’s a big deal, and her hometown didn’t seem to acknowledge or celebrate her success the way you would expect. One of the nice things about what I do as a freelance journalist is getting the opportunity here and there to rectify such perceived wrongs or at least to put my own spin on someone’s story and perhaps introduce a whole new segment of the population to the subject. That is precisely what I did in the following profile I did on Cathy Hughes for The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper in 2005.
I share the story here simply because hers is a story that cannot be told too often.
Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real, Native Omahan the Creator of the Urban Radio Format
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
The cool hip-hop culture is driving the urban — read: black — entertainment industry explosion. Radio’s no exception. Omaha’s Hot 107.7 FM loudly carries the banner here for urban radio’s mix of rap, hip hop, soul and R&B. Contemporary rock KQCH 94.1-FM tries a little ebony flavor. But no matter how much they try positioning themselves as urban players, these stations are part of white owned and operated networks — Waitt Radio and Journal Broadcast Corporation, respectively.
To be sure, a more authentic urban electronic media model exists. One with black ownership-management and a black sensibility. Just not in Omaha. That’s ironic, too, as the queen of the urban format is Omaha native Catherine Liggins Hughes, a 58-year-old African American whose Radio One network is described as “the voice of black America and the lightning rod for the black community.” Her stations feature music, news and talk from a black perspective. She and her son, Alfred Liggins Hughes, reign over the Baltimore-area-based Radio One empire comprising 69 radio stations, one television station and, since January 2004, the new cable/satellite channel, TV One, a lifestyle and entertainment option aimed at middle-age blacks. TV One is a joint venture with Comcast Corporation. Her parent company went public in 1999 and is valued at $3 billion, making it one of the largest radio broadcasting companies overall and the largest black-owned media firm. She estimates more than 2,100 of her 2,800 broadcasters are black. Many are women.
Hughes adventure in radio comes full circle on May 14, when she receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the 2005 commencement at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she got her first big break in the industry. But it was in Omaha her love of radio first bloomed.
It’s been years since Omaha sustained a truly black station. One of the last was KOWH. A group of Kansas City, Mo. doctors and a consortium of Omahans, including Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, NBA veteran Bob Boozer, social service director Rodney Wead and businessman Al Gilmore, bought it in 1969 and operated it through the mid-1970s. Warren Buffett was an advisor. It’s where Hughes got her start in radio as a do-everything volunteer.
Her rise to national prominence the last 25 years has made her, outside Oprah Winfrey, Eunice W. Johnson and Condoleezza Rice, perhaps the most powerful black woman in America. She’s been called so by Essence Magazine. She counts Ebony Magazine publisher John H. Johnson and award-winning journalist Tony Brown as friends and mentors. Yet, her story’s largely gone untold in her hometown. It’s not surprising given Omaha’s conservative daily newspaper and her penchant for ruffling feathers. But hers is the classic American success story. Despite hailing from an educated and accomplished family, she overcome major obstacles growing up. A shining example of black upward mobility, her climb serves both as an inspiration for how far passion can carry one and as a reminder of how too many blacks remain disenfranchised.
Growing up in the now old Franklin Plaza projects just off 24th and Franklin in north Omaha, Hughes fired her imagination to the museful sounds emanating from the oversized radio she listened to in her room at night.
“My love affair with radio started when I was 8-years-old when my mother gave me a 15-pound transistor radio. I used to get spankings, because at night — when I was supposed to be asleep — I had my radio on under my pillow,” Hughes said.
Unlike her mother, Helen Jones Woods, a former musician, Hughes had “no musical talent. So, rather than being drawn towards music and embracing it, I kind of shied away from it…I felt awkward that I couldn’t sing, dance or carry a tune. The interesting thing about my relationship with radio is that the part I loved most was the commercials, not the music. Today, Radio One is a case study for the Harvard Graduate School of Business, and when they were doing their case study they said, ‘Well, no wonder y’all did OK, because your love of radio was not the music, it was the commercials.’ Yeah, I loved the commercials. I used to take my toothbrush and pretend it was a microphone and be up in the mirror — in the projects — giving commercials,” said Hughes in the earthy tones of a late-night urban deejay.She was on track meeting her family’s high standards, attending a private school, when, at 16, she got pregnant. Her marriage to the father didn’t last. “I went into shock because I had my whole future ahead of me,” she said in a 1998 Essence Magazine interview. The birth of her son snapped her out of her “arrested development. I was a lost ball in high weeds.”
Being a mom, she said, “was the last thing I ever anticipated and it turned out to be the greatest blessing of my life. Absolutely, my son changed my life. He’s the reason I am who I am today. By that I mean spiritually. He necessitated a belief in a power much greater than myself.”
She managed supporting herself and her son, got an education and made a career out of her first love — radio, and Alfred was beside her every step of the way. “I took him everywhere with me. I stayed in constant trouble with my employers, particularly when I moved to the East Coast, because I knew no one there and I was not going to entrust him to strangers. And, so, I brought him to work with me.”
Her wild success has not made her forget her struggle or the huge gap that still separates many African Americans from the good life. A self-described “black nationalist,” she’s all about promoting and strengthening the black community and emboldening her people’s sense of pride. She learned social activism from her parents, members of the social justice action group, the De Porres Club, and from crusading Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, for whom she worked and whose offices hosted De Porres meetings. The faith-based Club led Omaha’s early Civil Rights fight under the late Jesuit priest, John Markoe, of Creighton University. Formed in 1947, the Club agitated for change via demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts that opened lunch counters, like that at Dixon’s Restaurant, and desegregated employment rolls at such work sites as Coca-Cola and the street-railway company.
Hughes was also a protege of Markoe’s. She recalls marching in demonstrations when she was only five. As a teen, she helped integrate Peony Park. Markoe, a close family friend, sponsored Hughes at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she became the first black graduate, and loaned her mother the money to attend nursing school. “He took special interest in a lot of young black people. He saw their potential. He was a pioneer,” said Hughes’ mother. The family visited Markoe when he was dying at the old St. Joseph Hospital, where a West Point classmate of his, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also said goodbye.
Forging new ground and contributing to The Cause is a family trait Hughes inherited from her parents and maternal grandfather. “They were always very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people,” she said.
Her mother’s father, Laurence C. Jones, was one of the first African-Americans to receive an Ed.D from the University of Iowa. In 1909 he founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. Still a premier boarding school for disadvantaged African-American students, it places the vast majority of its graduates in college. Hughes is its largest contributor. Her mother, who was adopted by Jones and his wife, attended the school and played trombone in its touring all-girl swing band — the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As the band gained popularity down south, the Sweethearts chafed at being a cash cow for the school and left, en masse, to perform separately from the institution. Woods was among the rebels. The popular band, which included bi-racial and white members, played all over the U.S., even headlining the Apollo Theater. “When you play at the Apollo Theater, you know you’ve arrived,” Woods said. During World War II, the band entertained overseas black American military personnel as part of the USO. The orchestra disbanded in the late 1940s.
Helen Woods met and married her husband, and Cathy’s father, William Alfred Woods, while with the band in his hometown of Chatanooga, Tenn. After the couple moved to Omaha, he became the first African American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. When no one would hire him as an accountant, he worked an overnight line job at Skinner Macaroni. That is, until “the Jesuits just refused to accept the embarrassment any longer of their first black accountant bagging macaroni at night, and prevailed upon the Internal Revenue Service to give him an opportunity,” Hughes said. He later went into business for himself. Helen became an LPN and, later, a social worker at Douglas County Hospital. The couple’s first of four kids was Catherine Elizabeth, who helped raise her younger siblings.
Fascinated and Inspired
By the late ‘60s, Hughes was taking liberal arts courses at Creighton and then-Omaha University. “Fascinated with radio,” she leapt at the chance to get in on the ground floor at fledgling KOWH. “This was too good to be true, you know. Black folks owning their own radio station. This was a learning opportunity. That’s the reason I was motivated to volunteer and help out.” Even though her real radio education came later, she feels KOWH played a key role in her broacast odyssey.
“I think the reason we have a $3 billion corporation today is because Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Rodney Wead and the other individuals who invested in KOWH inspired me to do it for myself and become a broadcast owner. I saw them do it and so I figured I could. I think none of my success would have taken place if I had not seen the example set by that group. That’s very important to me, because often times when I tell in interviews what a profound effect people in Omaha had on my life, it gets left out of the story because some editor doesn’t consider Omaha exciting.”
Hughes’ big break came on the heels of love and tragedy. It was the early 1970s and she served on UNO’s Black Studies Committee, which sponsored appearances by noted journalist Tony Brown, who befriended her. The man Hughes was dating at the time was hired by Brown, then the dean of Howard University’s newly formed School of Communications, to chair a department in the School. Meanwhile, her father was given a contract by the Office of Minority Business in Washington, D.C. to organize the books of small minority businesses. Her father was set to leave for D.C. when he fell ill and died of a heart attack.
A grieving Hughes went to D.C. and was surprised when Brown offered her a job as a lecturer in Howard’s School of Communications. “I said to him, ‘But I didn’t finish college,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Neither did anyone else on the faculty other than myself.’ The faculty he allowed me to join included Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan. It was a list of non-degreed practitioners of the media and this was quite revolutionary for a major institution of higher learning.”
Hughes began volunteering at Howard’s radio station, WHUR. “When I found out they had a radio station I was like, ‘Oh, let me learn, let me help out. What can I do?” Within a short time she was hired as sales manager and, later, general manager, engineering a turnaround that dramatically increased advertising revenue and put WHUR near the top of D.C.’s highly competitive black radio market.
The Quiet Storm
It was at WHUR she created The Quiet Storm, a sexy late night music-chatter format that’s come to dominate urban radio programming (once featured on 600 stations). She formulated the concept after Howard showed faith in her by sending her to a broadcast management course at Harvard University and a psychographic programming seminar at the University of Chicago. Psychographic studies help broadcasters design programming based on target audience lifestyles and trends.
So, what did Brown see in Hughes? “He saw my love of radio. My determination and commitment to the student body. He saw this was a passion for me. He knew it was like throwing a duck into water. That I was so happy for the opportunity and so fascinated with everything. I used to write back home saying, ‘My eyes are tired seeing the glory and the beauty of being an African living in America.’ Because I had never seen black men and women wrapping their heads and wearing African fabrics and having black plays and black radio. This was a new experience for me. Coming from Omaha, my daddy was the only black accountant, who knew the only black lawyer, who knew the only black dentist, who knew the only black doctor. These were the days when we had one of each in Omaha.”
When Howard University balked at licensing The Quiet Storm on the grounds it was commercially unviable, Hughes left for DC’s WYCB-AM and, in search of more creative control, began looking to acquire her own station. When DC’s WOL came up for sale, she sought to purchase it. Married at the time to Dewey Hughes, the couple made a bid with $100,000 of her own money, plus an additional $100,000 from 10 investors who put up $10,000 each. Another $600,000 came from a group of black venture capitalists. She still needed $1 million dollars from a senior lender. She was rejected by all-male lenders at 32 separate banks. Chemical Bank was her 33rd try and a new-on-the-job Puerto Rican female loan officer there approved the loan. The 1980 purchase made WOL the base of Radio One’s pioneering 24-hour talk from a black perspective format, with its theme: Information is Power.
“If that woman had not gambled on me then I would not be in business today. She was the one that made the difference,” Hughes said. “I never asked her why she did it. I assumed because she saw me a good investment. Those 32 men that told me no probably told some man yes the same week.”
Even today, after all her proven business acumen and personal wealth (in the mid nine figures), Hughes said women of color like herself still lack respect in the business arena. “It hasn’t changed. Not at all. Particularly when you’re one who’s outspoken. It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and, so, it’s definitely still brand new for African American women. It’s the whole confidence factor. You find it with your lenders…your staff…your audience. The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I divorced my husband (Dewey Hughes). He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by advertisers, lenders, creditors…They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive.”
Networking and Visioning
Today, her network of stations is in virtually every major black market: Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, DC, Louisville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. Radio One’s 1995 purchase of WKYS in Washington, D.C. for $40 million, reportedly the largest transaction between two black companies in broadcasting history, made Hughes the first woman owner of a #1 ranked major market radio station.
Radio One’s among the few black-owned media companies to stave off the Wall Street wolves and conglomorates that began buying up black stations and networks. Hughes’ corporate strategy of acquiring and turning around underperforming urban stations has proven profitable and grown the company exponentially. “We’re turnaround experts,” she said. Yet, only a few years ago, she tells how at “a big affair of financial types a gentleman who was not very well informed stood up and thanked my son for saving my company. Gave him full credit. And when my son tried to correct him, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, but you made a difference.’ Alfred tried to say, ‘No, I wasn’t even old enough to be around to save her company,’ but they weren’t having it. Alfred has an MBA from Wharton. He’s the one that took us public and, so, he gets the credit for about 15 years of hard work that existed before he became part of the scenario.”
Hughes’ vision for the company was big from the start and then federal legislation compelled her to keep getting bigger. “I always wanted more than one station but our corporate strategy crystallized in 1996 with the passage of the TeleCom bill (Telecommunications Act),” which removed limits on the number of stations a company could own. “It basically says, Either you grow or you go. Either you become one of the big boys or you sell out. I wasn’t interested in selling out,” she said. According to Hughes, that same Act has made radio/TV ownership a rigged system that forces vulnerable stations into the hands of giants and prevents smaller companies from buying in. She’s bought out many stations herself. The spiraling cost of media properties makes it harder, especially for prospective black owners.
No dilettante operating from afar, Hughes is a hands-on media owner. It makes sense considering she came up through the ranks of radio. She’s done everything at the station level except engineer. Her first days at WOL found her scrounging for everything and even sleeping some nights on the office floor. Up until the mid-’90s she was a popular on-air personality who set the frank tone and assertive agenda for Radio One’s fierce community activism and involvement. These days, she hosts her own show, TV One On One, on the new TV One network.
A Passionate Woman
She said critics’ decrying her pro-black stances “misinterpret” her. “I’m a very passionate woman. My voice raises. I get excited. I start to talk fast. When I was on the radio, nationalism was not quite as understood and accepted as it is now. So, a lot of white journalists mistook my passion, my excitement, my commitment to my people as me being a fire-breathing activist who didn’t like white folks. Well, my second in command to my son is a white woman, Mary Catherine Sneed. She’s like a daughter to me. Just because I love my people doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I laugh about it, because I grew up in Omaha, and if you’re black and not an integrationist in Omaha, you perish. OK? There’s not enough black folks.”
Even with Radio One and TV One ever expanding, (at one point, TV One was gaining a million new subscribers per month), Hughes is not complacent. “I don’t see it as success yet. I still see it as a work in progress. The reason I have to keep driving forward is the reality that my community seems not to be making the progress for the masses we should be making considering how blessed more of us are each year.” She feels whatever success she’s had is rooted in her community focus. “Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. It’s a misnomer that you can’t do good and do well. You don’t have to forsake your peoplehood in order to get wealthy. In fact, I’ve had just the opposite experience.”
Of her many riches, she said she’s proudest of “rearing a son by myself that grew up to embrace my vision, my dream, my commitment to electronic media.” She still get backs to Omaha, where her mother resides. Aside from being honored at a Native Omaha Days, Hughes keeps a low profile here with family and friends, seeing old haunts and attending mass at St. Benedict the Moor. “I earn my living being in the spotlight. When I come home, the best past of it is that there is no spotlight.”
Helen Woods never imagined all this for her daughter, although she suspected something special was in store. “Some people are destined for greatness,” she said.
Howard University’s newest crop of grads have a model of greatness they can call their own.
- Zondra Hughes: Cathy Hughes Strikes Back on Paying Artists for Radio Plays: “Dionne Warwick Is a Lobbyist” (huffingtonpost.com)
- 30 Black Female Leaders You Should Know About (hellobeautiful.com)
- Radio One, Inc. Announces Results of 2010 Annual Shareholders’ Meeting (prnewswire.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- An Omaha Legacy Ends, Wesley House Shutters after 139 Years – New Use for Site Unknown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Rich Music History Long Untold is Revealed and Celebrated at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Like Mother, Like Son: Media Mogul Cathy Hughes Sets The Stage For Alfred Liggins III (hellobeautiful.com)
- Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own, As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)