June 22, 2021

In the early days of COVID-19, Black Chicago residents felt they were largely out of harm’s way. Most did not travel out of the country, so they should not be affected by a disease that originated overseas, or so the thinking went.

But by April 2020, 54% of the city’s COVID-infected people were Black, even though Black residents account for only 30% of Chicago’s population. “Our community was under siege,” said Dorothy Leavell, publisher of the Crusader, the legendary Chicago and Gary, Indiana, newspapers that have championed Black residents’ civil and economic rights for more than 80 years.

As Leavell and others have pointed out, long-term poverty-related problems — like inadequate health care facilities, lack of medical insurance, and front-line jobs not allowing remote work — were major reasons for COVID-19’s racially unequal toll. A 2020 study by the National Urban League pinpointed systemic racism as a contributing factor for many Black COVID-19 cases in highly segregated cities like Chicago. High rates of poverty itself, along with racial discrimination in the health care system, environmental issues and preexisting health problems, also figured in.

But the Crusader was one of the first news outlets anywhere to scrutinize the high number of COVID-19 deaths in Chicago’s South Side. The paper soon became a pipeline for the frustration Black residents felt as the pandemic spread.

“People don’t see that the disparities in our community are deep,” Leavell said, “from the internet to banking to health to schools.” Spotty online access, long a problem in the South Side and other mostly Black neighborhoods, became a crisis for families when the pandemic made remote learning a required fact of life. The Crusader has been affected too: “Sometimes we are afraid the internet won’t work to send out our paper to the printer,” Leavell said.

With offices smack in the middle of the South Side, the paper’s editors can look outside to take a pulse of the community’s needs. A recent four-part series examined the profusion of dialysis clinics in Black areas and the margin for misdiagnosis of kidney-related disease.

Since history has given Black Americans reason to distrust medical authority and some may harbor misconceptions about COVID-19 vaccines, the Crusader carries stories on how many Chicago and Gary residents have been vaccinated. Black-oriented news outlets understandably have more credibility with Black readers, noted Richard Wallace, founder of Chicago-based Equity and Transformation — especially in Chicago, where systemic racism is so long-standing and entrenched.

A vibrant time

Leavell has been the Crusader’s publisher for 50 years, but her time there goes back longer and the paper’s history longer still. Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in the mid-1940s, she began at the Chicago Crusader as a teenage clerk in a summer job. In 1962 she moved to Chicago to attend Roosevelt University, became the Crusader’s office manager and business manager, and left school to join the paper full-time.

It was a vibrant place to work. Founders Balm L. Leavell and Joseph H. Jefferson launched the paper in 1940 with a mission of improving social and economic opportunities for Chicago’s Black residents. The first issue, called the New Crusader, was a one-pager, produced from an apartment in the famed Ida B. Wells Housing Project in the heart of the South Side. By the ’50s the paper was publishing weekly, and the Gary Crusader was founded in 1961.

Both Balm Leavell and Jefferson were creative community organizers. They started “don’t buy” campaigns urging readers not to shop at places like Woolworths that refused to hire Black workers, ultimately helping Black workers get into industries where they had been shunned. The Gary paper took on U.S. Steel, which had built Gary as an industry town but would not hire Black workers, even though the city’s Black population had grown steadily since World War I (the city is now 84% Black).

Soon after Dorothy hired on at the paper, her relationship with Balm became personal, and they married and had two children. Then, in 1968, Balm Leavell died unexpectedly, of pancreatic cancer. At 23, Dorothy Leavell was suddenly a widow, and a single mother with her husband’s newspapers to run. Facing some opposition from Mr. Leavell’s children by his first wife, she officially took the helm after Jefferson, Balm’s business partner and co-publisher, gave her his support.

She knew the paper’s business side from her clerical and bookkeeping and managerial roles. But now she was fully in charge.

Of small stature and a quick smile, Leavell tackled the role hands-on, with aplomb. “I was one of the few Black women editors in the country,” she said. “There were a handful of women-led papers — they all took the jobs when they became widows.”

That year, 1968, was a historic one, notoriously volatile for the Black community and the struggles in this country for civil rights. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and ensuing fires and riots nationwide, the shooting of  Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles, the police violence against antiwar protesters at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago itself — all happened in quick succession amid a climate of tension, anticipation, unease. “To be thrust into that role at that age was exciting and frightening,” Leavell said.

Yet the Crusader persisted in its mission of uncovering injustices and advocating on its readership’s behalf. “We campaigned against Illinois Bell Telephone Company because they would not hire Black telephone operators,” Leavell said. The paper ran a successful effort promoting equity for meatpacking and livestock workers in the Chicago stockyards. Previously, “the lowest jobs went to Black folks. We helped change that,” Leavell said.

‘I am a fighter’

The past 20 years have brought new challenges for the Crusaders, including financial straits. The papers have survived on a small budget, and older readers remain loyal, but in Chicago as elsewhere, young people increasingly are turning to digital outlets for information and news.

For the Crusader, as with other smaller, independent publishers, COVID-19 exacerbated already ongoing economic strain. Banks would not approve commercial loans because of redlining,  Leavell said. And the papers’ for-profit status ruled out applying for foundation grants.

Yet the paper’s successes and reputation have long been its greatest assets, and attention still came. Foundations reached out, and the Crusader was able to get small grants and hire freelance editors and writers. It also drew the interest of City Hall: When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first Black mayor in three decades, recently took mainstream media to task for under-hiring journalists of color, she singled out the Crusader newspaper group as a positive exception — offering an interview to one of its younger reporters. Editorial staff celebrated the recognition.

Too often, however, the newspaper is overlooked. When Vice President Kamala Harris visited Chicago this spring, the Crusader was not included in the media invitations. Probably that was an oversight by an assistant, Leavell says, but she hopes it was an anomaly that does not recur.

In some ways, the notoriety of the paper’s pandemic reporting “brought a lifeline to us,” an opportunity to intensify coverage and build on its trusted good name, Leavell said. “But the window is not that big.” The same problems that fueled the Crusader’s inception — social conditions affecting health, civil rights, and well-being — are still present and just as pressing to address today.

But she believes the Crusader is poised for a second birth. “I am a fighter from the heart. I don’t fight for myself, but for other people,” she said.

Chicago has always had more than one Black paper. For decades, The Chicago Defender was the leader, championing Black causes and issues since its founding in 1905. The Defender stopped publishing a print edition and only offer a digital version. The Crusader continues publishing a print edition.

The Crusader is a member of MuckRock Foundation’s ethnic media data/journalism collaborative partnerships, which have been set up in key cities to finance and train partners with fewer resources on data journalism. MuckRock believes ethnic news outlets remain key catalysts for reforms and accountability at the local community level.

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Ana Arana is Director of Development and News Partnerships at MuckRock Foundation. An award-winning U.S. veteran investigative journalist, she is a former foreign correspondent who…
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