Today’s page takes a look at the publisher and editor-in-chief of the oldest Black newspaper published in Cincinnati, Ohio: Wendell P. Dabney. Establishing a newspaper was but one entry on a long list of accomplishments for Dabney, who was first and foremost an advocate for his people, using all of his superior talents to that end.
Wendell Phillips Dabney was born on Nov. 4, 1865, seven months after the end of the Civil War, to former slaves John and Elizabeth Dabney. Young Wendell Dabney would learn about entrepreneurialism early from his father, who used his skill as a cook to start a successful catering business.
Dabney was a good student who loved to read. He was also a hard worker, selling newspapers and helping his father during the summer months. The boy loved music and was a talented guitar player.
His first charge for equal rights began in high school when, in 1883, he led a protest against a segregated graduation, resulting in the first integrated graduation ceremony in the history of Richmond High School. Dabney had three career choices in mind: lawyer, doctor or musician. “Law for money, medicine to benefit humanity and music for pleasure,” he said.
After finishing high school, Dabney attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he was one of only 15 Blacks in the student body. He expanded his musical talents to include banjo, violin and mandolin and became the first violinist at the Oberlin Opera House. Dabney left after a year to return home and help support his family and would hold several jobs back in Virginia, including working as a waiter, which he hated because of the way he was treated by whites. He also became a music teacher before moving to Boston in 1890 to start a music studio for amateur and professional musicians.
In 1894, it was back to Ohio, this time to Cincinnati to manage the Dumas Hotel, a property his mother had inherited from an aunt. The hotel was built in the early 1840s and was the only Black-owned hotel in the state. It had also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Dabney met and married Nellie Foster Jackson, a widow with two sons whom he adopted. He kept his hands in his music and made extra money by teaching rich, white students. He also wrote songs. But in 1895, he gave up his music career to become Cincinnati’s first Black license clerk. From 1898 to 1923, he worked in the Cincinnati Department of Treasury as an assistant and then as paymaster, making him one the most powerful Blacks in the city. He was saving his money and preparing for his next venture–his own newspaper.
Dabney knew how important it was to address the needs of the Black community in the press. His first paper was called the Ohio Enterprise. On Feb. 13, 1907, he launched the Union. Its motto was: “For no people can become great without being united, for in union there is strength.” For the next 45 years, the Union would be the strongest and most influential voice for Cincinnati’s Black community, shaping the political and social scene and enjoying the longest run of any Black edited or published newspaper in the city at that time.
The Union was Dabney’s voice. With it, he championed the concerns of Black people and offered his opinions on Black America. He said, “Many of us talk so much about our civil rights that we forget about our civic duties.” He also wrote, “We fight for our rights, why not so conduct ourselves as to cause the whites to see the injustice of withholding them?”
Dabney used his paper to influence politics, letting politicians know where he stood and what the Black community expected from them. He let them know that the concerns of the people were more important than the desires of the party.
In a quote from the Union, Dabney said, “In municipal elections, WE FAVOR THE PARTY MOST LIKELY TO BENEFIT OUR PEOPLE! If, after election, we find that party no good, we are ready to fight it the next time it appears for an endorsement! Too many wolves in sheep’s clothing have fattened upon the faithfulness and gratitude of the colored voter, for us in this age of enlightenment to bow to the yoke of political servility!
“We are sorry for those Pharaohs in our people who will not listen to the voice of reason! We are more sorry for those among us who know the right faith, yet lack the manhood to assert it! As long as this paper is owned by your humble servant, its motto is RACE FIRST, PARTY SECOND.”
The outspoken Dabney was also quick to tout his newspaper on its own pages, sometimes with a poem. On June 12, 1947, he wrote:
“The Union does not tell,
All that you do,
But the news in the Union
Is always true
For forty-one years,
Ever on time,
The price is only a nickel,
But is worth ten times a dime,
To those who can read as they ought,
And have brains that can give birth,
To constructive thought.”
Dabney’s quest for equal rights didn’t stop with his newspaper. He served on multiple community boards–the most important in his eyes being the Colored Orphans Society. He was also the founder of the Douglass League, named for Frederick Douglass. He was a successful businessman, owning prime property in the city. He continued his love of music both as a skilled performer and composer.
Dabney became the first president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, which was established in 1915. He wrote about and participated in protests against segregated housing, political disparity and racial violence against the Black community. A longtime Republican, he became increasingly displeased and critical of the way Blacks were being treated by the party. In 1925, he joined the Independent Party.
The walls of Dabney’s office were covered with photos of his famous friends, included W.C. Handy, who was known as the “Father of the Blues,” dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, with whom he had grown up with in Virginia, scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois, and poets Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, among others.
Dabney was a creative and prolific man. In addition to writing editing and publishing his newspaper, he also wrote books and composed music. He compiled and published “Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens” in 1926 and wrote “Maggie L. Walker: The Woman and Her Work,” a biography of one of his long-time friends who became the first African-American woman to own a bank. Dabney also published “Chisum’s Pilgrimage and Others,” a collection of his writings from the Union.
Dabney’s musical compositions include “You Will Miss the Colored Soldier,” “My Old Sweetheart” and “God, Our Father, a Prayer.”
In January of 1950, the National Convention of Negro Publishers honored Dabney as a pioneer and leader in African-American journalism. The Union struggled but survived until 1952, the year of Dabney’s death. It had been Cincinnati’s longest-running Black newspaper.
On June 5, 1952, Wendell Dabney died in Cincinnati at age 86.
- Look it up: Use the Internet or other resource to learn more about Wendell Dabney and his newspaper, the Union.
- Talk about it: Newspapers like Wendell Dabney’s the Union and the paper you are reading right now have the all-important job of addressing the needs of smaller communities. Why are these publications so important in our everyday lives?
- Write it down: Work in teams with your classmates and start your own newspaper or newsletter. Make it all about important events that are happening in your classroom. What do you need to make your paper interesting and informative?
This Week in Black History
- April 8, 1960: The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is organized.
- April 10, 1968: Congress passes a civil rights bill banning racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.
- April 11, 1967: Harlem voters defy Congress and re-elect Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
- April 14, 1865: President Abraham Lincoln is shot and fatally wounded by John Wilkes Booth at Washington’s Ford Theater.