James French, who played a central role in the Lowcountry's African American community as founder and editor of The Charleston Chronicle, died on July 31. He was 94.
For decades, French’s Chronicle was both a gathering point for Black leaders and a means to distribute information about issues impacting African Americans in the Charleston area. It celebrated local accomplishments and tackled big concerns such as gentrification, racial injustice and economic problems.
French started the weekly paper in the summer of 1971, two years after he retired from the Navy. In 2016, French handed the reins to his grandchildren Tolbert and Damion Smalls.
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, recalled how French provided the safe space in which to discuss myriad issues.
“The Chronicle actually paved the way for my political career,” Gilliard said. “Anyone who aspired to be anything in the community, in terms of serving the public, we would meet in Jim’s office and talk about community-related issues — jobs, crime, public housing. Those were the things on Jim’s mind.”
They would talk for hours, identifying and investigating those issues and discussing strategies for addressing them, Gilliard said.
“We had our hands on the pulse of the community,” he said. “We had an agenda when we left the room.”
The Chronicle was one of many Black newspapers published during the 20th century. They first began to appear during the eras of slavery and segregation.
The first regular Black publication was Freedom’s Journal, introduced in 1827 in Boston. “Too long have others spoken for us,” the publishers of Freedom’s Journal argued.
Eventually, other Black newspapers emerged offering a variety of content, from news stories and commentary to religious instruction and cultural engagement. Many of these papers were produced in the North and surreptitiously distributed to people in the Deep South. They often were consumed collectively, in church or at the barbershop.
The Chronicle's predecessor in Charleston was called The Lighthouse, a newspaper started by John McCray in 1939. McCray soon took his operation to Columbia and, through the 1940s and early 1950s, produced many influential editorials and articles challenging Jim Crow laws and practices.
French’s Chronicle followed in this tradition. Its original office was at the intersection of King and Cannon streets, in the heart of Charleston’s Black commercial district, Gilliard recalled.
French was born Oct. 7, 1926, in Kansas City and became interested in journalism while in the Navy, where he worked as a photographer and manager of radio and TV stations, according to a 2016 article in The Chronicle. While in the Navy, he relocated to Charleston in the late-1960s and soon after launched The Chronicle.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, has known French since the early 1970s.
“Jim has always been in and around the civil rights movement,” she said. And his paper, distributed to all the Black churches in the area each Wednesday, offered an important alternative, she noted. “It allowed us to hear the other side.”
Barney Blakeney, a longtime contributor to The Chronicle, said French was devoted to the credo of the Black Press, which upheld the idea that African American reporters, while obligated to produce good stories, needed to advocate for the community.
French, he said, always was eager to get to the crux of the matter.
"His greatest contribution was providing the vehicle that a lot of people used to wage (their) battles,” he said.
Funeral arrangements are by Murray’s Mortuary of North Charleston.