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Donald Suggs’ legacy with St. Louis American: ‘Local history would look entirely different’

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Donald Suggs’ legacy with St. Louis American: ‘Local history would look entirely different’

Nov 28, 2023 | 6:55 am ET
By Rebecca Rivas
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Donald Suggs’ legacy with St. Louis American: ‘Local history would look entirely different’
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St. Louis American publisher Donald M. Suggs speaks about the importance of community journalism, after receiving the 2015 Media Person of the Year award from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis. "As a community newspaper, we see ourselves as a journalistic enterprise that is strongly identified with its community, its unique experiences and concerns," he said. (Photo by Lawrence Bryant/The St. Louis American).

The St. Louis American first hit newsstands on March 17, 1928.

At that time, the Black weekly newspaper was an eight-page tabloid with a circulation of about 2,000. 

More than 95 years later, The American reaches about 300,000 people each month through the print newspaper and website. It’s the largest weekly newspaper in Missouri and among the largest Black newspapers in the country.

For 40 of those years, Dr. Donald M. Suggs — a retired oral surgeon — has been its publisher. This September, he was inducted into the Missouri Newspaper Hall of Fame.

“Medicine is like a calling for most people who operate in that profession,” Suggs said during his acceptance remarks at the Missouri Press Association’s convention in St. Louis. “Journalism is as well. The highest level of journalism, in my view, is a calling.” 

As a former reporter at The American for 11 years, I’ve come to understand that Dr. Suggs deeply appreciates investigative, hard-hitting news stories. But that alone is not what he means when he says the “highest level of journalism.” 

He believes in uplifting journalism that serves as a community empowerment tool, especially for Black youth.

“He has always treated young Black people as these vessels of this enormous potential,” said Chris King, former managing editor at The American for 17 years.

The Ferguson uprising of 2014 offers one of the clearest glimpses of this.

With the community’s outrage over Michael Brown’s killing, The St. Louis American found itself at the epicenter of the most promising civil rights movement since the 1960s. Many of the initial demonstrators — including many who emerged as as leaders within the the Ferguson movement — were young Black people new to the arenas of politics and community engagement.

“Here is a situation where these other media outlets had no training whatsoever in writing about and featuring young Black leaders — but The American specialized in it,” said Stefan Bradley, a professor of Black studies at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.

Bradley is writing a book that centers the role of youth in the Ferguson uprising. In his research, he found that many mainstream media outlets covering the movement had “an inability to sympathize with Black youth” because historically the outlets had portrayed young Black children from a “deficit perspective.”

“But what I saw with The American was the ability to portray Black children in all of their humanity,” he said.

That coverage, he said, informed the way people will forever remember the uprising.

“If it hadn’t been for The American, local history would look entirely different,” Bradley said.

Even in the moment, Kenya Vaughn, The American’s former website editor for 14 years, believes the coverage helped spur history.

“If you feel like you have a voice in this situation where somebody is being fair and balanced,” Vaughn said, “and really speaking to the issues that brought you out in the first place, it energizes you to go back out.”

And it also gave The American unparalleled access to movement leaders, she said.

The daily protests have ceased, but the movement has continued on. When I was on staff, I remember Dr. Suggs walking into our weekly staff meetings buzzing with energy and beaming with pride that the youth were challenging oppressive systems.

That energy has not waned, said Kevin Jones, longtime CEO of The American.

“Even still to this day, he comes in first thing in the morning he’s got a list of 10 ideas already written down,” Jones said. “It’s usually on an envelope from one of his bills at home.”

Donald Suggs’ legacy with St. Louis American: ‘Local history would look entirely different’
St. Louis American Publisher Donald Suggs, left, and contributing editor Fred Sweets discuss the weekly rundown of stories at an editorial meeting in May 2018 (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).

The American has won the state press association’s top honor – the Gold Cup – seven of the last 11 years. 

“Under Suggs’ leadership, the role of The American has been instrumental in informing policy, shaping politics and being an advocate for people who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice,” Vaughn said. 

Helping Black youth see themselves as leaders — even in small ways — was always a big part of his role as editor, King said.

King remembers getting a letter from a young man incarcerated in the St. Louis County jail whose little sister was running a book club. He felt he could help his sister by asking The American to write a story about her.

“I ran his letter as a front page news story with his byline,” King said. “Now what publisher would have said ‘yes’ to that? I don’t think anybody but Donald Suggs. Respecting and empowering Black youth, it’s just what animates him. It always has.”

A big point of pride for Suggs’ team and the Black community is the St. Louis American Foundation — it’s one of the biggest scholarship generators in the region. 

This year, the foundation fostered more than $2.8 million in minority scholarships for college students and community grants for educators — bringing it up to $17 million in total since 1994.

Fred Sweets, contributing editor for The American and longtime friend of Suggs, said Suggs sometimes talks about what he hopes people will see as his legacy.

And it’s the same as it was for Sweets’ late father, Nathaniel, who was The American’s publisher for more than 45 years.

“It’s so moving to me because my father started [The American], and he wanted the education of our youth to be an important part of our mission,” Sweets said. “Donald continued in that. And that’s what he’d want his legacy to be — making a difference in the lives of Black children.”

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