By: Mark Fitzgerald
As a student at Hampton University and later as a writer for Johnson Publication’s Ebony Man, David Barr III was fascinated by the stories he would hear about the Chicago Defender, Baltimore Afro-American, and other black newspapers. When he became a successful playwright, he struggled to tell their story on stage. The result is Black Caesar, a kind of African-American Citizen Kane that premiered in Chicago in March in a production by the Pegasus Players.
It tells the story of C.J. Caesar, publisher of the Defender-like daily The Vanguard. Like Kane, Caesar begins as an idealist, succeeds wildly as a publisher, becomes corrupt, and grasps at political power. Caesar himself suggests Defender founder Robert S. Abbott or his successor, John Sengstacke. But Barr says the real-life model is Robert Lee Vann, the Depression-era editor and publisher who built The Pittsburgh Courier into a nationally influential weekly, and helped turn black voters away from the Republicans to FDR’s Democrats.
Barr laments the black press’ retreat from “objective advocacy journalism” after the civil rights era, telling E&P: “The black press has never gotten itself right. You can still sniff that racial ambulance-chasing smell all over it.”