When Donald M. Suggs is asked to tell the story of how he came to be the publisher of The St. Louis American, he goes back to the beginning. In an interview with Suggs at the Missouri History Museum on Wednesday, November 8, Suggs shared the narrative of both his life and the paper’s history – in the first Missouri History Museum event ever to be broadcast live on Facebook.
Suggs was interviewed as part of his receiving the Missouri Historical Society’s 2017 Thomas Jefferson Award. His oral history of his experience with the paper – conducted in an interviewed by Gwen Moore, the museum’s coordinator of urban landscapes and community history – will be saved in the museum’s archives as part of the state’s civil rights legacy.
The life story that eventually led Suggs to The St. Louis American started in East Chicago, Indiana, which he described as a “smoky blue-collar town outside of Chicago, in an era of rigid segregation.”
“We had a small school district, which meant that as a very young person I was exposed to very diverse fellow students,” Suggs said. “Segregation was very rigid outside the classroom, but inside the classroom we had a chance to interact.”
That contrast helped Suggs develop a racial consciousness at a young age, as he started asking himself why his parents, despite their intelligence and character, worked menial jobs. That, plus the influence of teachers and labor organizers in his community, made Suggs decide to aim for a career other than working in the steel mills of his hometown. Instead, he went to dental school.
Suggs was one of only two black men in a class that was otherwise all-white. As his career as an oral surgeon advanced, he encountered persistent discrimination in the medical field. Outside of that establishment, though, he knew the world was changing. Suggs was a fan of the thriving jazz music community and the activism of Malcolm X. He wanted to do as much as he could to advance the cause of equality.
Drawn to St. Louis because of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, then a national leader in the medical education of black professionals, Suggs became increasingly involved in philanthropy and the civil rights struggle. That was how his path crossed that of a longtime institution in the city’s black community, The St. Louis American, continuously published since 1928.
The American, Suggs said, is part of a rich tradition of black newspapers that were an important institution during segregation. They provided a forum for the black community that was willing to look at the first draft of history with honest eyes.
“The protestors today, they have social media, they can be in touch with each other, but back in the day it had to be word of mouth or media,” Suggs said. “And, of course, the general-market media was not interested in reporting anything about the African-American community, so it was kind of useless.”
In the paper’s early years, when it had a paid-circulation model, the Pullman Railroad Company would sometimes buy every issue of The American so the public could not read coverage of its workers’ strike. That, Suggs said, does not seem too far in the past.
“We have that experience sometimes,” Suggs said. “Occasionally, when The St. Louis American has a copy out that’s not so complimentary to City Hall, we’ll find out that papers have been taken and placed in the dumpster.”
For many years, The American was led by Nathaniel Sweets and Bennie Rodgers, an owner and editor team that mentored dozens of black journalists. The paper changed ownership several times, mostly among prominent black businessmen in St. Louis. Suggs became the majority owner and publisher in 1984.
“I was interested in the newspaper because newspapers, for me, were an instrument to be involved in the public conversation, to have some input in terms of shaping policy,” Suggs said.
Suggs’ background was in health care, not in business, and he said some in the community were skeptical of his leadership. He proved himself, though, with his first decision about the paper’s direction. The American was losing money every month, and Suggs wanted to change that.
“I realized that this newspaper was not sustainable unless we had a business plan, a business model, a value proposition,” Suggs said. “That led me to my first major decision: to make the newspaper free. It enabled us to have a larger distribution, a larger audience.”
It worked – the paper’s increased circulation led to an increase in advertising, and the company became solvent. The American began producing more color pages and founded a namesake charitable foundation that raises funds for and awards scholarships and grants, mostly to African-American students, educators and organizations involved in improving outcomes for young people.
Although Suggs said he is not sure what the future of print journalism will look like, he said the future of The American is bright. The paper continues to be an important record of history and have a positive impact on the city’s black community, he said.
“If you want to be informed, really be informed, I think you need to be aware of what’s being said in The St. Louis American,” Suggs said. “Remember, a lot of the content comes from the community. So, I’m just the person sitting here. I’m the least important person.”