It was a bright lights, big city moment for a 24-year-old man born in subtle Shelbyville, Tennessee and raised in sleepy Savannah, Georgia.
“Lucius (Harper) gave me the keys to the one-room office at 1727 St. Antoine after introducing me to the other tenants of the building who, for the most part, were the most important and richest gamblers and numbers kings in Detroit,” a wide-eyed Louis E. Martin recalled. “He left $17 in a cloth money sack, the entire cash capital of the business, and told me to be careful with the money.”
A humble start to something big.
The Detroit Chronicle, as it was known, first published on April 14, 1936. Martin was the paper’s first editor and publisher. A University of Michigan graduate and Chicago Defender reporter, he was sent to Detroit in June by Harper with only $135 and “a million dollars worth of nerve.”
The two-story building was located in Paradise Valley, the epicenter for black business and cultural expression. It sat where Ford Field is today and was owned by number-running boss Everett I. Watson. The structure also served as business headquarters for heavyweight boxing star Joe Louis and his co-manager John W. Roxborough.
The Chronicle joined another well-established black newspaper in town: The Detroit Tribune. The Tribune, which was edited by James Edward McCall, opined with a somewhat jaundiced eye about the newcomers from Chicago: “The task of improving the economic and political welfare of our people, not only in Detroit, but in Chicago and other cities, is one that cannot be accomplished overnight, especially by a new weekly paper…We wish them well.”
During the 1940s, the Chronicle moved to an office on Vernor Highway and later to a large residential dwelling located at 208 Eliot Street. After that, the paper moved to its present location, 479 Ledyard, in 1960.
MAYOR OF PARADISE VALLEY
Detroit was a bourgeoning city of 1.5 million resident and only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia were larger. Blacks, who comprised about 8 percent of the population, were moving to the Motor City in continual waves of about 1,000 per month during the 1930s, according to the Detroit Urban League.
Several months after the first Chronicle issue hit Detroit streets, Rollo Vest, a respected and popular theatrical booking agent, managed a contest on behalf of the Michigan Chronicle to crown Mayor of Paradise Valley The ceremonial mayor worked with elected officials downtown as well as business, clergy and civic leaders in the “Valley” to improve the quality of life in the black cultural and business district bounded by Brush Street, Vernor Highway, Hastings Street, and Gratiot Avenue.
Roy Lightfoot, owner of the B&C Beer Garden, was crowned mayor on October 19 at gala event that took place at the Graystone Ballroom. He was a popular business owner and community advocate. City Clerk Richard Reading sworn in Lightfoot and pinned a golden badge on his lapel. Big band leader Jimmy Lunceford and his orchestra brought the swing and Joe Louis and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens were among the 5,000 spectators who paid either 75 cents for an advance ticket or 90 cents at the door.
Chester Rentie, a night club owner and talent promoter, was the longest serving mayor. Rentie once managed legendary bebop vocalist Betty Carter and his tenure as mayor extended through much of the 1940s. Don Walters, top salesman at Kranjenke Buick in Hamtramck, routinely won the Chronicle-sponsored Paradise Valley mayor contest during the 1950s. Urban renewal projects like the construction of the I-375 portion of the Chrysler Freeway, however, killed the district and the contest ended by the late 1950s. Paradise Valley’s last structure, the 606 Horseshoe Lounge on East Adams Street, was razed in 2002 as Ford Field construction winded down. A Michigan Historic Marker now sits on St. Antoine Street memorializing the history of the legendary district.
After 11 years in Detroit, Martin returned to the Defender as editor-in-chief, a post he held until 1959. He would later join U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration as an advisor and later served in a similar role for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
From 1969 to 1978, Martin served as vice president and editorial director for the Sengstacke Newspaper chain that owned the Defender, the Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Courier, among others. He was the chain’s president from 1976 to 1978 and wrote weekly columns for the Defender from 1987 until his death in 1997.
From its inception until February 1984, the Michigan Chronicle’s front page was published on light green news print. Other legendary journalists during the paper’s first 30 years were managing editor Bill Matney; executive editor Charles Wartman; managing editor Al Dunmore; and columnist and general sales manager June Brown.
The Chronicle’s longest serving publishers have been Longworth Quinn, Sr., 1968 to 1986; and Sam Logan, 1989 to 2000; and later 2003 to 2011. Quinn joined the paper in 1949 as business manager; he served as publisher emeritus during the last three years of his life, 1986 to 1989. In 1985, he became the first African American inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.
“Unfortuntely, there were no books on how to buid a newspaper and I learned fast that I had to trust my own judgment,” Martin wrote in 1956. “I, of course, have never been afraid of making a mistake. I made plenty of them but, fortunately, none of them were fatal.”