This journey began in 2002 upstairs in a one bedroom apartment on Fortification Street next to La Cazuela. I had returned to Mississippi in 2001, taking Todd Stauffer with me as we Mississippi people tend to do with those we love, thinking I would write a book and have a cheap base of ‘where to go for independent journalism. Three months after moving into a duplex in Belhaven and renting the one in Fortification for me to write (hey, we were used to New York rental prices), September 11th arrived, changing the world and our work plans and of travel.
We were already in awe of the potential of a capital filled with bright, loving and often overlooked people, and believing it needed a newspaper that would serve every zip code, every neighborhood. The articles here then only targeted readers of one race or looked squarely at the suburbs (and their criminal hysteria and racist anxieties) for as much of the advertising dollars as they could collect, with much of it being shipped to shareholders outside the State.
So we did this thing, naming it for a Jackson Civil Rights Journal started by black leaders Medgar Evers and RLT Smith and others, and printed by a besieged white editor, Helen Brannon Smith, whom the rich whites have. essentially boycotted of existence and means of subsistence.
We didn’t have deep pockets. Todd, Stephen Barnett, Jimmy Mumford, Bingo Holman and I literally started on a small kitchen table, with Alisa Price joining us to sell ads, Jaro Vacek to take pictures, with Tony DiFatta’s covers. Enthusiastic volunteers showed up, and later paid staff. White people would call and whisper, “Is this a black newspaper?” Because we cover black people for reasons other than crime or sport. A group of whiny conservative men from north Jackson have started suing us on the website and, yes, calling for a boycott (to no avail since our readers are buying cars, theater tickets, and martinis too).
Todd and I drove from hair and beauty salons to barbecue and fried fish restaurants all over Jackson in a tattered Toyota Tercel asking them to hand out our newspaper. Yes, we got some funny looks – who are these people! ?
I was thinking a lot about this first office last week. With our small team, we stayed awake all night to lay out the paper. One night, art director Jimmy Mumford (who designed it remotely from home) sent a message around 2 am: “I’ll sleep on the floor as soon as you’re ready.”
It was 6am after a sleepless night when the power cut just as we were about to send a big story to the printer. Todd, teary eyed, sheepishly admitted that he might have forgotten to pay the bill. Suddenly Stephen was gone and the lights came back on. I still don’t want to know.
But most of all I thought of Miss S and Dr. S. Miss S was a tailless cat that I rescued at the Fortification “office”. She was a calico color mix with thick fur of all heights with Cleopatra eyeliner around her annoyed eyes. She was carrying a dead kitten when I first took her to the vet. She became our mascot, sleeping on the printer because it was hot and repeated to us regularly with squeaky little meows that reminded me of my mom’s beautician who smoked too much. I always said that Miss S owned a beauty salon in a previous life.
Miss S tolerated most of us, but she was obsessed with her one true love.
Dr. S was the pen name of Charles Corder, my friend from Mississippi State who had been my editor at The Reflector for a scorching minute. We reconnected after I got back when he was stuck in a proofreading job at The Clarion-Ledger that he hated. He was fascinated that we were launching a new kind of newspaper and started hanging out at the office. Or with Miss S, should I say.
These two adored each other. As mean and aggressive as she was to the rest of us unworthy subjects, Charles was her main pressure. He was dragging himself to the door saying “heyyyy” like he always did, and she would drop onto his back and purr affectionately at him. I was ashamed for her.
Charles, my favorite curmudgeon of all time, was a sports fanatic, and we always talked about someday launching a smarter, more journalistic sports publication in Mississippi, but we never had enough funds to do so. I couldn’t afford to hire him away from the ledger, so he volunteered for the JFP, calling himself Dr S and writing our rather sarcastic sports roundups at the time. This was before collaborating with the media was even considered in this relentless endeavor, so his employer (where he edited, not wrote) had no idea he was doing it.
Doc would infuriate sports fans; most thought he was Todd – you know, S like in Stauffer. I doubt anyone has ever guessed correctly. I don’t usually publish writers without real names, but I made an exception for Charles because he seemed to need to, to be part of an exciting new journalistic adventure, even on a small scale. He also volunteered to start our calendar of events, doing the tedious work of collecting and editing endless blurbs for a while.
Over time, Doc would quit the ledger and serve as the editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth, better use of his talents, and eventually retire with serious health issues. Unfortunately, we never got to do our sports post together, and I haven’t seen it enough in recent years, especially during the pandemic. I work all the time and he was surrounded by a loving family.
It hit me in the stomach to hear recently that Dr. S passed away from COVID-19 much too young. Since then, I have relived those early days of JFP where we were all determined to make this crazy thing work in one way or another. It was fun, and it was stressful, but the JFP is still there. And now the Mississippi Free Press is here too, another dream for 19 years. I also plan to bring back the Youth Media Project when the teens can safely get together.
I dedicate these first 19 years to Charles Corder, Herman Snell, Stephen, Jimmy, Alisa, Bingo, to the staff over the years, to the advertisers who have had it and to all of you who have believed in this vision and have helped us in so many ways. Mississippians can do so much when we decide to build together rather than tear each other down. Thank you.
Follow Donna Ladd on Twitter at @donnerkay and visit mississippifreepress.org if you haven’t already. Follow him on @msfreepress.