John J. Oliver Jr. Biography
Took Helm at Family Paper, Pioneered Black Press Web Presence, Elected NNPA President
In the world of African-American newspaper publishing, John J. Oliver Jr. is both a figure rooted in tradition and an innovator who has revitalized a vital strand of black community discourse. The publisher and chief executive of Baltimore, Maryland's Afro-American newspapers, Oliver inherited the mantle of family tradition: his great-grandfather, a former slave, founded the publication in 1892, and his father served with the company for 47 years. Over two terms as president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), however, he moved decisively to modernize the world of African-American journalism and to bring it into the age of electronics and the Internet.
Born in Baltimore on July 20, 1945, Oliver grew up in a family that helped bring about the golden age of African-American newspaper publishing. His father, John J. Oliver Sr., presided over an Afro-American staff that boasted correspondents in London and Paris, producing a paper with a print run of 150,000 copies that circulated in a dozen cities. Black-oriented newspapers were crucial incubators of the civil rights movement, and the young Oliver became a civil rights pioneer himself: he entered sixth grade as the first black student at Baltimore's John E. Howard Elementary School.
Took Helm at Family Paper
After graduating from Baltimore City College High School in 1963, Oliver started college at the University of Maryland but transferred to Fisk University in Nashville after two years. His teachers at Fisk included the poet and historian Arna Bontemps. Becoming a student leader at Fisk, he received a bachelor's degree there in 1969. He moved on to law school at Columbia University, finishing his degree in 1972 and passing bar exams in both New York and Maryland.
For a decade, Oliver was a corporate lawyer. From 1972 to 1978 he worked for the firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York; the partner named Davis in that firm, ironically enough, had been the losing lawyer in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that demolished racial segregation in American schools. In 1978 he moved back to Baltimore and became a staff lawyer for a Rockville, Maryland, arm of the General Electric corporation. He also did work for the family Afro-American newspaper, and in 1982 he took over the business. At first, in May of that year, he was named vice chairman; by the end of the year he had assumed the position of publisher, and in March of 1983 he added chairman of the board of directors to his portfolio of positions.
At the time, the Afro-American empire still maintained offices in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia, and Newark, New Jersey, publishing twice-weekly editions in several cities as well as a weekly national newspaper. But circulation was dropping; by 1992 it was a third of its peak in the 1940s, and black readers were abandoning the traditional black press for large, white-owned metropolitan dailies. The Baltimore paper limped along on an old-fashioned typesetting machine that had been purchased in the 1930s. It was readers of his own generation, Oliver pointed out to the Houston Chronicle, that had been responsible for the decline, "because we felt the world held greater promise than was evident on the pages of the Afro."
Pioneered Black Press Web Presence
By 1992, celebrating its centennial as the second-oldest continuously published black newspaper in the United States, the Afro-American was down to papers in Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond. Later in the 1990s the Richmond operation, too, was shuttered. Despite these discouraging trends, Oliver was putting in place the seeds of a renaissance as many African-American readers began to turn back to their own communities for information. Equipment was modernized and the paper was produced by an outside printer, linked by computer with the Afro-American's Baltimore offices. In 1994 the Afro-American became the first black-oriented newspaper in the United States, and one of the few newspapers of any kind, to go online when its www.afro.com Web site made its debut.
In 1996 Oliver penned for Afro-American readers a vivid account of a personal experience that showed why a paper that reported firsthand on racial discrimination in the community was still a vital need. After running a red light, Oliver was pulled over by Baltimore police. With that infraction compounded by several other minor ones (Oliver's license had expired, and he wasn't wearing a seat belt), Oliver was placed under arrest and spent eight hours in Baltimore's central lockup.
In his alternately funny and horrifying article, Oliver likened the actions of the white officers who jailed him to the robot officers in Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. He described his cell as: "small, uncomfortable (all steel, no mattress), and covered with dry puke, dried blood, and partially dried urine." Some men who were being released asked him what he was doing there. "As they shook their heads in amazement while continuing on their way," Oliver wrote, "the profoundness of this encounter and the absurdity of my situation began to sink in as I realized that these high-spirited alleged drug offenders were all on their way out—while I, with my traffic violation, was on my way in!"
Elected NNPA President
The Afro-American newspapers under Oliver's leadership began to gain readers after years of decline, and in 1999 Oliver got the chance to put his innovative ideas to a national test when he was elected president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. This national trade group boasted 210 member newspapers with a combined 15 million readers. Oliver launched several initiatives designed to help black-oriented newspapers compete in the electronic age, including an effort to help member papers publish online editions. He warned of the threat online newspapers posed to traditional publications. Oliver also launched a collective news service (dubbed a black Associated Press) and, in partnership with the Howard University School of Journalism, established a new Black Press Institute. A new media service helped advertisers reach member papers' combined audiences. For the first time in 40 years, the NNPA sent reporters to cover the 2000 political conventions.
Yet Oliver also stressed the traditional roots of the black press in highlighting racial discrimination. "[R]ecent events including the dragging death of James Byrd in Texas, the murder of Tyisha Miller in California, and the assault on Abner Louima at the hands of New York City police officers remind us that there is still much work to be done and the Black press must be diligent in our role as champions for justice, equality, and human rights," he was quoted as saying by the New York Amsterdam News. "The NNPA has an important place at the table of national debate as we enter a new century."
A satisfied NNPA membership reelected Oliver to its presidency in 2001; it was the first time an incumbent president of the organization had run unopposed. "I would like to institutionalize these programs and the benefit these programs bring the members, so that regardless of who my successor is, it will be something that future publishers will benefit from," he told the Afro-American. After finally stepping down in 2003, Oliver kept busy with a host of community responsibilities. He served as chairman of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, and in 2003 he led a panel of journalists who examined the role that race played in coverage of the U.S.-led Iraq War. He remained at the helm of the Afro-American and could point to a resurgence of interest in the African-American press that he himself had helped create.
Afro-American Red Star, February 19, 1994, p. A1; March 2, 1996, p. A1, A5; July 6, 2001, p. A1.
Houston Chronicle, August 23, 1992, p. A13.
Jacksonville Free Press, February 23, 2000, p. 2.
New York Amsterdam News, June 24, 1999, p. 11.
Washington Post, March 7, 1983, p. 19; August 15, 1992, p. D1; May 10, 2001, p. E13.
The Afro-American Newspapers, www.afro.com (October 28, 2004).
"The Black Press: Future Tense," "We Wish to Plead Our Own Cause: The Black Press: Past, Present, Future, www.huarchivesnet.howard.edu/0002huarnet/nnpa1.htm (October 28, 2004).