On a quiet, tree-lined block of South 7th Street in downtown Wilmington, a two-story house with white clapboard siding looks a little worse for wear. Though its facade is in good shape, the 123-year-old building’s roof has sagged and collapsed.
A note by the front door, alerting visitors to its mask policy, serves as a timestamp to its last days in operation.
The building remains a vital landmark of resiliency: the offices of The Wilmington Journal.
For nearly a century, the weekly newspaper served Wilmington’s Black community, but in recent years, it’s fallen on hard times.
A death in the family left a lien on The Journal’s building, and while a fundraiser in early 2021 helped prevent foreclosure, another death—this time, longtime editor Mary Alice Jervay Thatch—left a leadership vacuum. Thatch, the third generation to run the paper, was known for her dogged determination in covering the Wilmington 10 and helping to seek their exoneration. When she died in December 2021, the printing presses stopped.
“This was an individual who did not take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Thatch’s cousin, Paul Jervay Jr., whose family started the paper. “Whenever a task was given her, even though it might be impossible, she was trying to figure a way to get the job done. That spirit pervaded her household… It’s a challenge—and that’s not even a sufficient word—to recover from.”
The Journal hasn’t printed since Thatch’s death. Its website has been down for at least a month, and it has struggled with maintaining an online presence. But Jervay is hopeful that it will fill its long-dormant newspaper boxes once again. It is, after all, far from the first tough times the Black press in Wilmington has seen.
Back in November 1898, white supremacists launched a deadly attack on Wilmington’s Black citizens, part of a campaign of political intimidation and violence leading up to that year’s election. With the help of former Confederate soldiers, they forced the city’s biracial council out of power and killed dozens (perhaps hundreds, as the exact number is still unknown) of Black residents.
The racist mob also set fire to The Daily Record—billed as “the only negro daily in the world”—which had pushed back against white supremacism.
Publisher Alex Manly had printed, and is often credited with writing, an editorial several months earlier that rebuked claims that Black men were rapists, arguing instead that many of these sexual encounters were consensual. Rape, the piece implied, was a defense against social embarrassment once the relationships were discovered. The piece also argued that as long as white men raped Black women, critiques of Black male behavior would be hypocritical.
The violence of 1898 devastated Wilmington’s Black middle class and left a bleak economic landscape—an impact still felt by some today, as the 125th anniversary approaches.
Jervay’s father, Paul Sr., left the city for opportunities in Raleigh, where he later developed The Carolinian in 1940 and expanded to a network of other Black-owned papers across the state.
“Where would things be in Wilmington if he could have stayed? And I assure you, from conversations with my father, he loved Wilmington. He wanted to stay,” said Jervay. “And this is one of many stories about what should have been in Wilmington—what should have been, but never could happen because of 1898.”
Jervay’s grandfather, Robert, did stay in Wilmington, where the family opened a printing shop in 1901. In 1927, he founded The Cape Fear Journal, explicitly aiming to take up the mantle of The Daily Record. Robert’s son Thomas later took over and renamed it The Wilmington Journal around 1945, and it’s now one of the oldest Black-owned papers in North Carolina.
The Journal’s slogan, which appeared in its most recently printed issues, is reminiscent of The Record’s credo.
“News from the African American perspective without fear or favor,” The Journal boasts below its green logo; The Record “is of the Negro, for the Negro and by the Negro,” Manly wrote in an 1895 note to subscribers, in one of a few recovered copies that researchers have unearthed to date.
The Wilmington Journal covered the Black experience, both locally and nationally, which converged when the federal government forced the region’s schools to desegregate in 1971. Racial unrest boiled over, businesses were set ablaze, and white supremacists patrolled the streets. The governor sent in more than 500 National Guard soldiers to support local police and 75 State Troopers who were already surveilling the area. Nine Black men and a white woman were arrested and wrongfully convicted of arson and conspiracy—a group that became known as “the Wilmington 10.”
Two years later, tensions were still high, and a former marine led a white segregationist group’s string of orchestrated bombings in the area. They targeted The Journal’s office, a synagogue, a Jewish-owned supply store, and other buildings in their weeks-long tirade.
No one was injured, but The Journal was occupied at the time of its bombing. The ringleader of the attacks, Lawrence Little, received a life sentence for his role. Though several others were charged, only Little received a serious punishment, the Wilmington Morning Star reported in 1976.
Thatch, who became editor in 1996, had previously followed the Wilmington 10 case for years, as overturning the convictions became an international cause. She ultimately helped push Gov. Beverly Perdue to issue a pardon in 2012. By that point, four of the 10 had already died.
“She was tireless, in moving forward, and continuing, and believing that could become a reality,” Jervay said.
It’s hard to overstate how important Thatch was to The Journal, her cousin said. Since her passing, her three daughters have been left to carry on the paper’s legacy. While they have come a long way in taking up the reins, they’ve also been dealing with the loss of their mother.
“I live in a world of deadlines, and you have to do it by a certain time, and bottom lines have to be met, and all of the nuances of the newspaper business,” Jervay said of his work at The Carolinian. “But when you have grief in the equation, you have to be considerate of that before you even walk in the door.”
Even without a family tragedy, the newspaper industry is tough. Local papers around the country are being gutted, sold off, or reduced to shells of their former selves. And a Black paper, Jervay said, faces unique challenges—including its focus on a smaller demographic. The Journal’s circulation was 7,000 when it stopped publishing in 2021.
Today, the state is served by just 10 Black media outlets, including print, digital, and radio, according to the latest census from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (this count excludes The Journal, since it stopped publishing).
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Jervay said his father’s longevity in the newspaper business depended on having physical type-setting and printing plants as well as a distribution network. The costs meant the business couldn’t survive on just The Carolinian.
“He had to develop a network of newspapers throughout the state to generate the amount of revenue to exist,” Jervay said. “Fast forward to where we are right now in 2023 in Wilmington, North Carolina, we have one—one potential revenue generating institution—not eight.”
It’s a formidable task, he said, but he still believes it can be done. “Technology gives you the resources and the pathway, with the proper sales and marketing, with a physical and digital product,” he said. “But believe you me, it’s going to take time, and effort, and dedication.”
He hopes the paper can get back to publishing weekly, with a strong digital and multimedia presence.
“I would like to see The Journal get back to the point where people walk up and down South 7th Street, they could look at that building, at their newspaper, and the icon it is, and should be, with pride, and joy.”
Fittingly, Jervay sees recovering The Journal to its former status as part of a broader effort to restore the neighborhood around the newspaper’s office, which includes the nearby Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ, where his father was educated as a child. He has been lobbying to create a historic district around the two buildings and for serious economic reinvestment in the area. He cited Rev. William Barber II, a prominent progressive activist, who on the 100th anniversary of the massacre called for reinvestment in places that lost generational wealth in 1898.
“We’re talking about a mammoth project that’s gonna involve millions of dollars at the very least,” Jervay said. “So there’s going to have to be a massive support mechanism put in place, there will have to be a community development corporation put in place for that to happen.”
Jervay is part of a small group of stakeholders known as the Wilmington Journal Breakfast Club, which was formed in 2022 to spearhead these efforts. They’re still getting started, but have a second 1898 Symposium planned for the 125th anniversary of the Wilmington massacre on November 11. Cash Michaels, a prominent Journal writer who along with Thatch spearheaded the Wilmington 10 pardons, will moderate the event.
For Jervay, getting the community behind the plan is key.
“I’m an old tennis player. And I can play tennis when there is no crowd in the stands just fine. But when there was a crowd in the stands on my side, I played even better, because I felt the motivation and energy from the crowd,” Jervay said. “Quite frankly, that’s what we need. We need that crowd of the community.”
Ben Schachtman is the news director for WHQR in Wilmington and co-author of our weekly newsletter on the Cape Fear Region, The Dive.