Updating with list of survivors, funeral arrangements; donations may be made to the National Association of Black Journalists.
Marjorie Parham, an accidental publisher who took control of the Cincinnati Herald after her husband’s death and for more than 30 years made the newspaper a guide star for the region’s Black residents as well as the city, died Tuesday. She was 103.
Dr. Rhonda Spillers Washington, Parham’s granddaughter, said Parham died in her sleep at her longtime home in the Cottingham retirement community in Sharonville. Washington said Parham had otherwise been in good health with “no COVID” and had been vaccinated in December.
In February 2018, Parham celebrated her 100th birthday with a massive party surrounded by friends and family. The display of her professional and civic awards over her career spilled over two tables.
As publisher of the Herald, Parham steered the weekly publication through the often bumpy waters of the newspaper industry to provide information and insight to readers who didn’t see their concerns in mainstream outlets. The newspaper survived a 1994 firebombing to publish the following week on schedule.
She became the second Black person to serve as a trustee of the University of Cincinnati. In 1993, the National Association of Black Journalists presented her its Trailblazer Award. She is in the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame and the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame. The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber named her a Great Living Cincinnatian in 2007. In 2015, when the Cincinnati Herald marked its 60th year of publication, the city honored her with a resolution.
She was a dynamic presence in Southwest Ohio. Cincinnati City Council Member Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, who now owns and runs the Herald, has known Parham for decades and said, with laughter, “I used to be a little afraid of her.”
“She was a very spicy, strong businesswoman,” said Kearney. “She came on as a force. She was just telling me that when she first took over the paper, newspapers survived by advertising, and she would go from business to business and just sit there, telling the owners she wanted their advertising. Some of them threw her out of their offices. Some didn’t. She just kept at it. “
In a June 2018 interview at her home, Parham said, “I did what needed to be done. I would sell advertising. I would talk to anyone who came in the door. I would sweep the floor. Anything that needed to be done, I did it.”
A head for business
Parham was born Feb. 12, 1918, in Batavia, Clermont County, and briefly attended Wilberforce College, a historically black institution of higher learning, then took some classes at the University of Cincinnati. She hoped to earn a business degree, but teachers tried to move her into education or nursing, lines of work in which the young Marjorie had no interest.
She dropped out and at 19 married William Spillers. They had a son, William. The marriage ended in divorce, and she worked at a machine shop in Lockland. In 1946, she got a job as a clerk with the U.S. Veterans Administration in Cincinnati. Then she met and married Gerald Porter in 1954.
In the first half of the 20th century, Cincinnati had a vital Black press with a newspaper called the Union, but that paper closed in the early 1950s. In 1955, Porter opened the Cincinnati Herald, and in 1961 the Dayton Tribune, putting his wife’s son in charge. When William Spillers was drafted into the military, and his mother left her government job to run the Dayton paper.
In 1963, Gerald Porter was driving home from work and crashed his automobile; in the June 2018 interview, Marjorie Parham said she believed her overworked husband had fallen asleep at the wheel. Porter was taken to a hospital on Cincinnati’s east side and was denied treatment. In a 2005 interview with The Enquirer, Parham recalled, “The nurse’s exact words were, ‘We don’t accommodate Negro bed patients.’ Do you believe that? She wasn’t even subtle about it.”
In her bereavement, Parham faced a choice: close her husband’s legacy or somehow keep publishing. She took over the business. Her son came home to help. She got advice from a family friend, Hartwell Parham, and she later married him. He died in 1981.
Eventually, Parham made the decision to close the Dayton paper to concentrate on the Herald. She went to New York City to solicit business from national advertisers. The newspaper covered Blacks and their concerns as Cincinnati and other major American cities struggled to address longstanding problems: racism, decay, economic inequity, violence and a political system that seemed unable to produce solutions. She imposed on the editorial side a clear mandate: know the truth.
“She was a force to be reckoned with,” said Kearney. “She really needed that kind of personality in order to deal with rejection and to keep going.”
A busy retirement
When she was honored as a Great Living Cincinnatian in 2007, she reflected in her acceptance speech that she was keenly aware of the special task of a Black newspaper. “One reason why a black paper has been so vital is that, without it, the only kind of news we could get in the newspaper was bad news,” she said. “The satisfaction you get is the ability to present what the major media does not present to the public. I had the privilege of showcasing the good things.”
She traveled extensively for business and saw herself as an ambassador for Cincinnati. Her granddaughter, Dr. Rhonda Spillers Washington, remembered, “She used to have a big world map with pins in the places where she visited, just pins upon pins upon pins, everywhere.”
In 1993 Parham retired from day-to-day operations, holding the title of publisher emerita, and her son took over as publisher and president. Her leadership never waned, though. In 1994, someone firebombed the Herald’s offices. The culprit was never arrested. One of the first calls Parham received in the wake of the violence came from The Enquirer’s then-publisher, Harry Whipple, who promised to help publish the Herald.
“That was the kind of respect she had in the business community,” Kearney said.
In 1996, the Herald was in good financial health and had built circulation to 25,000 weekly readers. But technology and challenges in the advertising climate grew steeper, and after more than three decades, Parham and her son sold the newspaper to Sesh Communications, which kept Parham’s title at the top of the masthead. She even made collection calls to advertisers late on their invoices on behalf of the new owners.
In retirement, Parham filled her life with civic tasks, chairing the board of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, and taking leadership roles with the Urban League, the American Red Cross and scout organizations. Honors and appreciations showered upon her, among them the key to the city of Cincinnati.
“I have three boxes of medals and awards in my house that belong to her,” said Washington. “At her 100th birthday party, we put some of them out. But there was no way could I put them all out.”
Besides her daughter, of Cincinnati, survivors include grandson Ed Spillers (LaLeatha) of Grand Rapids, Michigan; niece Sandra Samson of Dayton, Ohio; six great-grandsons and one great-granddaughter.
A visitation service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, April 23 at the event center of Spring Grove Cemetery. Memorial donations may be made to the National Association of Black Journalists.