COLUMBIA — Timm Hudspeth used to be a vocal community activist who ran for the Columbia School Board in 1991 and had a KOPN/89.5 FM radio show.
But now, writing is his only activism. Hudspeth said he got tired of the mainstream media giving the last word to his opposition, so he switched gears.
"It made me stop and think, why do I do this?" Hudspeth said. "Instead of talking to the newspaper, I just started my own newspaper."
Hudspeth looked at the problems he saw in Columbia — racism, unemployment, crime and a lack of role models for youth — and decided he had to be heard. He has published The Community Voice, an African-American newspaper known as "Columbia's voice of diversity," on and off for about 21 years.
The free newspaper comes out every three to four months, when Hudspeth distributes copies to black-owned businesses and black churches. So far this year, Hudspeth has released January and April issues of about eight pamphlet pages each. He's been the main writer, editor, designer and distributor all these years, struggling to find people to contribute to his newspaper.
The operation isn't cheap. Hudspeth prints about 1,500 copies of every issue at Kinko's, which comes to a cost of about $300. Advertising covers some of that, but the rest Hudspeth pays out of pocket.
Beyond finances, each issue takes time from Hudspeth's tight schedule, which includes two jobs: working as a teacher's aide at John B. Lange Middle School and running a computer repair shop. He has found producing a newspaper on top of that can be exhausting, but he doesn't see it as a burden. He has always felt compelled to write, even after he grew weary of other types of community activism, he said.
"To be a black activist in Columbia is a lonely job," Hudspeth said. "You work hard, you try things and when you find out you have very little support, you go away for a while. I've seen people move and go elsewhere."
But Hudspeth, 54, cares too much about Columbia to leave. "My gift is writing," he said. "I just felt like I should use my gift."
Commitment to community
The Community Voice reader and writer Verna Laboy said the newspaper resonates with African-Americans in Columbia because Hudspeth belongs to the culture he's writing about.
"It's not from a college student, a journalist who hasn't had the experience — it's from your neighbor," Laboy said of the paper. "It's been around for a long time, and it's just something that's part of the fabric of our community. It speaks to us in our language in a way we understand. It's coming to us as someone who understands our issues."
Hudspeth's friend Jason Bailey, formerly a Columbia resident who is now executive editor of the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl crime newspaper, said Hudspeth isn't afraid to criticize the African-American community. However, he said Hudspeth's relatable nature earns him respect for his opinions in the newspaper and in the classroom.
Bailey once taught at Fun City Youth Academy with Hudspeth, who has taught summer school there for seven years. Bailey said Hudspeth is realistic when he talks to teenagers about the consequences of their decisions, similar to the way he talks frankly in his editorials.
"He would say it in a way that it wasn't preaching, but it was your uncle telling you," Bailey said. "He deserved the respect, and kids would give it to him."
Hudspeth's concern for youth comes through in his writing. In his April issue, Hudspeth wrote about how more African-American men are behind bars today than were in slavery in 1850. It's a problem Hudspeth has personally observed: He once asked a classroom of mostly African-American male students whether they knew a man older than 25 who had never been in prison, and nobody raised a hand.
"There's communal peer pressure that says it's OK if you go to prison," Hudspeth said. "I say in one of my editorials, no, it's not all good. I've never spent one night in somebody's jail or prison. A lot of our young men are growing up thinking it's almost inevitable that they will. Somebody's got to change their perception."
Determined to endure
The idea of stopping The Community Voice doesn't seem to occur to Hudspeth. Although there are dry periods when Hudspeth can't find any content for months at a time, someone usually comes along with a new article, inspiring him to keep going.
"Whenever I think it's over, he pops up with another edition," Laboy said.
Bailey from the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl said he admires the firm resolve and selflessness Hudspeth has to invest so much time and energy in The Community Voice.
"I've always noticed, it's not that he's happy-go-lucky, but he's upbeat in the sense that he refuses to be stopped," Bailey said. "He doesn't make any excuses, he just moves forward. That makes him such a good example, not just for black people but for all people."
Still, Hudspeth said he doesn't get an overwhelming amount of feedback. People tell him they like The Community Voice, but that's about it. Hudspeth said he doesn't expect more, though.
"We're a very private type of person, black people are," Hudspeth said. "I got on an elevator with Marlon Jackson (of The Jackson 5) and said, 'What's going on?'"
But Hudspeth wishes more people would write in to The Community Voice so he could start a deeper conversation. (People interested in doing that can reach Hudspeth via the paper's website, columbiacommunityvoice.webs.com.) As it is, Hudspeth is lucky to get an editorial written by a Columbia resident other than himself.
"That's been my problem, trying to get people to say the things they say to me in the grocery store, to say it in the newspaper," Hudspeth said. "If you can get people that have common goals, then maybe they can come together and do some things that are important and life-changing in the community."
When asked what keeps him going, Hudspeth didn't hesitate. "Hope," he said.
"Hope that the black community can come together to do something that brings jobs for our youth, activity for our elders," Hudspeth said. "The hope that we can be a community of people that are vibrant. That's my hope. Every year, I see spring come around like this, and think, it's time for us to get out and start doing some things."
Other African-American newspapers
Although The Community Voice might be the longest-run African-American newspaper started in Columbia, it's far from the only one. Local African-American newspapers date back to at least 1902, when one paper that lasted two to three years started; another appeared briefly in the 1940s, according to a Nov. 25, 1990, Columbia Daily Tribune article about The Community Voice.
More recently, William E. (Gene) Robertson, an MU emeritus professor, started a monthly African-American newspaper called The Trumpet in 2007. Robertson continued for about three years, distributing about 500 copies per issue, before he decided he didn't have enough support to consistently publish it.
The Trumpet, a longer publication of six full newspaper pages, faced some of the same problems as The Community Voice. Robertson found he couldn't rely on other writers, designers and editors to produce content for him on time, and he was disappointed The Trumpet didn't start more dialogue. Sometimes, he would hand a copy to someone only to watch the person leave it behind.
Even so, Robertson said more people responded as The Trumpet grew.
"As my paper got better, people would start calling me and saying, 'oh, my aunt died,' 'so-in-so's in jail,' 'somebody's doing something over there and make sure you write about that,'" Robertson said.
Robertson continues to distribute the African-American newspaper St. Louis American in Columbia as he has for the past 20 years. He also contributes regularly to the Missourian's op-ed page, often writing about race.
Hudspeth said it isn't about who's running the local African-American newspaper, but rather getting people's voices out there. He said he'd gladly contribute to another paper, but for the moment, The Community Voice is the only African-American newspaper in Columbia.
"I want voices from the community, not just mine," Hudspeth said. "I talk too much."
When asked how long he'll be producing The Community Voice, Hudspeth said he'd never really thought about it and took a moment to think it over.
"As long as there's black-owned businesses that want advertising or anyone who wants to speak to the black community," he said, "I'll be around."