Chester Arthur Franklin

Author: 
University of Kansas
  • Date of birth: June 7, 1880
  • Place of birth: Denison, Texas
  • Home: 2447 Montgall Ave., then above The Call’s offices at 1715-17 E. 18th St.
  • Claim to fame: publisher and editor of the Kansas City Call, weekly African American newspaper
  • Also known as: C.A. Franklin, Chester A. Franklin
  • Political affiliations: Republican
  • Spouse: Ada Crogman Franklin
  • Date of death: May 7, 1955
  • Final resting place: Highland Cemetery in Kansas City, MO

Chester Arthur Franklin was a leading African American editor and publisher of the Kansas City Call, who used his newspaper platform to advocate for systemic change and equity, both for Kansas City’s black community and for African Americans nationwide. By the time of his death in 1955, Franklin had served as a prominent publisher over 30 years and was heavily impressed in Kansas City’s memory as an editor, activist, and leader.

Chester Franklin outside the Call office
Chester Franklin outside The Call office. Courtesy of the American Jazz Museum.

Born June 7, 1880, in Denison, Texas, Franklin grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. Franklin’s parents at one point planned to migrate to the freedmen’s settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas, but en route in 1887 decided to settle in Omaha, Nebraska, where Chester graduated from high school and where George Franklin (Chester’s father) ran a barbershop before undertaking newspaper publishing. George Franklin began publishing a black weekly paper, Omaha Enterprise, in 1891, and according to his son, this planted the seeds and experience for his own career with print. Chester Franklin attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for two years, but at that point George Franklin’s health began to fail, and Chester moved back home to jointly run the Omaha Enterprise with his mother, Clara.

The Franklin family moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1898, hoping the climate would improve George’s health. The Franklins purchased local paper Colorado Statesman and changed the name to the Star; according to Charles Coulter, the paper became a state-wide fixture for African Americans and influenced progressive changes within the state. After George’s death in 1901, Chester and Clara continued to operate the Star over a 12-year period, but Chester had sights on a larger market composed of black consumers in Kansas City.

Upon his move, Franklin quickly began establishing himself in the Kansas City community. While World War I momentarily delayed a newspaper business for Franklin, he opened a printing business at 1408 Main St. in 1913, began speaking and attending organizational events within the area, and later founded the Kansas City Call in May 1919. The Call building was originally at 1311 East 18th St., but moved to 1715-17 East 18th St. in 1922, where its headquarters would remain throughout the 20th century. The original press was in a room that measured 20 by 40 feet, and the first edition of The Call was four pages, with 2,000 copies printed despite a substantial hurdle with set up; Kansas City’s printers’ union, an all-white body, would not assist Franklin with the press. Lucile Bluford, well-known journalist, civil rights activist, and eventual editor and owner of The Call, wrote that the first copy’s subscribers were members of Franklin’s Paseo YMCA volleyball team. After playing a game one day, Franklin reportedly said,

Fellows, I’m going to begin publishing a newspaper next week, and I’d like all of you to give me a lift by subscribing to it.

Through word of mouth and Clara Franklin’s door-to-door salesmanship, subscriptions grew. According to historian Charles Coulter, Franklin’s philosophy may have been more conservative than its audience, but The Call struck a solid chord with black readers. Coulter describes Franklin’s expression through the paper as “a mixture of fervent Republicanism with a strong dose of personal responsibility and black economic self-help.” The Call became one of the country’s largest circulated black weeklies, and by 1940 the number of sold copies had increased to 20,000 papers a week. The number of readers was quite impressive considering that the population of African Americans in the Kansas City metropolitan area was just 70,000 at this time. Through the paper, Franklin served to represent, promote, and advocate for Kansas City’s black community.

Charles Coulter gives Chester Franklin and another progressive black editor, Nelson Crews, credit for bolstering Kansas City’s black community during the 1920s. When Franklin released his first issue of The Call, Crews was editor of the already established Kansas City Sun (its publication beginning in 1914.) Both editors were considered “race men,” well-respected and educated leaders campaigning for racial pride, as well as for better access and conditions for the black community. They were both also “staunch Republicans” whose editorials spoke to and for their community members, often urging for activism and response to local and national issues. As individuals, both Franklin and Nelson Crews directly inserted themselves into local causes and organizations, including attending events for Wheatley-Provident Hospital, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Lincoln High School, the black YMCA and YWCA, and the Urban League.

C.A. Franklin with Baird and Wilkinson
Chester Franklin, center, meeting with Kansas City Monarchs co-owner Tom Baird and Monarchs founder J.L. Wilkinson. Courtesy of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas.

Rounding out the black newspapers in the 1920s was the Kansas City American, published by Democratic politician and physician William J. Thompkins and Pendergast machine-affiliate Felix Payne. Payne was known as a gambler but was also apparently generous with his money. He was one of the charter members of the Paseo YMCA, and he served on the board of directors of the Wheatley-Provident Hospital during the 1920s. Payne provided the finances for the American, hoping to rival the Republican Call with a Democrat publication, and Thompkins controlled day-to-day operations. The American openly supported statewide and nationwide Democratic candidates. While Nelson Crews apparently held impressive oratory and self-promotional skills, and while Payne and Thompkins had access to large sums of money, it was The Call that would last to the present day, whereas the Sun shut down in 1925, two years after Crews’ death, and the Kansas City American shut down in 1941, several years after Thompkins departed to become Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D.C. Without their strong leaders, the Sun and the American disintegrated.

According to staff members at The Call, Franklin built a strong base at his paper through instruction and support of young black journalists. He apparently gave opportunities to many young people beginning their careers at The Call, and through his guidance and teaching, several of his employees developed skillsets for further professional positions. Roy Wilkins was a journalism graduate fresh from the University of Minnesota, and he found a strong start as a new reporter at the newspaper. Franklin apparently took Wilkins’ feedback and insight to heart; after some time at the paper, Wilkins would voice opinions about editorial decisions and front-page news, and he was taken seriously enough that his opinions resulted in some editorial changes to content and scope of stories. Wilkins later became editor for The Call, then chief editor of the NAACP’s publication, Crisis, and finally executive director of the NAACP. Franklin also invited a young Lucile Bluford to The Call. She had briefly worked at the Kansas City American, and she quickly moved up in The Call’s ranks from reporter to managing editor, and later editor, owner, and publisher. In fact, upon Franklin’s death, he left Bluford stock in The Call along with directions for her to have first opportunity to purchase additional shares.

Throughout his career in print, and until his death, Franklin saw himself as affecting change in Kansas City. Franklin and The Call were critical of political machinations, including Tom Pendergast's Democratic machine involvement in crime and violence in the Kansas City area. About the role of black presses, Franklin said,

All Negro newspapers are crusaders. The serious Negro editor never asks for issues to charge his batteries; the issues are all around him. His hardest task is to concentrate on his efforts on one reform at a time, to keep him from scattering his shots.

Franklin certainly advocated for widespread reform, including campaigning for better housing, business and employment opportunities, and school facilities and resources for African Americans. More specifically, Franklin fought against the state’s refusal to admit black students to state universities and segregated schools. He advocated for higher wages and better housing, citing them as solutions to lower crime rates. During the 1920s and 1930s, The Call and Franklin were credited with providing actual change. The Call’s editorials reportedly forced the courts to end a long tradition of banning African Americans from jury service. They also advocated for the right to purchase and reside in homes regardless of segregated neighborhoods. After urging from Wilkins, the African American community also boycotted a local bakery frequented by black patrons because the owners refused to hire black truck drivers. The boycott was a success, and more employment opportunities were made available to Kansas City’s black population.

Franklin was also an avid golf player, and segregation proved to make that difficult for him, as well. At one point in his life, he would regularly drive to Minneapolis to play on public golf courses that allowed black players. In Kansas City black players were not allowed on public golf courses, although their taxes went to them. Franklin was a regular player at the “No. 2” course in Swope Park. Describing travel under Jim Crow and other discriminatory practices, Franklin said,

Unless you have experienced it yourself, as I have, you can hardly realize the sting. I’ve been in some towns in our America with money in my pocket and goodness in my heart, and couldn’t find a place to buy a meal, because of my skin.

In 1925, Franklin married actress Ada Crogman, a black woman influential in her own right. Crogman was the daughter of William H. Crogman, president of historically black Clark University. When she met Franklin, Ada had written and was producing a pageant entitled “Milestones of a Race” (1924) across the nation. The pageant celebrated African American culture and historical accomplishments, and it was accompanied by music. Ada Crogman proved to be an intellectual and emotional match for Franklin. She and Roy Wilkins reportedly made Franklin more moderate in publication. While Franklin, like many editors of his day, had often featured sensationalized crime stories on the front page to draw readers, Ada Franklin and Roy Wilkins urged him to begin covering an equal amount of macabre crime stories and political news and local events that promoted Kansas City’s black community. Although her letters have not survived, some letters during the mid-1920s from Franklin to Crogman demonstrate Franklin’s affection for his wife. Franklin referred to her by pet names including his “sugarkine,” and he often discussed intellectual matters with her, including politics and business. When Franklin entered semiretirement in 1948, his wife and Lucile Bluford ran the paper. Following Franklin’s death, Ada held the title of publisher.

Celebrations of Franklin’s life at The Call and in the Kansas City community demonstrated his influence locally and nationally. After over 30 years at The Call, the Kansas City community honored Franklin at a “testimonial dinner” at St. Stephens Baptist Church. Around 350 people attended, and Alf M. Landon, former governor of Kansas and 1936 Republican nominee for U.S. president, made an appearance, along with other notable and influential people including Roy Wilkins and heads of the NAACP. The event was so notable it made headlines beyond The Call. The final “testament” to Franklin’s larger-than-life stature followed his eventual death.

On May 2, 1955, Chester Franklin suffered a heart attack, and while he appeared momentarily to recover and was seen moving within his house for a few days, he died May 7. He had led The Call and kept its philosophical charge for change over a period of 36 years. News reports noted he had been in declining health for a number of years at the end, but he always remained semi-active in the paper’s production. In the two weeks preceding his death, he had also launched a campaign against the dismissal of African American teachers in Missouri when desegregation was beginning to be implemented; multiple school boards in the state had failed to renew their contracts.

About 200 people attended Franklin’s funeral services, which were held in the pressroom of The Call. The New York Age reported, “the silent presses were a fitting background for his bier.” Hundreds of condolences were received by The Call staff, dozens of them released in the paper itself. The staff published their own eulogy that likened Franklin to family, writing:

The community and the nation mourn the death of Mr. Franklin, but it is his family at THE CALL who will miss him most. Under Mr. Franklin’s guidance, THE CALL staff was more like a family than an institution. The relationship between Mr. Franklin and his employees was warm and personal. He was more like a friend, a counselor and a father than a boss. Mr. Franklin will never die. He will live on and on through the columns of this newspaper which he founded and developed and in the hearts and memories of his employees who loved him dearly.

During the first half of the 20th century, Chester Franklin filled a need for Kansas City’s black community. He promoted racial pride and advocated for proper living and working conditions. He consistently fought against racial injustice, segregation, and discrimination, both through his publication of the Kansas City Call and his own involvement in local events and organizations. He also gave his staff opportunities to develop their own skills, to debate his editorial choices, and to create their own visions for the future of the paper and the black community. One publication, in describing Franklin’s impact on The Call, wrote: “In building his paper he built well. He built a[n] institution that will continue to be a spokesman, a teacher, an adviser, an entertainer and an informer for its vast readership.” Chester Franklin sought broad circulation, and he ultimately built a press with national reach, one that articulated racial pride and provided major changes for Kansas City’s African American community. While other competing local black presses fell into decline, shutting down during Franklin’s life, the Kansas City Call remains in print today, a lasting legacy of Chester Arthur Franklin’s decades of influence.

Acknowledgement: 
This essay was developed as part of an Applied Humanities Summer Fellowship, cosponsored by the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas.

Additional support from the Missouri Humanities Council.

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.