By Stacy M. Brown (NNPA Newswire Contributor) and Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
He was a young and dynamic newspaper publisher who had dreams to change Tennessee’s largest Black city. At a time when advertisers and millennials flock- ed to the internet to find out what’s going on in Memphis, Bernal E. Smith II, saw that Black newspapers still had value and power to change the lives of millions of readers in the digital age.
Like the pioneers before him, Smith at just 41years old set out to make headlines and bought struggling Black newspaper as others cut back or closed from declining readership and advertising revenue. While media moguls were busy trying to sell newspapers, Smith was bent on buying them.
Four years into his grand vision for the future of the New Tri-State Defender, Smith’s life came to a sudden end. Smith died on Sunday, October 22. He was 45. On the New Tri-State Defender’s website, Smith’s wife, Towanda, said doctors attributed her husband’s death to natural causes.
This weekend, Black publishers and journalist will take a break from their busy schedules and say goodbye to Smith, whose enormous faith inspired many to believe again in an aging medium that has been written off in modern times. As the young President and CEO of the New Tri-State Defender, he boldly connected the rich past of the Black Press with its present. While his death left many shocked and saddened, Smith’s newspaper lives on, a testament to an enduring legacy that proves hard work and old values should always be the backbone of a landmark institution. Now, many are ready to give Smith a powerful sendoff.
His funeral will be held at noon on Friday, October 27 at the Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood, where Smith was a member. The church is located at 620 Parkrose Rd. in Memphis. On Thursday, October 26, a visitation will be held at the church from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Smith will be buried in Memphis’ New Park Cemetery, the final resting of several prominent sports figures and musicians, including Jimmy King and Phalon Jones, the founding member of the R&B Group the Bar-Kays.
Smith bought the New Tri-State Defender in 2013 from Real Times Media. Over the years The newspaper bagged a string of honors from the NNPA annual merit awards. Young and full of energy, his death shocked the staff and management of the New Tri-State Defender.
“The New Tri-State Defender and its management board was devastated when we learned that Mr. Smith had passed,” associate publisher Karanja Ajanaku said in a statement along with Calvin Anderson, the president of Best Media Properties, the Defender’s parent company.
Smith was members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, where he was known as serious and dedicated member of the fourth estate. As of Crusader press time Wednesday, the organization’s chairman, Dorothy R. Leavell and President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis were finalizing plans to attend Smith’s funeral.
“I am personally saddened by the death of our comrade and publisher Bernal Smith,” said Leavell, who’s also the publisher of the Crusader newspapers in Chicago. “He was just elected vice chairman in June and we were looking forward to working closely with him to find solutions for the future of our beloved Black Press.”
Like many Black publishers, Leavell was shocked by Smith’s death.
“We shall miss him so much,” said Leavell.
Chavis said that the entire NNPA family of African American publishers across the nation deeply mourns Smith’s death.
“As publisher of the New Tri-State Defender in Memphis, Smith represented the journalistic genius of a freedom-fighting publisher, who was dedicated to the empowerment of Black America,” Chavis said. “Long live the spirit of Bernal Smith.”
Joy Bramble, publisher of The Baltimore Times, said she was simply shocked by the news of Smith’s death.
“I was just working with him on some things, I just can’t believe it,” Bramble said.
Rosetta Perry, the publisher of the Tennessee Tribune, called Smith a true friend and a bright light.
“When I met him, we just clicked and I was comfortable with him, like I had known him my whole life, and I didn’t have to pretend to be anyone or anything,” Perry said. “That voice that we loved to hear at our meetings and training sessions is now still. Bernal’s place at the board of directors’ meetings will now be vacant, but he will live forever in our hearts.”
Karen Carter Richards, publisher of the Houston Forward Times and 1st vice chair of the NNPA, said that she asked Smith to run for 2nd vice chair of the NNPA, this year, because of his vision and talents.
Richards said that she wasn’t surprised when he won the election for the post, because of his infectious personality and great abilities.
“I am devastated. Bernal was my friend and he was a visionary, who was smart, energetic, kind and definitely the future of NNPA,” Richards said.
Richards continued: “His innovative ideas made us click. At the request of Bernal, I flew to Memphis last year to attend his Best in Black Awards show. He wanted me to recreate the show in Houston and we were going to partner and bring his great awards show to the city of Houston.”
Broadcast executive and Wave newspaper publisher Pluria Marshall said Smith was one of NNPA’s up and coming publishers.
“He was about business,” said Marshall. “He added value when he spoke on issues related to NNPA and his recent election to the executive team was a clear sign of his rising star.”
Marshall added: “He will be sorely missed.”
Hiram Jackson of Real Times Media, who sold Smith the New Tri-State Defender, called Smith’s passing a sad day for the future of the Black Press.
“Bernal Smith represented the future of our industry and he was one of the most innovative publishers I knew and I recognized his gifts immediately,” Jackson said. “I will miss his friendship and his contagious enthusiasm about Black people.”
A graduate of Rhodes College, who also earned a master’s of business administration from Union University, Smith led a local group that purchased the New Tri-State Defender from Real Times Media in 2013.
Smith mentored inner-city youth and once served as president of the 100 Black Men of Memphis.
In a joint statement, Denise Rolark Barnes and D. Kevin McNeir, the publisher and the editor of The Washington Informer, respectively, said in a statement that Smith “As one of the younger publishers of the NNPA, his enthusiasm and dedication were essential to our overall growth and continued existence. His death leaves a void that will be difficult, if not impossible to fill. But his spirit will live on as will our memories of him—a proud, talented Black man who loved his people and his community and who diligently gave his all each and every day on behalf of the Black Press.”
NNPA Newswire writer Stacy M. Brown contributed to this report.