The sudden death of Crusader Founder and Publisher Balm L. Leavell in 1968 ushered in a painful transition at the 78-year old newspaper
By Erick Johnson
To many he was a dashing newspaper publisher who wasn’t afraid to print stories that angered the political establishment. As Blacks pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to desegregate the military on the cusp of World War II, Balm L. Leavell Jr., started the Chicago Crusader in a small apartment in the Ida B. Wells projects, in June 1940. Four months earlier, Chicago Defender publisher Robert S. Abbott died of Bright’s disease, in the city where he founded the iconic Black publication that became a towering symbol of the Black Press.
Abbott’s death triggered a power struggle at the Defender where his successor John H. Sengstacke won a legal battle to take the newspaper out of the hands of Edna Rose Denison Abbott, the widow of Robert S. Abbott, who filed a lawsuit to gain control of the publication after her husband died.
Edna Rose Denison Abbott died a heartbroken woman in 1944. She was buried in then segregated Oak Woods Cemetery, some 12 miles north from where her newspaper publisher husband lay at Lincoln Cemetery, historically the final resting place of Chicago’s Black elite. Twenty-eight years later, Leavell would also be laid to rest there, joining Robert S. Abbott and Anthony Overton, publisher of the defunct Black newspaper, the Chicago Bee.
Like Robert S. Abbott’s, Leavell’s death shocked Black Chicago and a similar power struggle played out behind the scenes at the Chicago Crusader. Today, Dorothy R. Leavell remains the publisher who has steered the newspaper through some difficult times.
On Thursday, October 25, Dorothy marked her 50th anniversary as publisher of the Chicago Crusader and Gary Crusader. Her achievement came at a painful cost, occurring when her husband died two days after her birthday on October 25,, 1968.
The two had been married for just five years before death broke them apart and left Leavell a single Black mother with two children to raise, and two newspapers to run in male dominated industry. As she celebrates a milestone in her publishing career, the 50th anniversary of the death of Balm L. Leavell Jr. also remains a significant cornerstone, marked with silence and reflection of a painful chapter in the Crusader’s 78-year history.
It came six months after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Just two years earlier, the Chicago Crusader had marked its silver anniversary with a 100-page issue commemorating 25 years of service.
In 1968, Balm had been in and out of Michael Reese Hospital in Bronzeville. In July 1968, he had undergone exploratory surgery that revealed that Balm had stage four pancreatic cancer. He was in the hospital and awake for his wife’s 24th birthday on October 23. The next day, Balm slipped into a coma. On Friday October 25, 1968 Balm died with his wife by his side. Dorothy was left to raise Antonio Leavell age three, and Genice Leavell two, by herself.
In the November 2, 1968 edition of the Chicago Crusader, Associate Editor Joseph Jefferson wrote a moving column about the late fiery publisher that he met in 1938 when Balm was organizer of the Dining Car Waiters Union. The two campaigned against discrimination in the Motion Picture Operator Unions, local theatres, the Milk Wagon Drivers union, city wide milk dairies and several major daily publications.
In that same column, Jefferson said that in 1940 they conceived the idea of “establishing a news media or house organ that would give complete and sincere coverage to the activities of the Negro Labor Relations League.” The Crusader was born, and as a one-page newspaper, it was free for 17 years.
The newspaper would wage campaigns against unscrupulous pawnbrokers in the Black community and an effort to get six Black beer distributing companies to handle name brand products. The Crusader also launched campaigns that led to more Black truck drivers on the South Side for the Pabst Brewing Company. The Crusader also forced the Agar Packing Company to break its “No Black Women Wanted Policy” by printing negative articles during the height of chitterling season where Blacks boycotted the popular soul food. Not only did the Agar Packing Company break its discriminatory policy, it hired Black women in its office as well as its packing plant.
Then after nearly three decades of crusading for Black Chicago, Balm was gone. His flamboyant persona, maverick leadership style and dapper looks left a big void in the Black Press.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Balm attended Fisk University and had planned to study medicine. He moved to Chicago in 1930 and became a close friend with the big leader of the Teamsters Union, James Hoffa. Prior to creating the Crusader, Balm worked in the liquor and beverage industry. When Balm died, mourners included people from all walks of life.
There was a 24-hour wake at the First Deliverance Church in Bronzeville. Visitors from across Chicago and the U.S. came to give their final respects.
The funeral was held the next day, Wednesday, October 30 inside the same church. According to Dorothy, there were nearly 100 floral arrangements that flooded the choir stage, the side aisles and around Balm’s casket. Daily Defender Publisher John Sengstacke and Mayor Richard J. Daley were among dozens of dignitaries who packed the church.
His 24-year old wife, clad in all Black and a veil, led the mourners to Lincoln Cemetery, where her husband was entombed in a mausoleum.
The funeral was reported on the Crusader’s front page on November 2, 1968. Under the masthead, the headline read, the “Impressive Rites Held For Publisher Balm Leavell, Jr.” On page four, Balm’s name and title in the staff box was still present. It would be several weeks before readers would see just the names of Associate Editor Joseph Jefferson, Managing Editor Theodore Charles Stone and Women’s Editor Gladys P. Graham. Balm’s name would be gone and the battle for future leadership of the newspaper had already begun.
Balm had four children from a previous marriage. They wanted ownership of the newspaper and tried to block Dorothy’s efforts to succeed her husband in gaining control of the Chicago Crusader and Gary Crusader, and made threats to the grieving widow during the funeral and the days that followed. They also wanted to bar Dorothy from her husband’s bedside as he lay dying.
The children then filed a lawsuit to try to become the executor of Balm’s estate, which included the Crusader newspapers. Judge Richard Gumbel, the father of former Today Show host and prominent journalist Bryant Gumbel and his brother, sportscaster Greg Gumbel, made Crusader co-publisher Joseph Jefferson executor of the estate.
With a majority interest in the company and as executor of Balm’s estate, Jefferson threw his weight behind Dorothy in selecting her to succeed her husband as publisher. The rest is history.