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Ruth Washington Dies; Was Sentinel Publisher

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ruth Washington, publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, once the second-largest black newspaper in the United States, died Friday of cancer. She was 76.

Mrs. Washington, who 16 years ago succeeded her husband as publisher, died in the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital Chalet after a long hospitalization.

“Although we were aware that Mrs. Washington was gravely ill, her death has still left us all in the state of shock and grief,” Sentinel Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Thomas said. “Indeed, the news of her passing has sent shock waves throughout the entire black community of Los Angeles and the newspaper industry as well.”

The Sentinel, which has slipped in recent years to a circulation of about 25,000 from its peak of 56,000 in the 1960s, was founded in 1933 by civil rights activist Leon Washington, who married Mrs. Washington in 1940.

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She was given some control over the paper when he suffered a stroke in 1948, later served as business manager when he returned to the helm and was named publisher after her husband died in 1974 of another stroke.

“I always say that the Sentinel is like a family,” Mrs. Washington told The Times in 1981. “By that I mean it belongs to us and it belongs to the people, just like a child belongs to a family. That’s what makes it such a beautiful paper.”

While assisting her husband, and in her role as publisher, Mrs. Washington became the matriarch of black society in Los Angeles. She made sure the paper was a place where blacks could turn for steady coverage of community-oriented programs, fund-raisers and social events, even as blacks continued to move from the inner city and integration reduced circulation.

“Her whole existence is that L.A. Sentinel. That is her life’s work,” Sentinel executive Thomas told The Times several years ago.

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Along with Ethel Bradley, wife of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and legislator Maxine Waters, Mrs. Washington was a co-founder of the Black Women’s Forum. She also was a major fund-raiser for the 28th Street/Crenshaw YMCA.

At the newspaper’s East 43rd Street plant, more than 1,000 honorary plaques and certificates were displayed and stacked in her office, presented to the paper for its longstanding advocacy of civil rights.

“We’ve tried to do exactly for the community what Mr. Washington would have wanted us to do,” Mrs. Washington said. “That’s what keeps us going.”

In the mid-1960s, Mrs. Washington attempted to ease the youth-gang problems in South-Central Los Angeles by meeting with gang members and inviting them to express their views in the Sentinel.

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Mrs. Washington tenaciously retained control of the newspaper despite a bitter 13-year probate court battle by her husband’s sister and illegitimate son--his only child--to wrest it from her.

Her husband’s will had bequeathed to her 80% of the newspaper’s stock, leaving 20% to his sister, Juanita Goodman, and son, Lynn Washington. The two attempted to oust Mrs. Washington as administrator of her husband’s estate, charging, among other things, that her stewardship had hurt the price of the stock.

In 1983, struggling with mounting debts for the weekly paper, Mrs. Washington placed her longtime attorney, Thomas, in control. He agreed to pay the debts and keep the paper afloat. As part of the deal, she received a lifetime contract as publisher and some income from real estate.

Leon Washington’s sister and son were unhappy with the arrangement. They wanted the paper sold.

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In 1987, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald E. Swearinger resolved the dispute, ruling that Mrs. Washington had rightfully inherited the paper and could legally do with it as she wished. The paper remained under Thomas’ control as chief executive officer--with her as publisher.

A native of Salina, Kan., she was trained in business and operated a photography studio before joining her husband at the Sentinel.

Mrs. Washington is survived by one sister, Bernadette Plummer of Portland, Ore., three nieces and four nephews.

The Sentinel will present a tribute to Mrs. Washington at 11 a.m. today in the Century Plaza Hotel, during its previously planned annual holiday bazaar.

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