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California

Newsletter: The man who built Sacramento’s African American newspaper

William Lee standing outside the first Sacramento Observer building in 1985.
William Lee standing outside the first Sacramento Observer building in 1985.
(Sacramento Observer)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Oct. 3, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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This week, hundreds of mourners came to St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church in Sacramento to pay their respects to William Lee, the man who founded the city’s African American newspaper. Lee died last month at 83.

At some level, he (or she) who owns the newspaper decides what stories are told. It’s a truth as old as the printing press, albeit one that has slightly atomized in our internet age.

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But it was especially true in 1962, when Lee founded the Sacramento Observer. It was a time when African American voices were still largely absent from the dominant narrative of Sacramento.

“There were no African Americans on TV, no African Americans writing for the Sacramento Union or the Bee, no black judges or elected officials,” Lee said of the paper’s founding in a 2013 interview. “There was no way for our community to see hope and realize there were opportunities.”

The weekly paper, which Lee became the sole publisher of in 1965, was slow-going at first, but by 1973 the Observer was named the country’s leading African American newspaper by the National Newspaper Publishers Assn. It was an honor it would receive six times.

[See also: “A Sacramento lighthouse: William Lee, founder of city’s African American newspaper, dies” in the Sacramento Bee]

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The record of Sacramento history is different because the Observer was there to report it.

“If you could imagine when the Black Panthers were walking into the California Statehouse with guns, the story you might read in the black press would be very different than the story you’re going to read in the dominant white press,” Cal State Sacramento University Library director Amy Kautzman, who helped bring the paper’s archives to the city, explained.

But the Observer was also there for the ordinary and intimate, doing neighborhood-level reporting that put African American lives at the center. “The births, the deaths, the graduations ... none of those things were captured by the mainstream newspapers, the Bee or the [now-defunct] Union or anybody like that,” Lee’s son Larry Lee, who now runs the paper, said.

DrLeeObserver2013.jpg
William Lee, right, and his son Larry Lee outside the Sacramento Observer building in 2013.
(Sacramento Observer)

William Lee was known as an advocate and local power broker as well as a publisher, and the Observer played a central role in African American culture in the city for decades. During the paper’s heyday, any African American celebrity who came to the city came to the Observer. It was “almost a rite of passage,” said Larry Lee.

It relocated a few years ago to a new building in Del Paso Heights, but the Observer’s Oak Park office was a destination for visiting dignitaries and locals alike for decades.

“Dr. Lee had this thing where — and he would always tell me this — he believed in making the office in the summer cool and comfortable, and in the winter, warm and toasty,” Wilma Whitfield, Lee’s longtime assistant, recalled.

He wanted people to feel like they were at home when they came through the paper’s office doors, she said. It was a place where potlucks were held and people would stop by unannounced and stay for hours.

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William Lee’s “life was the Observer, believe me when I tell you that,” Whitfield said. “He gave his whole life to this paper.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

Los Angeles officials will void nearly 2 million minor citations and warrants that had kept people trapped in the court system. The announcement is designed to fix a system that has led to many people being repeatedly ticketed and arrested for minor infractions, leading to growing fines and warrants. For homeless people, that has created roadblocks to accessing housing and services. Los Angeles Times

Plácido Domingo is out at the L.A. Opera amid an ongoing sexual harassment inquiry. The 78-year-old opera legend announced Wednesday that he is resigning as general director of Los Angeles Opera and withdrawing from future performances. The arc of Domingo’s fall started in mid-August, when the first wave of allegations against Domingo broke in an Associated Press report in which one named singer and eight anonymous women described unwanted groping, kissing, persistent requests for private meetings and damage to careers if sexual advances were rebuffed. More accusers have since come forward. Domingo has called the allegations “inaccurate.” Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Ed Buck was indicted Wednesday on federal charges in connection with a second overdose death at his West Hollywood home, just weeks after he was arrested on state drug charges. Los Angeles Times

Meet the safest driver in Los Angeles: This Downey woman faced off against 11,500 other entrants who reside in, or drive in and near, the city of Los Angeles, and emerged as the most traffic-law-abiding of them all. New York Times

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The story behind the post-Emmys photo of Phoebe Waller-Bridge that conquered the internet. (You know which one I’m talking about — she’s holding a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, surrounded by Emmys.) The Hollywood Reporter

How L.A. became the land of strip malls: As car ownership boomed, unremarkable commercial centers became an integral part of the city’s landscape. Curbed LA

Tom of Finland spent his final decade living and working in a Craftsman in Echo Park. Today, the house is part of what’s billed as the world’s largest repository of erotic art. Los Angeles Times

Lana Del Rey on her love for the Eagles and all things California, her new boyfriend and the righteous anger of Greta Thunberg. Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.

IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER

A 37-year-old man from Cameroon died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in San Diego after suffering a brain hemorrhage Tuesday. The death is the first in ICE custody in the new fiscal year, which began Tuesday. BuzzFeed

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

California cities and counties will be allowed to establish public banks under a bill signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, making California only the second U.S. state to allow such institutions. Los Angeles Times

Newsom also signed legislation to tighten the rules for utility power shutoffs as California grapples with more frequent planned outages when potentially dangerous wildfire conditions exist. Los Angeles Times

Sacramento-area youths can now ride Regional Transit for free as part of a one-year program that aims to reduce truancy and ease obstacles in getting to school. Sacramento Bee

CRIME AND COURTS

A Contra Costa County prosecutor dismissed every black person from a jury pool. An appeals court said it was legal. Mercury News

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Car tires are the biggest likely source of microplastics in California coastal waters. That is one of many new findings, released Wednesday, from the most comprehensive study to date on microplastics in California. Los Angeles Times

California has more water stored in its reservoirs than it did a year ago after a marathon wet winter that pounded the state with rain and blanketed its mountain ranges with snow. Statewide reservoir water storage is 128% of average. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hooked Greta Thunberg up with a Tesla to ferry the teen climate activist around North America this month. Car and Driver

A critic’s guide to eating at the Laney College Flea Market on Sunday mornings in Oakland. East Bay Express

In the Coachella Valley, the Catholic Church seeks to connect with the indigenous Purépecha community. Purépecha is a language and the name of the pre-Hispanic people of the Central Mexican state of Michoacán, and there are an estimated 1,500 Purépechas living in the Coachella region. Religion News

From the Department of Meta: A list of the world’s most Instagrammed company headquarters (as calculated from geotagging data) reveals that No. 1 and 2 spots are held by ... the Menlo Park offices of Facebook and Instagram. Inc.

Every year, Jews symbolically cast their sins in water to observe the atonement ritual of tashlich. But in the desert of Palm Springs, finding a suitable body of water can present some challenges. Enter the koi pond at Billy Reed’s Restaurant and Bar, which has reportedly been drawing atonement-seekers for decades. “This time of year they often come for the koi pond, do their penitence, and then stay for a meal,” the owner said. Desert Sun

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 79. San Diego: sunny, 73. San Francisco: windy, 68. San Jose: sunny, 72. Sacramento: sunny, 78. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Stacy Samuels:

“Eighteen years old, early 1980s, driving over Topanga Canyon Boulevard, cassette player playing ‘Los Angeles’ by X, sun shining, windows down and the Santa Ana winds blowing through my hair. I was struggling, but in those moments I was invincible!”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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