Father and son give a voice to the voiceless

By Misty Starks

The early 1930s marked a time in American history when the country was at the dawn of the Great Depression. Harsh racism reigned, and nearly all Blacks were out of work as job discrimination soared.  Racial violence became more commonplace as people of color saw themselves hanging from lynching trees.  It was during this time that Clifton F. Richardson Sr. created the Houston Defender newspaper. 

Richardson was born in 1897 in Marshall, Texas. He learned the basic of journalism and printing during his studies at Bishop College in his hometown.  Shortly after graduation, he married Miss Ruby Leola Rice and the two later became the parents of three sons.  

Those who knew Richardson described him as courageous, militant, and eager to address the concerns of Black Houstonians.  He fought against Black disenfranchisement and was unafraid of condemning the strongholds of oppression experienced by him and his people.  

Richardson began his journalism career with the Dallas Express.  In 1911 he moved to Houston to work for the Western Star newspaper and eventually became the first manager-editor of the Houston Observer.  In 1919 he founded the Houston Informer.  Eleven years later during a time when many Black newspapers were folding, Richardson founded the Houston Defender. 

Richardson used the paper to tell stories that would have otherwise gone untold. He published reports on the dehumanizing of Black in the familiar and militant style for which he was known.  His writings drew attention locally and nationally, eventually making him and his family the victims of threats.  Richardson even faced a coerced boycott of the Defender by his advertisers. Still, the publication prevailed.  

Richardson was known for publishing what amounted to his political platform, which called for goals such as democracy and interracial cooperation. He stood firm on his stance that the federal government should pass legislation calling for the equality of all people. Facilities on public transportation, education and the outlawing of lynchings.  

Although Richardson dedicated a great deal of time to the Houston Defender, he was also very involved in many community and social organizations and an active member of Bethe Baptist Church. In fact, he was one of the founders of the Houston Chapter of the NAACP. 

Richardson’s death in 1939 did not mark the demise of the paper.  On the contrary, his son C. F. Richardson Jr. took hold of the paper’s reigns to continue the legacy his father began.  

Where his father was brazen and unabashed, the younger Richardson was described as being soft-spoken and caring, but no less the journalist than his father. C. F. Richardson Jr. grew up in Houston’s public school system.  He went on to become an honor graduate from Bishop College where he earned a reputation as a great athlete. After college Richardson worked for several publications including the Pittsburgh Courier and Ebony Magazine.  

When Richardson Jr. took over the Houston Defender, he brought with him a perspective different from that of his father.  In keeping with the strides and advancements of Blacks in sports and entertainment, the Defender began to feature articles chronicling these triumphs, making the paper one of the most popular in the state of Texas. 

Richardson married Clarena McDonald and several years later their daughter Stephanie was born. 

In 1952 Richardson and a group of journalists and business people started SEPIA magazine.  As publisher and president of the publication, he forged ahead with plans to create a magazine featuring the opportunities and achievements of Blacks nationwide. 

With his duties as publisher of the Defender and SEPIT, Richardson Jr. became known and admired for his tenacity and fearlessness.  He earned a reputation as a respected member of the press. 

At age 70, illness forced Richardson Jr to retire as the Defender publisher, but those close to his family say he kept his crisp humor and strong personality. He sold the paper to Sonceria “Sonny” Messiah Jiles in 1981. C.F. Richardson Jr. died on June 14, 1983.

14 Point Defender Platform 

  1.  To encourage and help utilize all of the Negro’s resources to speed our eventual victory over the Axis Aggressors and to perpetuate the peace which follows.
  2. More parks, playgrounds, recreational activities and facilities for Houston’s rapidly increasing Negro population. 
  3. Every street in Houston either graveled or paved; better drainage; more street lights in Negro residential sections; sewerage for every district in the city; adequate water supply to serve the city’s needs at all times. 
  4. Municipal ordinance prohibiting the erection of rent houses in Negro sections in such proximity to each other; also an ordinance requiring all sanitary conveniences in every house built with the corporate limits. 
  5. More amicable relations between the races and the active participation of Houston Negroes in every movement of a civic nature. 
  6. More Negroes on the police and constabulary, and Negro firemen for the mor populous Negro residential districts. 
  7.  Educated, consecrated and prepared Christian ministry. 
  8. Divorcement of Prairie View State College from Texas A&M College and the establishment and operation by the state of Texas of a university, offering technical, business and professional courses of study for Negroes.  
  9. Revision of the outmoded curriculum for Negro youth in the Houston Public Schools; establishment of a technical high school to fit youths to leave school able to earn a living with their hands; increasing the salaries of all Negro employees of the Houston Public School (professional and menial) to the level of that paid others of like qualifications and assignments; improvement in the buildings, grounds and equipment and trained and competent Negro supervisor of Negro schools.
  10. County institutions for delinquent Negro boys and girls.
  11. The free and untrammeled employment of the ballot in all elections by all qualified voters; the abolition of the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting and more active interest on the part of Negroes in political matters.
  12. Strict and rigid enforcement of all state and federal laws, the suppression and outlawing of all types of lynching through federal legislation; more capital punishment to decrease our high per capita homicide rate.
  13. Equality before the law for every citizen; equal accommodations on all public carriers for all passengers; the abolition of the double standard of citizenship with its kindred injustices, inequalities and inconsistencies.
  14. The economic development of the Negro race through fostering, operating and supporting Black business enterprises, thereby providing places of employment for youths of the race.

A new CEO charts a new course for the Defender

By Raquel Rogers

Houston Defender CEO Sonceria “Sonny” Messiah Jiles never dreamed of owning a newspaper.  In fact, she was focused on a radio station. But when she set out to accomplish that feat, reality set in. 

“I wasn’t at a point and stage at 25 years old to be able to buy a radio station. The reality was that I needed to generate some capital.” Messiah Jiles said. 

While working on the financial foundation she needed to accomplish her goal, Messiah Jiles started helping C F. Richardson Jr., owner of the Houston Defender. 

“Mr. Richardson taught me the newspaper business. He was a mentor to me.  He taught me layout, design, distribution and circulation. The journey was very educational,” state Messiah Jiles. 

In fact, she admits the learning experience raised her awareness of the impact and historical value of the newspaper. Now she wanted to buy a newspaper. 

“I offered to buy the paper and Mr. Richardson told me that he wanted his only daughter to have it. I asked for the first show if he decided to eventually sell.”

A year and a half later when Mr. Richardson’s daughter married and moved away, he offered to sell the newspaper to Messiah Jiles, who was working at the Houston Chronicle. But, there was just one problem – Messiah Jiles still didn’t have much money. 

“I tried to get a loan and was told I had three strikes.  I was Black, single and a female,” she said. 

Messiah Jiles explained how she searched for ways to generate the money and finally resorted to what she called “creative financing.” 

“I asked if I could pay in installments, he said no. So then I offered to pay the cash part of the deal and assume the remaining balance of his indebtedness in a legal document.  He agreed and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Making history 

Since taking ownership ins 1981, Messiah-Jiles has worked diligently to take the Houston Defender to another level.  Besides providing quality stories of relevance and interest to the African American community, the publisher/CEO points to the paper’s commitment to covering Black issues.  Through the years, the commitment has paid off.  The Houston Defender is the recipient of two prestigious A. Philip Randolph Messenger Awards, numerous NNPA Merit Awards and named the “Best Black Newspaper Website” in America by Editor & Publisher, the industry trade publication. 

“We are leading in several categories: the quality of our staff, content, circulation and readers all distinguish the Defender as Houston’s Leading Black Information Source,” she said. 

The Defender is one of the most widely distributed African -American newspapers, one of the things Messiah Jiles says contributes to the readership of the newspaper. 

“Our wide distribution through the greater Houston area in major grocery stores like H-E-B, Randall’s, Kroger, and Fiesta allows us to service the inner city and the suburbs. We’re also in all the standard distribution points and locations like Black restaurants, bookstores, churches and schools,” she added.  

But Defender achievements aside, supporters say it is Messiah Jiles involvement in the community the makes the business what it is. 

A former president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (The Black Press of America), a federation of African-American newspapers across the country, Messiah Jiles has also served as the National Alumni Chair of the University of Houston Alumni Organization.  Her professional activities include being the first African American female board member of the Greater Houston Partnership.  Her board service includes JPMorgan Chase Houston Advisory board, United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast, Center for Houston’s Future and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors.  Messiah Jiles has also served on the board of the NAACP Houston, Hester House, March of Dimes Texas Gulf Coast Chapter, American Diabetes Association and American Leadership Forum. 

Her efforts do not go unnoticed. She’s received many awards including the Phenomenal Woman Award, NNPA Publisher of the Year, American Civil Liberties Freedom of Speech Award, YWCA Outstanding Woman of the Year, Jaycees “Outstanding Texan<” “Woman on the Move,” and the National Dental Association Civil Rights Award. She has been named by EBONY Magazine as one of the 100 most influential Black Americans. 

Weathering the storm

Running a business like the Houston Defender Network hasn’t been easy.  Like my businesses, there have been challenges.  Issues like declining capital, workforce, and keeping up with changes in the marketplace and technology have made progress a struggle. 

“By the grace of God, we survived the first five years. I think it’s because God was present.” 

Messiah Jiles thinks the Defender has continued to operate for a number of reasons.  But she gives most of the credit to her staff. 

“Our staff is what makes the difference. They care about the community and the product we produce. Too often people try to pigeonhole the business into being all about the publisher/CEO.  It’s so much more than that,” said Messiah Jiles 

Advertisers are another important part of the business equation. 

“From an advertising standpoint, the Defender has a totally different caliber of ads than our competitors because the quality of our content determines the quality of our readers.  Our readers determine who our advertisers are,” she stated. 

Talking about the new website and innovations the Defender has incorporated, Messiah Jiles says she and her team want to better serve our community and offer them multiple sources of information to empower them. 

Being in business for over 90 years, Messiah Jiles credits the business’s success with serving the needs of the community through partnerships.  The Defender has established alliances with various organizations like Texas Children’s Hospital, JPMorgan Chase, Kelsey Seybold Clinic, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and more.  

“We’re about producing a win-win relationship with both our readers and advertising partners. 

Faith and Family 

Messiah Jiles is married to a commercial real estate executive Jodie L. Jiles.  The couple has two children Jodie Brandon and Clyde Joseph and through the years, Messiah Jiles says they have been the one constant that has kept her grounded.  

So between family and her strong belief in God, Messiah Jiles knows the sky is the limit. No matter how hectic her day gets, or how many meetings she has to attend, Messiah Jiles makes sure to make time for God. 

“I have to give Him credit,” she said. 

After all, Messiah Jiles acknowledges that God has been taking care of her from the start and she knows her journey is far from over. 

“In my second or third month in the business, I didn’t know how I was going to pay the bills.  Coca-Cola paid for an ad and they paid three times the amount they were supposed to pay.  I started to take the money because I was so broke. But I called them and told them.  They said ‘just credit our account.’ When those kinds of things happened, I know it was the grace of God. He’s the one that made everything possible for me.  To God be the Glory.”