John Oliver Sr., 87, head of Afro-American Newspapers

July 03, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

John J. Oliver Sr., former president and chief operating officer of the Afro-American Newspapers, died Friday at the Genesis ElderCare nursing home in Silver Spring. He was 87.

During a 47-year career at the newspaper founded by his grandfather, Mr. Oliver oversaw the mechanical and technical sides of the publishing operation.

"The thing he was most noted for was he [kept] up with all the modern changes, from cold type to hot type, and he came along when all the newspapers reduced their size when newsprint prices went out of sight," said John H. Murphy III, former publisher of the Afro-American Newspapers and a cousin of Mr. Oliver. "When the price of newsprint was going up like crazy, he kept us in business."

Shortly after receiving a bachelor's degree from DePauw University in Indiana, Mr. Oliver moved to Baltimore to join the family business in 1935.

"In those years, one of the missions of the paper was to provide an occupation for the family," said John J. "Jake" Oliver Jr., Mr. Oliver's son and the newspapers' current publisher and board chairman. "Promising opportunities just didn't exist elsewhere."

Mr. Oliver found his calling amid the clatter of type-setting machines and rumble of presses, family members and associates said.

"He provided a lot of insightful inspiration, and he helped me establish goals," said Jake Oliver. "When I became chairman and publisher, he was a good sounding board on how they did it in the old days, and how to maintain the best possible relationships with the people who work for you and work with you."

Many observers consider the "old days" - Mr. Oliver's days - to be the golden age of the nation's African-American press, with the Baltimore Afro-American playing a leading role.

In the years leading up to the civil rights movement, the newspaper group published 13 editions a week at its peak, circulating from New Jersey to South Carolina. The papers chronicled discrimination against blacks, as well as sports, social events and other news about blacks largely ignored by the white media.

But starting in the 1970s, the black press began a slow decline as general-interest newspapers began to hire more black reporters and interest in civil rights struggles began to fade.

With his quiet bearing and commitment to the business, Mr. Oliver persevered through trying times, associates said.

"He was president at a time when the newspaper was undergoing a difficult period, and he performed admirably," said Paul Evans, a former editor.

"He tried to be fair to the employees and make a better work environment. He dedicated his life to the paper. He was a man of honor and principle, but low-key and unassuming."

Born Aug. 16, 1913 in Brazil, Ind., to a father who was a former slave who became a physician, Mr. Murphy was the grandson of John H. Murphy Sr., who founded of the Afro-American in 1892.

His sister, Elizabeth Murphy Oliver Abner, was a former city editor and columnist for the paper. She died last year.

He married Mary Thompson in 1940; she died in 1967. Two years later, he wed Sallye Haskins, who died in 1986.

Mr. Oliver moved to Cape May, N.J., in 1987, and returned to Maryland last year.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Marilyn O. Pickett of Silver Spring; and a grandson.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday.

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