Arkansas Press Women (APW) will be celebrating its 75th anniversary in June 2024. To celebrate its legacy, APW will present to its members over the next two years the fruits of its project to scan, organize, and make accessible its historical documents, from its organization in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in June 1949 to the present.
In April, our newsletter published the first article in the series, a biographical sketch of Roberta Waugh Fulbright, the dynamic Fayetteville newspaper publisher who used her experience of a woman in a man’s world to launch Arkansas Press Women in June 1949. That article – Part I of a three-part series — explored Roberta Fulbright’s life as a young woman in Missouri and a socially prominent wife of businessman/civic leader Jay Fulbright in Fayetteville, where the Fulbrights became one of the city’s leading families.
In this newsletter, we are presenting Part II of the series, about Roberta Fulbright’s long career as publisher of the Fayetteville Daily Democrat/Northwest Arkansas Times from 1923 to her death in 1953.
APW is fortunate that two of its most accomplished members – Dorothy Stuck (who passed away in 2021) and Nan Snow — authored a superb biography of this pioneering woman in 1996: ROBERTA: A MOST REMARKABLE FULBRIGHT (U. of Arkansas Press, 1996)(https://www.uapress.com/product/roberta/ ) The recipient of national awards and critical recognition, ROBERTA is recommended to all members as a portrait of the challenges facing any publisher – and especially, a woman publisher — of a major small city daily newspaper in the middle of the 20th Century.
The author of the present articles has obtained most of the material from this fine book and discussions with Nan Snow.
Roberta W. Fulbright
A Most Remarkable Founder-Part II
When Roberta Fulbright succeeded her husband as publisher of the Fayetteville Daily Democratin 1923, at the age of 49 years, she joined a journalistic profession in which women had begun to make limited breakthroughs. Lewis Payne, a Virginian-born woman, was the founding editor of the Democrat as a daily in 1894, reviving an earlier weekly, the Fayetteville Democrat, to do so.She edited the daily for a decade. After a succession of male editors, Democrat staff reporterLessie Stringfellow Read temporarily replaced J. D. Hurst as city editor in 1917, when he joined the American forces serving in World War I. Read added this to her existing commitments as national press chairman for the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and founding member ofthe Washington County Women’s Suffrage Association. She continued as city editor when Hurst expressed a preference for the business manager position upon his return from the military in 1918.
Fulbright’s deceased husband, Jay, appeared to favor his other business and civic activities after acquiring the newspaper, with a circulation of about 1,500, in 1913. The paper had begun to decline in quality in the early 1920s, possibly due to a decision by a new partner, Charles Richardson – a retired dentist – to serve as editor, with Read becoming “managing editor.” The paper rarely exceeded six pages, the design was undistinguished, and the masthead was missing on occasion.
Richardson died in 1924. In 1925, Roberta began to augment the newspaper’s resources, addingsyndicated columns such as Charles Stewart’s “The Daily Washington Letter” and John C. Farrar’s “The Literary Spotlight” (Farrar later established publishing companies Farrar & Rinehart and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). She employed at least two other women reporters, Maude Gold and Peggy Lighton, in these early years of her stewardship. She acquired full ownership of the publishing company and newspaper in 1926. Circulation began to climb, reaching 2,200 by 1928. In 1929, Homer H. (Scotty) Taylor, the Democrat’s former sports editor, offered Fulbright $25,000 to acquire the Democrat. With Fulbright holding out for $35,000, Taylor countered by creating the Fayetteville Daily Leader (and hiring Peggy Lighton as society editor).
Fulbright addressed the new competition by expanding publication from five to six days, adding a Sunday edition with “four-color comics,” and subscribing to the relatively new syndicate services, the Associated Press (AP) and United Press (UP). She was also able to forestall Taylor’s inroads into the Democrat’s advertisers. The Daily Leader folded in 1931, allowing Roberta to jettison the Sunday edition and publish from Monday through Saturday, the publication schedule in place for the rest of her tenure as publisher.
The improvement afforded by Roberta and editor Read was attested to in 1931 by the Arkansas Press Association, a respected affiliation of most of the state’s newspapers. One of its members asserted in its flagship publication, the Arkansas Publisher, “The Fayetteville Daily Democrat is one of the best dailies in the state outside larger cities. It is the only paper in the state with automatic printer service, carrying full leased wire of AP as well as UP.”
Roberta’s heavy-duty involvement is demonstrated by her assertive attitude in dealings with the Associated Press (AP). She instructed staff to inform the AP weekly of the types of storiessought by the Democrat, and on Mondays, to pressure them to deliver reports of Arkansas Supreme Court decisions by 11:45 a.m., in time for afternoon publication. She saved money by using press releases from the University of Arkansas’s student newspaper to provide news of the city’s most important institution. Roberta maintained good relationships with the newspaper’s staff, bringing her publisher status to bear on situations where reporters received flak from the subjects of their stories, acknowledging their abilities in writing, and holding holiday and retirement parties for the group.
As author of a new column, “As I See It” (encouraged by editor Read) starting in 1933, Roberta added her own voice to the editorial voice of the newspaper. In her columns, Fulbright addressed the entire sweep of American life, from federal, state, and local politics to society, culture, and the everyday lives of families – hers and others. Among her first columns was a glowing welcome to Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose inaugural as President occurred on March 4, 1933. She saw Roosevelt as a politician whose life experience had prepared him for this special challenge, and who espoused a policy that saw government as serving the needs of all Americans, rather than the corporate boards, stockholders, and politicians who had traditionally been its primary beneficiaries. She explained “We believe in Roosevelt because he has suffered and because he has thought much for those who do suffer. We believe in him because he has overcome so much. We believe in him because he is willing to negotiate, to confer and to reason and we know no better qualities.”
In another column in October, she wrote “I think many things should come out of surplus wealth and not out of the mouths of the hungry. There are human rights, social rights and political rights. In a test, human rights should take precedence.”
On economic policy, she wrote: “The hungry should have food before the rich have luxuries. While the government cannot “make things equal, somehow, somewhere in my moral being, I think the strong should bear many of the infirmities of the weak.” Still, “…for the weak to adopt the idea of being carried on the backs of the strong makes then even weaker and deaden[s] their best abilities.”
Upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, she eulogized him as “one of, if not the greatest single personality in this old world.” She showed less enthusiasm in references to Harry Truman, and she was not above ridiculing him as a “minute man” for his compulsive attention to timeliness in a column written about the “Gridiron Tea” she attended in Washington in 1948.
Roberta also celebrated the elevation of Eleanor Roosevelt to the White House, and the influence she exercised through public appearances and speeches. She wrote “It heartens our drooping spirits that there is a woman in the White House so well qualified to preside that she may forget all the stupid rules and greet her guests and kiss her kin.” Interestingly, it was not Eleanor’s worldly accomplishments that she welcomed, but her ability to remain “womanly” while doing so. For Roberta, apparently, women’s empowerment came not only in granting women the same opportunities as men, but in allowing successful women to preserve the feminine qualities of nurturing and warmth without sacrificing the respect garnered by engaging in non-traditional activities.
In many ways, “As I See It” would serve as a space for Roberta to display both feminine and masculine sensibilities as a columnist. She offered droll or admiring commentary on the public and private institutions, activities, and habits of modern life; peeks into her own life, as a grandmother, publisher, businesswoman, club-goer, and church-goer; and scathing criticism of public policies and officials, usually the preserve of male journalists.
The majority of “As I See It Columns” were non-political, depending on Roberta’s intelligent, humorous, and occasionally self-deprecating style to keep readers interested. She freely shared details of her life, describing family gatherings, anecdotes about children and grandchildren, and encounters with Fayetteville institutions, businesses, and residents. Columns devoted to the passing of well-known and less well-known individuals from Fayetteville and its environs were a popular feature. She was an avid gardener, and the details of her garden, those of Fayetteville, and gardens elsewhere in the world made their way into her column. While admiring England’s Hampton Court greenery on a European visit, she was asked by a local “Do you have any flowers in the United States”? This inspired a column offering a passionate portrait of gardens she admired in St. Louis, a place she visited often to spend time with her daughter Anna’s family.
Roberta also shared her awe, wonder, and occasional skepticism at the scientific and technological innovations revealed at scientific meetings and in writing. In a column about a physical exam she underwent at a St. Louis area hospital, she reported: “After all the tests known to the medical profession they concluded that according to my age, my color, my previous condition of servitude and my excess of speed, I am really pretty good.” She adopted a more serious tone in her mention of “a beautiful little chapel [in the hospital] where one may go and reflect, meditate, or repent and pray. Some lovely memorial windows are in there, and it causes one to think.” She wrote unselfconsciously on several occasions from the perspective of a practicing Christian and Sunday school teacher, sprinkling her text with quotes from the Gospel – in many cases tying Christianity to the causes of peace, tolerance, and charity. During World War II, she shared her sorrow at the reports of bombings over England and the Continent and her horror of Hitler and his authoritarian impositions, to which she devoted more than one column.
A poll among readers one year cited “As I See It” as their favorite Democrat column, and it made Roberta one of few newspaper women in the U.S. commenting on general topics (rather than “society” or “women”) in the 1930s.
Roberta moved beyond commentary in 1934, declaring war on the corrupt Washington County Democratic machine, an example of Arkansas’s notoriously flawed but long-tolerated troubled government. The column “As I See It,” the editorial page, and local reporting shone a light on the corrupt alliances between the Washington County Democratic Committee, the county sheriff offices, and Circuit Court Judge John S. Combs. The poorly hidden ties of county officialsto illegal diversion of state revenues, bootleggers, and a notorious car theft ring were revealed, along with the mechanisms used to sustain them. Exposure of graft was not enough, they pointed out – too often, Judge Combs stymied the enactment of justice with his arbitrary rulings, bureaucratic delays, and refusals to try indicted officials, once using the claim that administrative funds were not available.
Success in defeating the machine was neither instantaneous nor easy – and, initially, neither Roberta nor Read was familiar with the lengths that the machine would go to hold onto power and thwart reformers. Machine members acted with impunity during local elections, disqualifying reform candidates for bogus reasons and “accidentally” omitting them from ballots published on the eve of the elections. When reformers complained about biased treatment at a court hearing, Judge Combs instructed the police officials under indictment to draw guns and arrest those complaining. Over time, the reformers, including Roberta and Read, learned valuable lessons about playing political hardball. These lessons and a growing number of federal prosecutions tipped the balance in favor of the reformers, and by 1936, reform candidates occupied most of the county positions.
Roberta re-entered the realm of Arkansas politics again in the 1938 gubernatorial race. Since Roosevelt’s election, conflicts had arisen between Arkansas’s New Deal Democrats, includingCarl Bailey, and the anti-New Deal Democrats, such as Homer Adkins. Roberta had initially opposed Bailey in his successful first run for Governor in 1936, endorsing his opponent. Bailey’s successful efforts at increasing university funding and his support for other policiesfavored by Roberta closed the policy gap between them, and Bailey began to reach out to Roberta as a political ally. More than once, Roberta invited Bailey and his wife to visit the rural retreat near Fayetteville she had created for herself, adjacent to the farm acquired by son, Bill, upon his family’s return to Arkansas in 1936. Bailey won a second term in 1938, this time with the support of the Democrat (now renamed the “Northwest Arkansas Times”).
In 1939, Bailey increased his control over the University of Arkansas by enacting legislation increasing the size of the Board from seven to ten and using the change to justify his appointment of ten new board members to replace the seven sitting trustees. Undoubtedly influenced by his alliance with Roberta, he appointed Hal Douglas, the husband of Roberta’s twin daughter Helen, to the university Board of Trustees.
It was at this time that Bailey and the board were faced with a major, politically charged, decision: to appoint a new university president. In September 1939, John C. Futrall, the university’s 69-year-old President, was killed in a car accident in western Arkansas. He had been appointed in 1913, creating a 26-year-long period where the Presidency was not an issue.
The University of Arkansas held a special place in the lives of the Fulbright family from the time of their move to Fayetteville in 1906. They participated in educational, cultural, and sporting activities sponsored by the university. From 1911 on, Bill attended the experimental elementary and secondary schools affiliated with the university, and he and the other children used the university’s sports facilities. The Fulbrights had acquired the Washington Hotel in 1912, and the university held many of its functions at the hotel When, in 1916, the Fulbrights acquired a mansion on Mount Nord in the vicinity of the university, their home became a social center for many university-related events – including the university’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration in 1922.
Both Jay and Roberta were active in garnering business, organizational, and individual resources for the university, with Jay responsible for the construction of a new men’s gymnasium in 1922.Roberta continued her active participation and philanthropy after Jay’s death, helping to organize a branch of Kappa Kappa Gamma (the sorority she had pledged at the University of Missouri) inApril 1925.
When Roberta became publisher and columnist of the Democrat – which was rechristened the “ Northwest Arkansas Times” in 1937, reflecting its expanding geographical scope and circulation – she acquired a unique instrument for shaping public and official opinion about the university. The newspaper’s unfailing attention to the university’s activities, accomplishments, andcontributions to Arkansas and Fayetteville life placed pressure on the public and official decision-makers to provide sufficient resources for it, whether from state coffers or from private philanthropy and investment. The Democrat also frequently opposed attempts by the legislatureto move the university elsewhere. Such attempts were prompted by the improving reputation of the institution, awareness of the benefits it could bring to a host city, and the climate of corruption that clouded Fayetteville’s suitability for the university.
Meanwhile, Bill Fulbright’s connections to the University of Arkansas were strengthened After graduating from the university in 1925, he studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, toured Europe, and returned briefly to Arkansas, In 1929, he moved to Washington, D.C. to assist a friend’s business and, eventually, to woo the woman who would become his wife, Betty. Obtaining a law degree from George Washington University in 1934, he worked briefly for the U.S. Justice Department and then accepted a position teaching law (at a higher salary) at the George Washington Law School.
Hoping to be of greater help to Roberta, he accepted a 1936 offer from the University of Arkansas to teach law part-time, while Professor Robert Leflar was on leave. When Leflar returned in 1939, Bill was offered a full-time teaching position at the University of Arkansas law school.
The relationship between the Fulbrights, the Times, and the University of Arkansas attained a new relevance when the Board began its search for a new university president in September 1939 Law school dean, Julian S. Waterman, was considered to be the likely replacement for Futrall. He had been serving as dean since he had helped to launch the law school in 1925-26.Nevertheless, reservations about Arkansans’ willingness to have a Jew as president of its premier university scotched this choice (with historians disagreeing to this day whether Waterman withdrew himself from consideration or was overruled by Bailey and the Board).
The Board was prepared to review eleven possible candidates for the position. Governor Bailey stepped in, however, and proposed 34-year-old Bill Fulbright, who had been readying himself to become a full-time law professor. Both Waterman and Leflar offered their support for Fulbright, while others argued for candidates with greater administrative and teaching experience. Opposition to Bill was quickly overridden, and he was appointed as the university president, to take effect on October 1.
The validity of this choice became a source of controversy. Many believed that Bailey’s choice of the younger, less experienced Fulbright was a political one, tied to Bailey’s decision to seek an unprecedented third term as Governor. Roberta’s and the Democrat’s ongoing support would be essential. Others asserted that Bill’s post-graduate education as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and the cosmopolitan viewpoint he had acquired by traveling through Europe offset the other alleged defects.
This controversy simmered below the surface during the 1940 campaign for Governor, but boiled over early in the campaign. In his race for a third term, Bailey faced Adkins (and several weaker candidates) in the July Democratic primary. Adkins inserted university governance – and by implication, Bill’s appointment as President – into the campaign, calling for the elimination of “politics” from university administration. Roberta, who by this time was an outspoken supporter of Bailey, attacked both Adkins’s position and abilities She asserted that “there ain’t no such animal” as a “non-political board.” The university had benefited from “good politics,” and it was up to the voters to choose “good legislators” and a “good governor” to ensure that this continued.
Personally, Roberta mocked Adkins’ English, announcing, “…Mr. Homer Adkins, candidate for governor ‘came’ and we will also say he ‘has went.” Characterizing him as a lightweight, she wrote, “Governor Bailey’s record of things done, as opposed to Mr. Homer Adkins’ promises of doing nothing but saying ‘Howdy’ should put all debate out of question.”
Roberta’s continuing support for Bailey — and mocking, strident criticism of opponent Homer Adkins – was insufficient to elect Bailey, in part due to his perceived “overreach” in seeking a third term. Adkins defeated Bailey in the primary and was elected Governor in the 1940 election. Soon after taking office in early 1941, he put into place the legislative changes that would allow him to gain control over the university Board of Trustees – decidedly contradicting his earlier position on removing political influence in university affairs. To the surprise of few, the Board removed President Fulbright and several other officials from their positions in June 1941.
Roberta unleashed her harshest criticism to date on the actions she attributed solely to Adkins. In “As I See It,” she accused Arkansas voters of preferring a “hand-shaker” to “one who does constructive things,” and described Adkins as a “wrecker” rather than a “builder.” Her most severe criticism was reserved for an unsigned editorial entitled “Our Fuehrer,” in which Adkins’ was described as “an uneducated man with no knowledge of the magnitude, the complexity, or the significance of a University” and his actions were compared to Hitler’s in their destructiveness.
If this had been the last stage of her son’s ascent to a significant career position, Roberta’s future reputation as a pathbreaker for women publishers and journalists might have suffered, although not disappeared. Her own son was among those who many years later (lightly) placed the blame for his firing on his mother’s ridicule of Adkins in the 1940 gubernatorial campaign. Others have suggested that Adkins would have removed Fulbright from the university presidency regardless of the comments and praised Roberta for her willingness to outspokenly oppose Adkins in the 1940 election.
In the last act of this drama, however, Roberta not only redeemed her reputation but achieved a wider platform of experience and recognition that, if anything, enhanced her long-termreputation as a model for women in communications. In 1942, the Democratic Party asked Bill to run for Representative Clyde Ellis’s U.S. congressional seat, while Ellis was planning to run for the Senate. Fulbright won the election, with fervent support from the Northwest Arkansas Times. Two years later, in 1944, Homer Adkins challenged incumbent Senator Hattie Caraway for her Senate seat. Unwilling to tolerate Adkins as Arkansas’s U.S. Senator, Bill entered the race. Roberta had strongly supported Caraway in the legislator’s previous runs, but in 1944, Robert and the Times backed Bill. He and Adkins won pluralities in the July primary, and Bill handily won the Democratic Senate nomination in the August runoff election. In November, Fulbright was elected as Senator, launching a senatorial career that would span almost thirty years. attracting national and international attention and more than the usual share of admiration, controversy, and conflict. Among the factors leading to Adkins’s defeat was the sentiment on the part of many Arkansans that his removal of Fulbright as university president was an unmerited political tactic
When Roberta attended Bill’s inauguration as Senator in 1945, she was just short of 71 years of age. She had suffered from knee problems from the start of her career as publisher and began to experience heart problems a few years later. Her hospital stays became longer and more frequentas the 1940s progressed. Between these she maintained a fairly active pace, entertaining Fayetteville family and friends, traveling to Kansas and to St. Louis to visit two daughters who had moved, attending church, and visiting Washington, D.C. to sit in the galleries of the Senate and attend receptions with her son and daughter-in-law. She turned over most of her administrative jobs to Vice-President and General Manager Sam Gearhart (who acquired partial ownership in the Times), son-in-law, Hal Douglas, and the new editors who replaced Lessie Stringfellow Read when she stepped down in 1939, including Ted R. Wylie, a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School in Journalism. Although “As I See It” columns decreased in frequency, they continued to be a prominent part of the newspaper.
In June 1949, the Times featured a special eight-page section showcasing in photos and text the Times’ departments and staff – from publisher Roberta to the twenty-two delivery boys and the married couple that served as janitors at the newspaper facility. The special section informed readers that circulation had increased to 9,000 in 1949, and that the Times went to 98 per cent of Fayetteville homes, 70 percent of Washington County homes, and almost a third of the homes in Northwest Arkansas. It carried the nation’s leading syndicated columnists, including Drew Pearson, Walter Lippman, Bennett Cerf, and Dorothy Dix; and featured “cartoon panels” such as “Believe It or Not” and “Private Life of Buck”; comic strips including “Freckles,” Blondie,” “Dick Tracy,” and “Donald Duck”; and local writers including “Mrs. Roberta Fulbright.” The newspaper boasted about the $12,000 price of its newest linotype machine and displayed the linotype and its rotary press for readers to admire.
The occasion for the special section was the two-day Arkansas Press Association (APA) summerconference, held at the university in Fayetteville on June 16-17 at the behest of Roberta and University of Arkansas journalism professor Walter J. Lemke. It was not only the section that was special, however. Roberta had issued invitations to about fifty of Arkansas’s women publishers, editors, reporters, photographers, and business managers to attend a June 17 meeting in conjunction with the conference. The purpose of the meeting was to launch Arkansas Newspaper Women as, a new affiliate of the APA.
The third, and last part, of this series will describe the organization of Arkansas Newspaper Women (later, Arkansas Press Women) in June 1949.
Image credit: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture Women in Arkansas photograph collection, circa 1850s – 1980s (UALR.PH.0067).