Kenneth Edmonds, the publisher of The Carolina Times, died at his home in South Durham Saturday.
Edmonds’s son, Christian Edwards, told The News & Observer on Monday morning that the April 18 edition of The Carolina Times may signal the death of the 93-year-old weekly newspaper.
But by late Monday afternoon, Edwards, 39, wasn’t so sure.
“I have attorneys calling me who want to talk about the building and selling The Carolina Times, but right now I’m trying to figure out how to navigate through life without my father,” Edwards says.
Edwards said his father struggled with diabetes, glaucoma, and had respiratory issues that he thinks may have been caused by secondhand smoke and the darkroom chemical used to process photos in the news building just off Fayetteville Street.
The newspaper publisher was found on the floor of his home on Saturday afternoon, his son told the INDY.
Edmonds was 66.
Edwards said his father was experiencing shortness of breath and intended to visit Duke Hospital for a COVID-19 test a week before he died.
Edmonds’s death recalls The Carolina Times’s rich legacy of civil rights and its lasting influence in Durham and across the state.
The quiet, soft-spoken old-school newspaperman’s grandfather was Louis Austin, one of the state’s most powerful journalists who purchased the paper in 1927.
N.C. Central history professor Jerry Gershenhorn, who authored the 2018 biography, Louis Austin and The Carolina Times: A Life in the Long Black Freedom Struggle, called Austin “the most important voice for freedom in Durham and in North Carolina” from the 1920s through the 1970s.
“The paper had a broad appeal across the state, not just Durham,” Gershenhorn says.
Gershenhorn says Austin was a pioneering catalyst who cofounded the Durham Committee of the Affairs of Black People, then known as the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, and was a central figure in the city’s voter registration efforts and school integration dating back to the 1930s.
“Austin,” Gershenhorn says, “wasn’t afraid of anyone.”
Edmonds’s mother, Vivian Edmonds, a school guidance counselor, served as the paper’s publisher from 1971–2002, when she retired. During her tenure, the paper was housed on Pettigrew Street and was one of the few remaining black businesses in Hayti after urban renewal. It was from that location that The Carolina Times published many stories about police brutality in the city, while Vivian Edmonds fought for “equitable payment” from city developers in order to leave the neighborhood.
In the late 1970s, Vivian and Kenneth Edmonds were operating The Carolina Times building on Pettigrew Street when it was burned to the ground in a fire that was widely reported as arson. No arrests were made.
“A few years before, The Wilmington Journal was destroyed by fire, and a white guy was convicted,” Gershenhorn says. “There’s no direct connection, but it shows the black press was under attack.”
The Carolina Times didn’t miss an edition because of the fire. Mother and son moved its operations to the studio of famed photographer Alex Rivera on Mangum Street. Gershenhorn says that by late 1979, The Carolina Times moved to its present location on Old Fayetteville Street, near the Hayti Heritage Center.
“The move was supposed to be temporary,” Gershenhorn says. “It turned out to be pretty permanent.”
N.C. Central archivist and historian Andre Vann says he first met Kenneth Edmonds through the publisher’s mother while writing two books about African American history in Durham that mention her and Edmonds’s grandfather. He later added Edmonds to an updated edition of one of the volumes.
“He told me, ‘No Andre, I haven’t done anything,’” Vann says. “I told him, ‘You’ve done enough.’ There was that humility. That’s how he was.”
Vann says one of the paper’s signature successes in the 1980s was raising the alarm for residents in the Crest Street community that the federal government had designated for urban renewal and the wholesale displacement of its African American residents. The Carolina Times, under the leadership of Edmonds and editor Milton Jordan, published stories about people in the Crest Street community who saw what was happening and recalled Hayti’s fate.
“They raised the alarm, and the people in the community held up the federal government’s plan to redevelop the community for 10 years,” Vann says. A successful coalition of low-income blacks and post-college whites thwarted the redevelopment plans.
“The People’s Alliance grew out of that,” Vann adds. “It was one of the first times in America that the federal government rebuilt an entire neighborhood into an all-black community.”
Vann says it was his relationship with Vivian Edmonds that led to a close, 20-year friendship with her son. Vann heard his friend was in trouble and arrived Saturday at 4:00 p.m. at Edmonds’s South Durham home, less than a mile from The Carolina Times’s office on Old Fayetteville Street.
“I was shocked,” Vann says.
Vann says Edmonds was “reluctant to take over the challenge of running a paper. But he found his place. He was our paparazzi and any public, community programming he donated to the NCCU archive. He had more than anyone a bird’s-eye view of Durham’s black institutions, except for the morticians.”
Vann says Edmonds’s quiet public persona was belied by his passion for his family and community.
“We would talk for days,” Vann says. “I would stop by to get a paper. The next thing you know, hours would have passed while we engaged in conversation about his grandfather and mother. He had really taken in these narratives from his grandfather and mother.”
Vann pointed out that the squat, concrete stone-washed building that housed The Carolina Times in what is known as Tin City is one of the remnants from the misnamed federal urban renewal program in the late 1960 and early ’70s that destroyed the Hayti business and residential district.
Bill Bell, who was Durham’s mayor from 2001–17, says he first became aware of The Carolina Times in 1968 when he first moved to the city. Austin was still at the paper’s helm. Bell says the paper was “very helpful in getting my message out” when he ran for county commissioner in 1972.
In June, Kenneth Edmonds invited the former mayor to take a chartered bus to Austin’s hometown of Enfield, where a marker was placed on his grave to honor his achievements.
“It was his desire to keep the paper going because of what his grandfather had done, and his mother when she took over,” Bell says.
Kenneth Edmonds was born on December 5, 1953. He attended Chapel Hill public schools and later enrolled at Laurinburg Institute, where he starred on the basketball team. Edmonds briefly attended East Carolina University, where he also played basketball in the early 1970s before returning to Durham.
“He felt like he had a calling to help his mom with The Carolina Times,” Edwards says.
Edmonds is survived by Edwards, his only child.
Gershenhorn said during The Carolina Times’s heyday, the paper had between 18 and 20 employees.
But in recent years, Edmonds toiled long hours alone at the tiny newspaper and still managed to get the paper out each week to 6,000 subscribers in Durham, across the state, and around the country. He also donated the paper to area churches.
Edwards says his father “was the keeper of all things”—the guy doing the typesetting, labeling the post office addresses, processing photos in the darkroom, and running the press.
“I don’t know of a harder working black man on this Earth,” longtime local black journalist Cash Michaels posted on Facebook. “Kenny did all he could to keep The Carolina Times and the legacy of his mother, Vivian Austin, daughter of founder Louis Austin, alive and well. Yes, I was proud to call Kenny ‘friend,’ still am. Kenny was devoted to Durham’s Black community, and devoted to North Carolina’s Black Press.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at email@example.com.
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