Colonel Leon Washington, founder and first publisher
COLONEL LEON H. WASHINGTON JR. Colonel Leon H. Washington Jr. founded the Sentinel newspaper in 1933 and served as its publisher until 1974. The newspaper was founded during the Depression and most of its readers lived on the Eastside in a section anchored by Central Avenue. The Sentinel was an outgrowth of Washington’s work as an advertising salesman of the old California Eagle. His friends called him “Wash” and he epitomized “personalized” journalism in that the stamp of his personality was discernible on every page of the Sentinel. He located its headquarters at 1050 E. 43rd Street, just at the corner of Central Avenue.
Washington used the Sentinel as a potent vehicle to gain respect for the Black community from the larger society by targeting acts of discrimination and launching protests against merchants who mistreated Blacks especially in the Black community. The Sentinel is Washington’s most important monument and today, it is the largest Black newspaper in the West. Public appreciation of Washington and the Sentinel is exemplified by such tributes as the Leon H. Washington Post Office, the Leon H. Washington Public Library and the Leon H. Washington County Park.
(For a period Crispus Attucks Wright, an attorney and businessman, was the chairman of the board at the Sentinel; he was also well known for his civil rights work in the legal community. Ironically, his civic activities reflected the work of Col. Washington long before he came to the Sentinel. Wright organized protests that fostered the Colonel’s “Don’t-spend-your-money-where-you-can’t-work drive back in 1933. One observer said, “He (Wright) was just a kid going to UCLA when Leon started that campaign, and Cris just grabbed the ball and ran with it.”)
RUTH WASHINGTON Prior to becoming the business manager of the Sentinel, Ruth Washington operated her own photography shop. When Col. Washington died, she assumed the role of publisher of the newspaper and carried on the tradition he started as the voice of the Black community. Ms. Washington endured a lengthy court battle with her late husband’s family over the fate of the newspaper but undaunted she prevailed and continued his legacy unabated. She said, “My late husband was a great man, a visionary, a leader … I’ve taken my cues from him.”
Ms. Washington was very modest as the paper’s new publisher when she took over; she gave credit to the people around her who made her the publisher: the staff, the readers, the community and all the elected officials – and there were many. She sincerely believed that any success the Sentinel might have obtained or any help the paper has been able to provide for the community is due, in a large degree, to the support of our readers and advertisers. She said, “No papers can exist without advertisers and readers.”
During the period that Atty. Wright had a financial interest in the paper and was the chairman of the board, Ms. Washington remained the publisher.
Like her husband, Ms. Washington was deeply involved in the social affairs of the Black community and often led the charge in the areas of social change and unbiased coverage of the news relevant to the Black Community. Along with Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Ethel Bradley (the first lady of Los Angeles) she formed the Black Women’s Forum, dedicated to promote issues affecting the Black woman particularly in the Southern California region.
Her unwavering determination kept her going and when the paper’s fiscal picture appeared dismal, she reached out to her attorney, Kenneth Thomas, who, along with Ms. Washington devised a plan to keep the paper solvent. She remained publisher until her death in 1990.
KENNETH THOMAS When Kenneth R. Thomas became the publisher of the Sentinel, the paper was nearly 60 years old and had been known as the “Voice of the Black Community”; he took it to another level. “Ken,” as he was a licensed probate attorney and had served in the U.S. Air Force where he attained the rank of First Lieutenant and received two medals for distinguished service: the Korean Service and the United Nations Medals. After leaving the military, he earned his bachelors and law degrees from Ohio State University and College of Laws. He was a member of the Ohio and the California Bar Associations; and was admitted to practice in the District Federal Courts for Central and Southern California. In 1968, he was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, a distinction that only a few lawyers attain.
As Thomas relocated the Sentinel offices to a new building at 3800 Crenshaw Boulevard, Los Angeles – the hub of the Black community – he said, “We’re moving, not leaving. There he maintained an active legal practice in addition to being the publisher of the Sentinel. The move signaled Thomas’ recognition that if the paper was to remain in the eye of the Black community, it had to travel along the same path as most of its readership.
Under his leadership, the paper was given the responsibility of representing the Black press at the O.J. “trial of the century” by the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA). “Demographics demand that we move,” Thomas concluded. As an activist and advocate of minority rights since his early days in college, he was a member of the N.A.A.C.P., the American Civil Liberties Union, C.O.R.E., the Fair Housing Counsel of Los Angeles and many other civil rights organizations.
It was said of Ken that he rose to a level of brilliance that for many of us, did not seem possible. Though others have achieved similar credentials, few have used them, like Ken, to make a favorable difference in the lives of those without a voice.
Ken lived life to the fullest and was always wearing his cheerful trademark smile. He was married to the lovely Jennifer Thomas who was always at his side; they were inseparable in work and at play. He will always be remembered for his compassion, vision and commitment.
The following is a tribute to Kenneth Thomas that aptly described him, and it was shared with those who walked the final steps with him in the Fifth Season:
Kenneth Thomas was a wonderful, strong yet gentle man.
One can only smile when thinking of the love, warmth and humor that he possessed and shared so gladly with those he welcomed into his life.
He was a man without pretension.
He always met each person on an equal footing.
His great modesty prevented him from spewing off his many accomplishments, but his keen mind could easily be appreciated and observed in the direct and thoughtful manner in which he listened and then spoke.
For those of us touched by his grace, his greatest accomplishment was the love he so tenderly bestowed upon us.
You see, Ken was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word.
We saw the love, warmth and encouragement that he so freely gave to Jennifer.
We saw the fun and kindness that he so freely gave to children.
We saw the humble way that he afforded dignity to the elderly.
Our family cherished the friendship that was ever so dependable.
He had enthusiasm for education, for people, for life and for love.
And these precious accomplishments are what we will miss most about Kenneth Thomas, a man of exquisite style and grace.
We will always love you, Ken
JENNIFER THOMAS Jennifer Thomas, like Ruth Washington, assumed the role of publisher of the Sentinel when her husband passed in 1993. She made a smooth transition and despite the obvious void that occurs when the leader of an institution dies, Ms. Thomas did not have the “luxury” to mourn in private. She arranged her affairs and continued as the publisher without a pause. The paper continued without interruption; it never missed an issue.
When the Sentinel was experiencing financial difficulties, Ms. Thomas, along with her husband formed KenJenCo., Inc. that bailed out the newspaper and placed it on sound financial footing. In return, KenJen received most of the Sentinel’s shares of stock, Ms Washington’s proxy and virtually took over the company. Under her leadership, the Sentinel continued its mission to report the news and views while championing the causes of the African American community and promoting cooperation, understanding and goodwill throughout Los Angeles. During her time as publisher, Ms. Thomas incorporated an annual fashion show which supplemented the paper’s activities within the community and provided it with additional artistic exposure. The Sentinel was also involved in the Los Angeles Black Business Expo, an annual event that promoted and showcased Black businesses, employers, government and service-oriented community businesses. DANNY J. BAKEWELL, SR. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most dynamic leaders in America today,” the Bakewell Family took over the reins of the Sentinel with Danny J. Bakewell, Sr. as the publisher in 2004. In addition, Bakewell was also named as “one of the leading proponents of urban bootstrap economics” by Time magazine. Prior to assuming the role of publisher, he was well known as the builder of the Brotherhood Crusade, the largest Black philanthropic institution in America and co-founder of the National Black United Fund (NBUF), the advocacy organization which directs African American philanthropy to Black-led organizations nationally.
The Sentinel has been a continuation of Bakewell’s role as a social activist and an advocate for the rights of Black people. Also a successful businessman, he has developed commercial and residential properties throughout California as chairman of the Bakewell Companies, an entity of diverse real estate and related businesses, and one of the largest Black-owned development companies in the United States. Along with his son, Danny J. Bakewell Jr., who is president of the company, Bakewell has paralleled his business acumen and his social activism.
He recently purchased WBOK radio station in New Orleans, Louisiana. Both the Sentinel and WBOK have added to his emergence into the media market. This year, Bakewell was named chairman of the NNPA.
Under his leadership, the Sentinel has been involved in community activities including Back-to-School, Friends-Serving-Friends and Thanksgiving Feed for the Elderly. And finally, Bakewell has instituted the “Taste of Soul” festival, the largest outdoor coming-together of Black people in the city of Los Angeles for a day of fun-filled entertainment. Now in its fourth year, it is scheduled to attract over 100,000 people.