Cathie Anderson: Paper's digital archive preserves black history

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 - 9:56 am

To get a picture of African American life in the Sacramento region over the last 50 years, all Larry Lee need do is dive into the archives of his family's newspaper.

The Sacramento Observer was his parents' baby. And how!

As family lore goes, on the day Lee was born, publisher William H. Lee rushed to the bedside of his wife and co-publisher Kathryn Lee with a copy of a 300-page special edition that was hot off the presses.

"Kathy was there, and the baby was there," William Lee told me, "and I told her that I'd brought the school and career guide. She knew we were working hard on it all through the night. It was as big as the L.A. Times. … I took it up there, and I said, 'Honey, the paper weighs more than the baby.'"

That story isn't in the archives of the Observer, but one hopes it will be in the digital archive that the newspaper is working to compile with the University of California, Davis, and the Sacramento History Foundation. It's an oral, video and photographic legacy that Larry Lee, president and general manager of the Observer, wants to capture before those who lived it are gone.

Profits from William Lee's successful real estate business subsidized the Observer for years before it turned a profit in 1973, the year Larry Lee was born. The inspiration for this turnaround came in 1968 when the Lees, now in their late 70s, went to an annual meeting of African American publishers in New York City. There, they glimpsed Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller and other magnates, and they watched with envy as papers from Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta collected awards.

Five years later, they brought home the John B. Russwurm Trophy, given to the nation's best black-owned newspaper. (Russwurm edited the first newspaper in the United States owned, operated and published by African Americans.)

"Everybody was just floored: 'How in the world could this little paper from a city we hardly even know about, named Sacramento, become the country's leading African American newspaper?' Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, we wiped them all out." said William Lee, whose paper won the award five more times.

New name, same agents

Bye-bye, Keller Williams; hello, Boice O'Neal Realty.

Or, maybe that should be: Welcome back, Boice O'Neal.

Up the hill in Truckee, Marianne Boice and Ray O'Neal each built flourishing real-estate enterprises that bore their names well into the mid-2000s. Boice's name was so iconic that even upon her death in 1979, partners Bill Whitehead and Bill Deatsch stuck with it as the agency's calling card until 2006.

That year, the firm signed on as a franchise of Keller Williams, hoping to take advantage of its training programs and national reach. O'Neal and his team joined the firm in 2008.

Whitehead said Keller Williams trained agents well and rewarded top sellers, but the two cultures didn't always mesh. Buyers in Truckee and Tahoe, he said, were typically high-net-worth individuals seeking second or third homes, while many Keller Williams agents served buyers seeking primary residences in metropolitan centers.

The franchise name also didn't reflect Truckee's spirit, Whitehead said.

"Our community doesn't have any Walmarts or any large big box stores," he said, "and that is really the personality of our little town. The town made a statement quite a few years ago that they didn't want box stores or the drive-thru types of fast food. It's not the mentality of our area. That's what really defines us. We're more of a mountain community that has boutique retail and boutique businesses."

On Friday, Whitehead and his partners went boutique – again. They split from Keller Williams and hung their sign as Boice O'Neal. Whitehead believes the boutique name will be a plus as agents go after business in the luxe Lahontan and Martis Camp communities.

Last year, as a franchise of Keller Williams, Boice and O'Neal reported $225 million in sales volume. The agency has offices in Tahoe City, Tahoe Donner and downtown Truckee.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cathie Anderson





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