Seems with many things, I'm late to the party. And just discovering the nearly 80 year old African American owned and operated Evening Whirl is the latest example.
Here's how I stumbled upon this local newspaper.
My drive time to and from work has recently been filled with podcasts to pass the time and keep the brain stimulated.
"Criminal is a podcast about crime. Stories of people who've done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle." (source)
New York Magazine sums it up when they wrote:
“Criminal is a true crime podcast that understands crime as something sociological, historical, even anthropological — that crime is a function of people, time, and place. With incredible sound design, marvelous writing, and a boldness in the way it makes its choices, there are few shows that feel more alive.”
It's really thought provoking and helps you consider both sides of crime, victim and perpetrator. It has helped me come to grips with life in St. Louis.
So you can imagine how excited and surprised I was when Episode 56 came about, titled:
"Don't Let Me See You In The Whirl"
The episode description from Criminal Podcast:
"Since 1938, a weekly African-American owned newspaper called the Evening Whirl has covered crime in St. Louis with a style all its own, using alliteration and rhyme, and often omitting the usual crime-reporting words like "accused" or "alleged." The paper has been widely criticized for its casual approach to fact-checking and sensational writing style. But the paper's owner, Anthony Sanders, who has been helping out with it since he was 18 years old, doesn't have any plans to change it. As the pages of The Whirl have said: "If that's too much for you, pick up the Times and read the theatre reviews."
A great episode, the host, Phoebe Judge, flew to St. Louis to interview Sanders. They met at Culpepper's.
The Whirl's founder Benjamin Thomas started the paper in 1938 and retired in 1995 when Sanders took over. Thomas died in 2005 at the age of 94 (source). There are plenty of great interviews out there with Thomas. Do yourself a favor and watch these two interviews with Peter Jennings and Arsenio Hall:
The history of this local paper is important. Thomas founded the paper in the Jim Crow era when blacks and black issues were not reported on or recorded. Obituaries were not printed in the newspapers.
The topics discussed in the podcast included the tone of the reporting which is less clinical journalism and more prose ripe with accusational tones...no "alleged" or other soft language here. They go straight to the core and spice it up with some real talk or opinion...you are guilty and shamefully took someone life.
They discussed the playful manner of the wordplay in each article, and Sanders says it is this wordplay that adds the spice that make the meal, not the base ingredients...the spice is what makes the meal memorable or good.
They talked about how police are always the good guys and criminals the foils. Apparently the paper is read by police and the criminal set as well. The police use the Whirl to help them piece together the activity on the streets. Sanders claims that if you are going to solve a crime you have to "put it out there". Talk about it, shame it, get people to want to talk about it (snitch) and have the desire to stop the violence.
The Whirl is one such flashlight shining light on the underbelly.
Sanders says the Whirl is a place people go to read "who did the stupidest stuff this week" and people want to know if they got in the Whirl. It's a badge of honor for some in the region.
Sanders also spoke to the fact that the paper has been criticized over the years with plenty of libel lawsuits and charges of racism. This is obviously a complicated claim since the paper has always been owned and operated by African-Americans. Sanders said there is criticism from the black community that the Whirl only report on black crime...he says this claim is patently false. He said "no homicide is not reported on"...regardless of race.
The local chapter of the NAACP boycotted the paper in the 1980's claiming it exploits African-Americans. Sanders disagrees. In fact the Whirl is one of the only documents to record what has happened in the AA community in St. Louis. Nearby Washington University is preserving and studying copies of the Whirl to understand portrayals of race, drugs and guns in St. Louis...and America. In some cases the Whirl is the only document of gay African-Americans in front of and behind the guns.
The Whirl doesn't avoid these topics. Race, look, lifestyle, descriptions of the lack of dignity are not described in the Post-Dispatch...the Whirl is rich with description. The Post reads like a legal document, the Whirl a salacious true crime account.
The history of the paper was also discussed on the podcast. While it is not 100% clear, the name of the paper has a couple theories. Sanders says the whirl represents "kicking up dust". Ms. Judge posits that there is a line in Mark Twain's "Guilded Age" that reads: "Both chatted away in high spirits and made the evening whirl along in the most mirthful manner."
With Twain's roots here and Thomas' love for playful, humorous and rhythmic prose, the connection has legs.
The publication is wildly popular in the black areas of town. Sanders claims that readership has grown from 4000 to nearly 55,000. He should know, he personally delivers the papers which "sell as good as the Post (read St. Louis Post-Dispatch) in some areas". They even hired a reporter...
For now the Whirl is here to stay and there is no shortage of material.
The interview ends with a passage from the Whirl from 1978 and an example of how the Whirl has entered the local colloquial farewells:
"Guns will roar and rip like hell and how the Evening Whirl will sell."
So when saying goodbye, people say "Don't let me see you in the Whirl" as they bid farewell to friends and family.
Thanks to the Criminal podcast and Ms. Judge for coming to St. Louis to shine a light on our local culture and history.
Now for the personal part of the blog...
I wondered why I hadn't seen or heard of The St. Louis Evening Whirl. Then, I was filling up my tank at a BP on Jefferson Avenue and there it was right on the counter in a nice little stack. I bought my first Evening Whirl, Volume 79 No. 12.
It is not a tome, it is printed on four pages, front and back. It is a quick read.
Some of the headlines in my maiden voyage through this historic black paper:
"Teen arrested in murder of grandpa visiting Gustine"
"Off-duty cop ok'd for whacking intruder"
The tag line on the top of the paper reads: "There is power in naming and power in shaming!"
Shame it does...or speak the truth depending on your perspective. It is unfiltered like the way people talk when they are together commiserating over the crazy stuff that goes down in this town. It is sensationalistic and sing-songy vs. factual and dry like mainstream journalism.
There are tip lines and photos of the most wanted in the area still walking the streets. The Whirl is a member of the public safety council of metropolitan St. Louis...they want to fight crime and call out the horrible things people are capable of and that is how the reporting reads.
But it's not all just crime my friends, there is more.
The "Inside The Whirl" center section has lots of hip hop music news and free announcement space for local events and shows in the black community.
There is a great "Ask The Leading Ladies" section where readers write in questions about dating, relationships or enhancing your sex life. And...AND...a separate section "Dr. Feel Good" where readers from the city and county can ask candid questions related to sex.
There is also Asset: Girl Of The Week with a small photo spread and profile of her background, online info, likes and dislikes...worst pickup line she's experienced, etc.
I'm now educated in the ways of the Whirl. I feel one step closer to being a true St. Louisan.
Long live the Evening Whirl.
Thanks for adding spice to the St. Louis soup.