As newspaper wars go, the battle here is hardly equal. On one side are the Richmond Newspapers, two jointly owned dailies with a combined circulation of 247,744. On the other is the Richmond Afro-American and Richmond Planet, a weekly that at best boasts 12,000 circulation.

Yet the Afro, this year celebrating its 100th anniversary as the nation's oldest black general-circulation newspaper, has held its own. Its editorials and endorsements carry a weight beyond the size of its readership; its coverage of the news draws fire from many sides, from white conservatives who complain of its racial bias and from black politicians who complain of its criticisms.

Most important, the Afro has remained the voice--some say the only voice--of Richmond's black community, now a majority in the city and for the last six years its dominant political force. "The Afro is the best that we have," says City Council member Henry Marsh III, the city's former mayor and a dogged critic of the Richmond Newspapers.

"I find it interesting," says John Templeton, the Afro's 28-year-old editor and general manager, who oversees a staff of 12 full-time employes. "People expect us to take them on, and yet the disparity is so huge. They are one city block, and all we have is a row house."

The Afro has gone through a series of transitions over the last century--from a crusading force for black causes in the waning days of Reconstruction, to a sensational broadsheet after World War II, to an editorial platform for civil rights and black electoral power in the 1960s and 1970s.

In recent years, the paper has changed again. Without abandoning the fight for black interests in the city, it now gives more space to positive, upbeat news. It carries regular features such as Families of the Year and Academic Standouts; it prints educational supplements and promotes free concerts and other cultural programs.

"We have to move beyond the traditional role of the black press as organ of protest," says Templeton. "Realistically, there are people living in split levels with Cadillacs in the garage, who have no interest in marching. We are not going to give up advocacy, but if that's all we did, we would reach only part of the spectrum of folks. So we have to broaden our scope."

The Richmond Afro-American, owned since 1938 by the Baltimore-based Afro-American chain, is not the largest black newspaper in Virginia. The Norfolk Journal and Guide, which covers Tidewater Virginia, has a circulation of 26,000. Before integration, when the black press was the only place black readers could turn for news of interest to them, the two competed vigorously. Now, times have dictated a different role, as they have for other black newspapers.

"With the civil rights movement, everyone was buying black newspapers to read the news," says John (Jake) Oliver, 38, chairman of the board of the Afro-American chain. "With the demise of the movement, the purpose was not as clear as it had been."

The answer, according to Oliver, is a product that puts less emphasis on competing for daily news. "We want to be analyzing what's appearing in the white dailies, and giving it a black perspective," he notes.

Steve Davis, executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents 134 black newspapers in the country, says many black papers that have seen their revenue base shift from subscriptions to advertising have had to change focus.

"They've found they've got to develop other issues, other than issues of segregation and civil rights," he said. "Before, their readers wanted and needed equal treatment. We've achieved that now. Now they want and need other things--parks, day care, better schools."

Given its longevity and its history, Richmond's black paper has some advantages. A recent survey found that the Afro was known in 89 percent of black households and in 49 percent of white households. According to Afro-American President John Murphy III, it has the highest penetration of any paper in the chain.

It began as the Richmond Planet, founded in 1883 by 13 black teachers, all former slaves, as a vehicle to counter a growing, often violent, hostility against blacks.

For 45 years, the paper was run by John Mitchell Jr., a prominent black banker who turned it into one of the largest black newspapers in the South and earned himself an accolade from a young Joseph Pulitzer as "one of the most daring and vigorous colored editors."

Mitchell led crusades against Jim Crow laws, lynchings (the paper ran a weekly chart of lynchings throughout the South) and even a city appropriation for a monument to Gen. Robert E. Lee, the hallowed saint of the Confederacy.

Even then, the paper and its editor engaged in running battles with the city's major newspapers. When Mitchell was invited to lunch by Gov. Charles Triplett O'Ferrall, one of Richmond's daily newspapers editorialized against the governor for eating with Mitchell as if he were "a human being." According to research done for the paper's centennial edition, Mitchell hit back, calling the editor a man "who out-Herods Herod in his malignity towards the Negro."

Both the Afro and the city's major papers have changed since then, but their occasionally vitriolic battles have not. When the Richmond Times Dispatch recently lost a $1 million libel suit brought by a black teacher, the Afro trumpeted the story on its front page and ran a detailed account of the five-day trial, describing the story as an example of the Richmond Newspapers' negative coverage of the city's school system.

In an editorial entitled "It's About Time," Templeton criticized "the arrogance and callousness of the Richmond Newspapers' treatment of blacks" and argued that the paper lost the suit, now under appeal, because "by 1981, it had turned the act of goring black oxen into a spectator sport."

Alfred Goodykoontz, executive editor of the Times Dispatch, declined to be interviewed about the Afro-American.

Afro reporter William Worrell, who has worked at the paper since 1976, says he frequently hears the complaint that the Afro is as guilty of bias as its competitors. "I can live with that," he said, "as long as they will acknowledge what that says about them."

The Afro, which some say was reduced to a crime sheet in the postwar era, resumed its militant tone in 1965 when Raymond H. Boone, then the Afro-American's 27-year-old White House correspondent, arrived as editor. By the time he left Richmond in 1977, he had succeeded in rattling the city's establishment and, according to some, earning the newspaper new respect.

"When I came to Richmond, there was me and a part-time photographer," recalls Boone, now a lecturer at Howard University. "When I came, the Richmond paper was ninth in a chain of 13. When I left, it was number two."

During Boone's tenure, the paper kept up a relentless drumbeat for civil rights and threw itself into a series of political battles, almost always in alliance with the city's powerful black organization, the Crusade for Voters.

In 1967, the paper sent a white reporter and a black reporter to write on housing discrimination in the city. The reports, which catalogued cases in which the black applicant was turned away on the same day that the white was accepted, led to a series of editorials pushing for fair housing legislation, a bandwagon soon joined by black politicians.

In 1976, Boone turned his guns on the city's Tobacco Festival, enlisting corporate officers of tobacco companies in a campaign to gain admittance for blacks to the festivities.

All during that era, crime stories--considered essential for a paper that relied heavily on newsstand sales--continued to get banner treatment, sustaining the paper's reputation for sensationalism. But for every crime story, there was Boone's one-man journalistic barrage on state and city politics.

The villains and heroes were often predictable: Gov. Linwood Holton, a moderate Republican who hired blacks for key positions, got generous treatment, while Gov. Mills E. Godwin was a favorite target.

Boone once chided Godwin for making the word Negro sound like Negra. "I instructed him editorially that if he could pronounce the word "hero" and "zero," he certainly could pronounce "Negro," wrote Boone in an article for the paper's centennial edition.

"Boone was indefatigable," recalls Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), a black leader who, despite receiving high praise in Boone's editorials, saw his divorce proceedings get front-page treatment in the Afro. "He was the Afro 24 hours a day," Wilder says.

Boone, who left Richmond in 1977 to assume an executive position with the Afro-American chain in Baltimore, was always quick to attack "the conservative twins," as he referred to his competitors, the Times Dispatch and News Leader. But even in the midst of the battle, there was grudging acceptance. The Afro got news tips from reporters on the dailies--for instance, on the barring of Virginia's first black delegate from the exclusive Commonwealth Club. The Afro lent the dailies pictures from its files.

In 1973, the Richmond News Leader devoted half its editorial page to Boone's columns as part of its coverage of the fierce debate then raging over the adoption of a ward system of elections in Richmond, a system that eventually paved the way for a black majority on the City Council.

Templeton, a former Afro reporter who returned to Richmond after editing a North Carolina paper, has given the paper a milder tone. Although the paper has hit hard at the Richmond Newspapers' editorial policies, Templeton says he makes it a point not to read the daily papers, to avoid the trap into which he feels many black papers were lured.

"I want to think in terms of a distinct product," says Templeton. "I want to depend on our own sources, even if we end up saying the same thing. I want to feel we discovered it."

By the time Templeton arrived in 1980 (Boone had continued as editor for three years while based in Baltimore), the city's politics had also changed. Some blacks--including Wilder--say the Richmond papers have improved their reporting on black issues. Old attitudes, while not erased, are in retreat. A black majority is on the City Council, but the days of harmony among the black leaders are over, most recently in the bitter feud between former mayor Marsh and his successor, Roy A. West.

Like the rest of the city's black establishment, the Afro has been drawn into the battle between West and Marsh. When it criticized a key Marsh ally for being unresponsive to her constituents, the paper was later blamed by some for her defeat, even though it did eventually endorse her.

And while West has complained to the paper about its unfair coverage, Marsh complains equally that the Afro has "muffled its criticism" of his archrival.

These realities have put new demands on the paper, as they have on the black community. "It is," says Templeton, "a whole new ball game."