I was not interested in the newspaper. It was started in 1964 by my dad, the late Dr. Calvin Rolark, and a gift of $500 that was given to him by my stepmother, Wilhelmina Rolark. My dad struggled for many years in a small office on Seventh and G streets Northwest.
He had the newspaper office; she had her law office. I wanted to become a lawyer like her.
I figured I’d thank him for all the years of summer jobs and the days that I helped him with the newspaper, but I would bid him farewell and go on to pursue some other career in law. Once I got into college I decided that communications was something I enjoyed. I think it was the opportunity to see what I had learned without him looking over my shoulder.
At Howard law school, I became editor of the Barrister, which was the law school newspaper. When I got there, the newspaper didn’t get much support by the administration, so it was my objective to change that. I was at Howard when the new courtroom was built and named in honor of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and he spoke. Because I was involved in the program, I needed someone who could actually do the story for me. I often wrote the stories or recruited classmates when needed. We really didn’t have much of a staff, and very few law school students had any background or experience in journalism. A guy who worked with me at the paper said: “Denise, I’m a reporter. I can cover that.” And then he gave me a complete transcript of the entire program. I said, “What is this?” And he said, “Well, I’m a court reporter.”
As fate would have it, no one had a copy of [Marshall’s] speech. So I decided, We’re going to run the entire speech in our newspaper. The dean got calls from around the world for copies of that speech, and we were the only ones that had it. I realized at that point that something that I had learned in hanging around with my father had transferred to me: the importance of being able to own your own medium and what value that has for the community that you serve. I was going to go work for the Federal Communications Commission, but I decided, No, I think I’m gonna go work with my dad. So when I said this is what I want to do, he dropped it on me and said, “Call me if you need me.”
My father wanted a newspaper that didn’t publish negative news, or let me put it this way: that published positive news. We talk about what our organizations do to improve education or to address violence in our community. To keep families together. To improve reading skills. There is so much good news. And when I say “our,” I’m talking about D.C. — not just black people — but Washington, D.C.
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