Soon after it was founded 50 years ago, the Washington Free Press found itself locked in a bitter struggle, its employees arguing over whether the paper — the bible of the D.C. counterculture scene — should accept ads from Coca-Cola.
“That discussion almost severed the paper into two parts,” said Art Grosman , who in 1966 helped found the Free Press, one of the District’s earliest alternative newspapers.
Those arguing in favor — including Art — felt that advertising money from whatever source could only help keep the Washington Free Press running. Against it were those who saw the corporate and capitalistic soft drink giant as everything that was wrong with the country.
“The funny part is, Coca-Cola didn’t even know we existed,” Art said. “It was an intellectual discussion.”
There was a lot of that kind of discussion at the Free Press, whose history will be spotlighted at the Historical Society of Washington’s 43rd annual Conference on D.C. History, this weekend at the Washington Convention Center.
“We had all the different communists arguing among themselves: the Trotskyites, the Leninites, the Stalinists,” Art said. “My only interest was just getting the word out about the counterculture that was going on.”
Art was a white Wilson High graduate who was studying physics at historically black Howard University. While attending a speech at George Washington University by Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, head of the Selective Service, Art spied another white Howard student, Frank Speltz.
“We realized white kids didn’t know about the civil rights movement, and the black kids at Howard weren’t aware of the rising draft and Vietnam War,” Art said. “We decided, let’s put together an intercollegiate newspaper.”
The first issues of the Washington Free Press were assembled in a Dupont Circle apartment. The young, progressive staff adhered to a few bedrock principles: for civil rights, against the war, for recreational drugs.
“We even had a chess column,” Art said.
The Free Press attracted all sorts of attention. Art said The Washington Post and the Evening Star newspapers would glean it for story ideas, not being as well connected in the counterculture community.
“I’ll tell you this,” Art said, “Carl Bernstein would stop in the newspaper often.”
Some of the attention was unwelcome. Art said the Free Press offices were ransacked by Army intelligence. They were set on fire. They were infiltrated by moles.
Pressure was put on advertisers to pull their ads. (Coca-Cola may not have advertised, but record labels did, as did head shops, such as one with the wonderful name the Joint Possession.)
The paper was printed in Rockville, Md., by a company called Comprint that was run by a dentist and philatelist named Doc Kapiloff , who also owned the Montgomery Sentinel.
“One time we took the copy to him and he said: ‘The FBI just left. They don’t want me to print the issue,’ ” Art said.
Art asked Doc what he was going to do. Doc asked to see the pages, looked them over and said, “I’ll print you.”
Said Art: “He was a very courageous guy.”
Art took comfort in the fact that there was nothing illegal about the Free Press. Still, when things got a little too hot because of his involvement with the paper, Art left town to work on a documentary in Chile. He didn’t make it that far, spending several months in Mexico. When he returned to the District in 1970, the Washington Free Press had closed. Art, now 73, became a contractor, restoring homes in his Adams Morgan neighborhood.
For the past six years, he and his wife, Marty Taylor, have spent half the year sailing the Mediterranean aboard their boat, Sherpa.
The Washington Free Press anniversary panel is at 3:15 p.m. Saturday, moderated by local filmmaker Jeff Krulik. Panelists include founders Art and Frank, along with former staffers such as Pete Novick, who wrote a drug column under the byline Fooman Zybar.
Art said he has even invited one fellow who worked on the paper back in the 1960s and who now lives in Austin, where he works for a conservative group of climate-change deniers.
Said Art: “He’s excited. He said, ‘If I can get my company to pay for me to come to Washington, I’ll be there.’ ”
All right! All these years later and still sticking it to the man.
The Free Press panel is just one session at this weekend’s D.C. history conference. The conference opens Thursday with a lecture at the National Archives by Adam Rothman titled “Facing Slavery’s Legacy at Georgetown University.” Sessions on Friday and Saturday cover such varied topics as D.C. archaeology, the history of Barry Farm, the literature of Washington, African American fraternal organizations in the city, the history of the Winder Building and Yarrow Mamout, a Muslim former slave who owned property in Georgetown.
Conference registration is $25, $15 for students and seniors. There are also films and tours requiring separate registration. For information, visit dchistory.org.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.