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Final press run means the end for Dunbar's Community Press

Bodie drops off a stack of papers at a church in the Dunbar community before the foodbank opens for the day. Ernest “Bodie” McMillan picked up the paper for the last time on December 8, 2022. McMillan distributes the paper paper all over Lee County, Collier County and Charlotte County.
Andrea Melendez/WGCU/Andrea Melendez
/
WGCU
Ernest “Bodie” McMillan picked up the paper for the last time on December 8, 2022. McMillan distributes the paper paper all over Lee County, Collier County and Charlotte County. The Community Press of Fort Myers, Florida, was started by James Middlebrooks as a way to bring positive news into the Dunbar neighborhood. “They do good work in the community and we didn’t hear about it” Middlebrooks said, so 8 years ago he started “A little paper with big news”. December of this year will be the last time The Community Press will be printed. At the age of 80, Middlebrooks is retiring to spend more time with his family.

A Black-owned and operated community newspaper in Dunbar is closing, following in the footsteps of so many other newspapers that strive to uplift and amplify the voices in the Black community.

The Community Press, the little newspaper with big news, went to press for last time

James Middlebrooks Jr, says his name as he introduces himself, adding that he is with the Community Press of Fort Myers, Florida. He’s has been saying that for the past 8 years, though introductions are rarely needed.

Middlebrooks and three others founded the Black-oriented newspaper to fill a deep void in the community – sharing good news.

“I started because people in town needed some kind of vehicle that they can see themselves in and have bragging rights for about a minute,” he says.

In addition to publishing the Community Press, Middlebrooks, the 80-year-old Dunbar resident is a deacon in his church. He tutors children. He’s headed up the Boys and Girls Club of Lee County. He’s owned a child-care facility and a trophy shop.

A mathematician by trade, Middlebrooks taught elementary and middle school children and later went on to be the principal of Riverdale High School. He returned to mathematics as a professor at then Edison Community College.

To this day, Middlebrooks stays in touch with his former students -- the loyal subscribers and consumers of the Community Press.

He never collected a penny for his work as publisher and said it was all about making people happy.

“If it makes you happy then I’m happy."

Black newspapers have a long history in the United States. And the Community Press has been a staple in Dunbar, a small black community rich with a multitude of churches and civic groups. But the way Middlebrooks and his newspaper partners saw it, none of the good deeds to come from this community were being recognized by daily newspapers.

“They do good work in the community and we didn’t hear about it. You know the only thing we’d hear about is shootings. We believe in talking to people,” says Pablo “P.D." Williams.

Williams has been putting the newspaper together on his computer for 8 years.

The paper started with 16 pages and at times grew to more than 50 pages.

Before the Community Press, Middlebrooks and other educators published the Peoples Press, also for the Dunbar community. Over the years the other-Black-oriented newspapers in the Dunbar community such as the Ebony Star and the Community Voice have come and gone. And now the Community Press is saying goodbye. Its last issue recently hit the streets. Before that happened, Middlebrooks sat down with WCGU news reporters. Issues of his beloved paper surrounded him.

Tears well in his eyes as he read his farewell letter to the community.

"After a deeply meaningful and prolific eight-year journey, we are reminded of the fact that change is a constant and the seasons in life are just that –- seasons. Being stewards of the Community Press has transformed our lives and profoundly challenged us. Telling our community stories, curating our life events and being keepers of local history have resulted in a deeper sense of pride and joy. We are constantly reminded of our sense of self as a community and our sense of wonder and awe as a people,” he says.

Middlebrooks' love letter to the faithful readers was published in November, the Community Presse's second to last issue. The final press run was Dec. 7 and the thousands of papers were delivered to 73 different places between Punta Gorda and Naples.

There have been at least 109 Black newspapers in Florida’s history. The first, the New Era was founded by white people in 1865, the same year as the Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. A few years later, the New Era was purchased by Black people. Within a year, the it went out of businesses.

With the closure of the Community Press, Florida is left with 14 Black-oriented newspapers. Some states don’t have a single Black-oriented newspaper. The closest Black newspapers to Southwest Florida are in St. Petersburg and Fort Lauderdale,

That saddens the founders who worked without pay to uplift and amplify the voices of the black community. The only paid staffer was Ernest Bode McMillan who delivered the newspapers.

On his final day of work delivering papers, McMillan held out hope that someone would step in and continue the work of the Community Press.

The Community Press has shared birthdays. It has shared community events. It has shared products and services of its neighbors. It has shared life’s celebrations of loved ones, it has shared advice and editorials.

The Community Press of Fort Myers, Florida,  was started by James Middlebrooks as a way to bring positive news into the Dunbar neighborhood.
Andrea Melendez
/
WGCU
The Community Press of Fort Myers, Florida, was started by James Middlebrooks as a way to bring positive news into the Dunbar neighborhood. “They do good work in the community and we didn’t hear about it” Middlebrooks said, so 8 years ago he started “A little paper with big news”. December of this year will be the last time The Community Press will be printed. At the age of 80, Middlebrooks is retiring to spend more time with his family.

“We didn’t know where the Community Press would take us, but we knew it would change our lives and fill us with so much pride, and even bring us to our knees, reveling in the beauty of our culture and our people. It did because you did,” Middlebrook says, continuing to read his letter.

In just a few months, Middlebrooks will be 81. He says he’s enjoyed life’s journeys and promises it’s not over yet. But he says he’s ready to try something different.

“Farewell. We love you so much. Thank you,” he said, ending his letter and his work here uplifting the Dunbar community.

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