Local Treasure Starting Tomorrow, Philadelphia's First Woman Publisher -- Kathryn Fambro Woodard -- Will Be Filling People In On Her Life And Legacy.

Posted: November 19, 1997

Kitty Woodard, owner of the World's Greatest Negro Tabloid, keeps pieces of Philadelphia history tucked away in her TV cabinet. Like good liquor, she brings it out every now and then to share with friends.

But, like a stiff drink, reliving history can go down smoothly or make you feel a little nauseated, depending on the memory.

This one, though - a yellowed 1960ish newspaper clipping picturing a much younger Woodard alongside Nat King Cole and Tony Taylor, the popular and talented Phillies infielder - prompted a smile, then a laugh from the storyteller, peals of girlish laughter that seemed delightfully uncharacteristic coming from a woman who will turn 87 in February.

``I told [city officials] that I wanted to have a Tony Taylor Day at [Connie Mack Stadium] and they told me, `You won't draw a crowd,' and I said `What do you mean. . . . ?'

``Not only did we draw a crowd, when we got Nat King Cole to come, they like to had a fit!''

Her laughter rang like a wind chime, smug and satisfied. Kathryn Fambro Woodard, better known as Kitty in her heyday and as Mama Kitty to loved ones now, takes no offense in knowing that she is a treasure few are aware of. As editor and publisher of the Philadelphia Independent, a black newspaper, she is thought to be Philadelphia's first woman publisher. As a nonstop crusader for civil rights, and an outspoken columnist, she used the power of the pen to inform and enlighten thousands of Independent readers.

Woodard will be asked to share her remembrances at a conference, ``African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement,'' tomorrow and Friday at Temple University. The conference organizers hope to chronicle Woodard's long life, not only to record history but to preserve her rich legacy.

The seminar looks at a little-known subject. ``Scholars are just beginning to look at the North in terms of women in the civil rights movement,'' said Bettye Collier-Thomas, an associate professor of history at Temple, who organized the conference with V.P. Franklin, professor of history at Drexel University. ``Civil rights was an issue here, too. But you discover the difficulty in finding the people. Many of the women have passed or have been forgotten, their papers are not in a repository, their materials have not been moved into an archive.''

Woodard kept every award, memento and edition she published, but downsized considerably when she moved out of her stately Yeadon home of over 40 years into a more modest twin in the same community.

Ever a journalist, she's still a pack rat. Inside her TV cabinet sit stacks of yellowed newspapers whose headlines trumpeted the Negro condition: ``Rev. Martin L. King Man-of-the-Year,'' ``Ministers, NAACP Carry Battle Against Blackface Mummers,'' ``Liston KOs Folley.''

Woodard flipped through what she called her brag book - a loose-leaf binder full of black-and-white glossies of famous folks with whom she rubbed elbows. There were pictures of a much more voluptuous Woodard (``I went up to a size 18 dress. With all the affairs I went to, you'd have to eat lunch, then dinner'') posing with such luminaries as actor Sidney Poitier, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, opera star Marian Anderson, and civil rights stalwarts A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Ralph Bunche.

Woodard took over the Independent after the death of her husband, Forrist Woodard, who ran it from 1931 until his death in 1958. Though Kitty had written a column called ``My Folks'' during the paper's early years, her marriage to Forrist, who was 25 years older, solidified her status as housewife and late-life mother of their daughters Forristyna and Cathylyn. (Lenore, her oldest daughter, was a product of her first marriage.)

During Woodard's eight-year tenure as editor and publisher, women, especially black women, didn't have access to positions of power. So the influence of Woodard's work was pervasive during a time when African Americans depended on black publications as the only reliable source of information about themselves.

``The mainstream press would only report the ills and violence in our community. It wasn't unusual to wait until the black newspapers came out to get the truth,'' said Robert W. Bogle, president of the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest black newspaper in the country. ``They were the eyes, ears and heart of the community. They were needed if you wanted to know anything about yourself, your school, your religious and social environment. . . . Who do you think told the stories of our baseball players?''

Four black weeklies circulated in Philadelphia then: the Tribune, the Independent and the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier, both of which had offices here. The Baltimore and Pittsburgh papers still exist, but no longer have offices here.

The Independent, with its lofty masthead slogan touting it as The World's Greatest Negro Tabloid, was Democratic - the party to which black people shifted in the late 1930s, largely because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt - and more militant, while the Tribune was Republican and more conservative. Because of its tabloid format and gossipy columns, the Independent was viewed as more sensational.

Woodard described it differently.

``It was better,'' she said. ``The Independent was for the masses. The Tribune had always been the paper for the upper class. We were militant. We weren't afraid to take on issues like they were.''

She was jailed overnight on a questionable traffic violation when her paper demanded that a white police officer be charged in the shooting death of a black boy in 1960.

Was she afraid?

``Now you know I wasn't afraid,'' said Woodard, who found herself in direct confrontation with police more times than she wanted to be. ``If they put Martin Luther King in jail all those times, I could go to jail once.''

The publisher, writing in fearless, no-nonsense prose, used her ``Kitty's Korner'' column to address wrongs and advocate civil rights for African Americans.

When the Tastykake Co. dismissed ``Negroes'' as being a ``very small portion'' of the company's total market - after black ministers targeted the company because of its biased employment practices - Woodard wrote an open letter to the black women of Philadelphia. ``We can see to it that our children and men eat some other cake and baking product,'' she wrote.

One of her staunchest allies was Cecil B. Moore, the charismatic criminal lawyer and NAACP head who was the major player in the Philadelphia civil rights movement.

During the 1960s, Woodard aligned herself closely with Moore and took advocacy journalism one step further by putting herself in the story. She helped Moore plan a round-the-clock protest of Girard College, joining the forces that encouraged the school for fatherless boys to accept its first black students.

Moore's fiery brand of activism excited Woodard, but his dictatorial style sometimes drew her public criticism. Still, Woodard often was the only woman Moore invited into his powerful circle.

It wasn't as if there were a lot of women clamoring to get in, Woodard remembers.

``Truthfully, women just weren't that militant then. They were so busy socializing. The AKA's and the Deltas, even the NAACP women weren't that active. They wanted to hang out with men and drink with them, not work with them.''

Watching the Million Woman March last month reignited the rabblerouser in her. ``I think it's time the women were getting involved and not leaving it all to the men, I honestly do.''

Given Woodard's politics, you wonder if she would be more comfortable wearing a dashiki and an Angela Davis-size Afro than the smart suits and fancy hats that were her trademark.

``I always thought Mother was before her time,'' said Woodard's daughter, Lenore Onley, who at 68 is still hard-pressed to keep up with her mom. ``Even a lot of black people weren't ready for her. Everybody didn't appreciate blackness at that time.''

Woodard sold the Independent in 1966 and, soon after, it folded. These days, the only marching she does is to the bus, which she catches downtown to join her two girlfriends (who are both over 80) for lunch. Though she is a walking, talking treasury of information, she has little inclination to write a book.

``I don't seem to have the feeling like I should for things like this. Sometimes I feel kind of disgusted from the memories. They're not the pleasant, exuberant memories I should have.''

Besides, she said, too modest to acknowledge the impact she made on history, what's the use in dredging up the past? ``When I got to 70, I considered these bonus years. I'm pleasing me.''

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