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Tribute To Dr. Donald Suggs

Rep. William Clay

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Mr. Speaker, I rise today to pay tribute to my good friend, constituent, and a wonderful American, Dr. Donald Suggs.

Dr. Suggs is a man of many gifts and talents, and shares each selflessly with his community and friends. As president and publisher of the No. 1 African-American weekly newspaper in America, the St. Louis American, Donald keeps the metropolitan St. Louis community apprised of prevalent issues on the Federal, State, and local levels. Each week more than 65,000 readers in the area pick up a copy of the free publication to read about politics, business, the arts, and other subjects of interest to the broader African-American community.

Each year the St. Louis American spotlights the community's unsung heroes at the ``St. Louis American Salute to Excellence in the Community''. Proceeds from the banquet held in honor of the recipients are used to fund scholarships for promising young men and women in the community.

In addition to running the newspaper company, Dr. Suggs provides medical service to indigent residents in his successful oral surgery practice. He is also president of Alexander-Suggs Gallery of African American Art, a founding board member of the Center for African Art in New York, and serves on the board of directors of the Regional Commerce and Growth Association.

It gives me great pleasure to share with our colleagues an inspirational account of the life of Dr. Donald Suggs as recorded in the September 1996 edition of St. Louis Commerce.

In addition to being a practicing oral surgeon, an activist during the civil rights movement, an art dealer and collector, a managing principal in a pre-paid dental plan and a partner in an airport retail concession business. Donald M. Suggs somehow has found the time and energy to steer one of the most acclaimed African-American newspapers in the country into 40 to 45 percent of all African-American households in the St. Louis metro area. Suggs and two partners bought the St. Louis American in 1980. A few years later, Suggs brought a majority share and took an active role in the paper's operation in 1984. ``The decision to be involved in The St. Louis American was not a well-thought-out business decision.'' remembers Suggs, who is president and publisher. ``The paper was burdened with debt in a segment of publishing that didn't have any discernible prospects for growth.'' As publisher, Suggs has been able to raise capital through his personal resources and company earnings, reduce the paper's debt load, increase circulation and bolster the staff in key positions. ``Revenues have multiplied by five in the last nine years and our revenue from the first two quarters of this year is up 23 percent over last year,'' remarks Suggs. The newspaper is distributed free from more than 650 distribution points throughout the St. Louis area. Ten years ago, the circulation for the American averaged from 4,000 to 6,000 copies per week. Today, the audited circulation is 65,500, making the 68-year-old paper the area's largest black weekly, the largest black newspaper in Missouri and one of the largest in the country. In relation to the size of St. Louis' African-American population, the paper's percentage of household penetration ranks at or near the top in the nation. In addition to increased revenues and circulation, The St. Louis American has improved dramatically the quality of the news content. Earlier this summer, the American was named the best African-American newspaper in the nation by the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) in competition with 220 other papers. The John B. Russwurm Award is named after the co-publisher of the first African-American newspaper in America. On March 16, 1827, Russwurm and Samuel E. Cornish began publishing Freedom's Journal, whose goal was to ``arrest the progress of prejudice and to shield ourselves against its consequent evils.'' This year was the first time any newspaper in Missouri had received the Russwurm award. In the finals, the American topped the Baltimore Afro-American and the Los Angeles Sentinel. Suggs says. ``(The Russwrum) is a premier award and it has been a great boost for morale of the staff.'' Besides winning NNPA awards for general excellence and best paper, the American also won awards for writing, layout and design, special sections and advertising. Another indication of the improved quality of the American has been the regularity with which it has either won or placed high in recent Missouri Press Association competitions which include all papers in Missouri. The American has 18 full-time employees. Suggs' earlier interests didn't point to his becoming a newspaper publisher. Born and raised in East Chicago, Ind., in a solid, 2-parent household, Suggs went to Indiana University where he received a bachelor's degree and a doctorate in dental surgery. He did his post-graduate work at Washington University and Homer G. Phillips Hospital. He was chief of oral surgery at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware before coming back to St. Louis. ``In 1961, I was completing my tour with the Air Force. I was offered a job at Washington University's dental school. When I arrived, the offer was rescinded because I was black,'' notes Suggs. He later was asked to join the faculty at Saint Louis University's dental school where he served as the school's first African-American associate clinical professor. During this period, Suggs also worked in anesthesia at various hospitals in St. Louis to supplement his income. During his tenure as a part-time faculty member, Suggs became active in the civil rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1968, he served as St. Louis chairman of the Poor People's March in Washington. ``After my third child was born, I knew I had to have more money than the amount I was earning teaching and giving anesthesia, so I started my oral surgery practice on North Kingshighway. I'm still practicing part-time,'' says Suggs. After his private practice became successful, Suggs was able to pursue his growing interest in serious art. ``I slowly started acquiring pieces. Some time later, I had the opportunity to get into the business side of art,'' says Suggs. As long-time president of the Alexander-Suggs Gallery of African Art based in St. Louis and New York City, he broadened his contacts in the art world. Later, as founder and chairman of the African Continuum, he helped bring non- commercial artistic endeavors to St. Louis. He also was a founding board member of the Center for African Art in New York City, now known as the Museum of African Art. His involvement in the art world and the civil rights movement were an impetus for Suggs to buy The St. Louis American. ``I got involved in the paper because of my interest in social change and my desire to have some influence on major public policy issues,'' Suggs says. Now, Suggs feels he can help have a positive impact on the African-American community through involvement in major economic and infrastructure issues that affect the entire region. ``It is much easier to make positive changes for African Americans in an economy that is growing. For instance, interest rates, trade policy and their effect on the economy have as much or more influence on the African- American community's well-being as do major social policies,'' says Suggs. ``That is why we are so interested in the RCGA's creation of the Greater St. Louis Economic Development Council and its commitment to create 100,000 new jobs. Transportation issues like airport expansion and MetroLink expansion are of great interest because of their potential economic benefits for the entire community.'' Suggs currently serves on RCGA's board of directors. Suggs also is concerned with St. Louis' failure to give greater priority to the recruitment and nurturing of top- level, professional African Americans. The St. Louis region needs to be more proactive in encouraging and supporting minority business, he says. ``St. Louis has done, with a few notable expectations, a poor job of attracting well-prepared people--particularly entrepreneurs--who are now going to Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Houston or Los Angeles for opportunities. Although there has been some improvement in recent years, we still don't have our share of highly-motivated, talented African Americans and that is a big concern,'' he says. Minority entrepreneurship and business development are underutilized resources for this region. What does the future hold for the American? ``Our strategic plan includes providing more comprehensive coverage of the black business community. A stronger black business community is a boon to St. Louis' economy. We also have expanded our working women's sections and we are developing a new minority health section in collaboration with some local African-American physicians that focuses on health education, behavior modification and health careers.'' says Suggs.