VCU alumni reflect on lack of Black presence in student media

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Iman Mekonen, Managing Editor

On a weekend in the late ’90s, someone in VCU’s communications building would find a group of Black students gathered in a computer lab, playing music and having fun. What looked like a high-energy party was a glimpse into the production schedule of The Vine, VCU’s former Black student-led publication.

“It was just Black. It was super Black,” said former staff member Michele Canty. “One day you might come in and we might be listening to Frankie Beverly & Maze, another day we were listening to The Roots, D’Angelo … it was fun. We made the best of what many would’ve considered a bad situation.”

The Vine was one of two Black student-led publications at VCU that were created out of a need for an outlet for Black student writers and artists. It ran from 1994 to 2008, following its predecessor, Reflections in Ink, which ran from 1978 to 1994. The publications have since been replaced by Ink Magazine, a student-led arts publication, in 2008. 

The Commonwealth Times, which was founded in 1969, was also present alongside these publications. Staff members at The CT weren’t inclusive to the ideas of Black students, Canty said. 

Canty worked at The Vine from 1995 to 1998 as a copy editor and said that the publication was one of the only places on campus where Black students could have their ideas heard. She also worked at The CT, which was required for journalism students at the time.

“The idea was for us to collaborate and to let Black writers write, us to edit their work and us to publish it and give them a platform in the form of The Vine,” Canty said.

Arts activist and alumna Lorna Pickney worked with Canty as a former editor-in-chief of The Vine. Pickney went on to organize Tuesday Verses, a series of jazz poetry cafes located in Jackson Ward and Shockoe Bottom. Canty described Pickney, who died in 2017, as “the glue that held everything together.”

Members of The Vine didn’t have a faculty adviser and would face hostility from The CT’s staff members, who called The Vine “trash,” Canty said. Members of The CT would cut out typos in issues of The Vine and post them in the computer labs where the Black student publication worked, she said.

“They kind of made picking on The Vine a sport,” Canty said. “It was funny to them that we were trying to do our little Black thing without having a bunch of guidance, without having a bunch of oversight.”

Working at The Vine without faculty support helped Canty understand what working in a professional newsroom would be like, she said. It also gave the publication freedom over its coverage. The alumna said members of The CT staff looked down on The Vine, what Canty referred to as feeling like “literally the Black sheep.”

“Since we were on our own, we just did what we wanted to do,” Canty said. “We covered the issues that we thought were important for Black students, we interviewed Black students and had an almost all-Black staff of writers.”

Sharon Richardson worked at The CT as the associate art editor in the early 1980s. The alumna decided to join Reflections in Ink after seeing how the Black student publication was being treated by The CT staff. Richardson remembers being among the students laughing at the Black student publication, on a staff she said was “overwhelmingly white and male.” 

“One day, I found myself saying, ‘Sharon, why are you sitting here snickering at this paper? Why don’t you go and volunteer or apply to be a copy editor here and fix the copy?’” Richardson said. “‘Stop snickering at it — go fix it.’ So I did.”

Richardson became executive editor of Reflections in Ink and held the position for more than two years. 

More recent members of The CT said that staff makeup during their time at the paper was majority white, but allowed for an acceptance of ideas. 

Artist Shannon Wright started working at The CT as a staff illustrator in 2014 and became the illustrations editor her senior year. She said her experience working at The CT was “relatively good” and that the lack of diversity made it feel isolating at times.

“I know that isolation can really push people away. And it just makes you not want to be in those positions,” Wright said. “When you are the only person there … it makes you not want to stay in that space.”

She said finding a “good set” of people on the staff helped her get through isolating moments as a Black woman. 

“We were very comfortable calling out actions for what they were,” said Siona Peterous, a former spectrum editor. “We weren’t interested in following the political correctness of traditional journalism.” 

Peterous, who worked on the staff in 2017, said her time at The CT gave her a chance to nurture her nuanced ideas while creating a space for herself.

“The CT gave me space to really cultivate my ideas, and to like, advocate for stories, even if someone else might consider them ‘too opinionated,’” Peterous said.

Former Illustrations Editor Chris Kindred, along with Wright, started The Comics Anthology at VCU, currently known as Emanata. Kindred became the first illustrations editor of The CT in 2013 and said one of his regrets was not being able to see more Black-led publications formed.

Kindred said he would’ve loved to see more stories about the history of Richmond and the surrounding Black communities. The alumnus said his great-grandfather used to travel into Richmond with a horse and carriage to do business as a sharecropper in the 1940s and ’50s, because the city was a “Black center of wealth.”

“I think that will be super important, and it could also instill some sense of duty in the people who want to change their community,” Kindred said. “There is a lot that you can still do, for the people that live there.”

For those working at The Vine in the ’90s, it was a labor of love, Canty said.

“We did it because we loved it, we did it because we believed in it and most importantly we did it because it was Black, and it was unapologetically Black,” Canty said.

News Editor Katharine DeRosa contributed to this report.

Correction: The print version of this story incorrectly indicated that Lorna Pickney was the first editor-in-chief of The Vine. Craig Belcher was the publication’s first editor-in-chief.

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