On June 26th the AFRO High Tea was held in D.C. Shown here from left to right, Dorothy Butler Gilliam, Michelle Richardson, Cathy Hughes, Frances "Toni" Draper, Karyn A.Temple and Denise Rolark Barnes. (Photo credit/Mr. James Fields)

By H. R. Harris,
Special to the AFRO,
and Deborah Bailey

Five of the most powerful American women in media, Cathy Hughes, Dorothy Butler Gilliam,  Denise Rolark Barnes, Michelle Richardson and Karyn A.Temple, were honored at the AFRO-American Newspaper’s annual High Tea event in Washington, D.C.

The Masonic Temple on U Street served as the perfect venue for the High Tea on June 26. The Temple sits right across from the former home of the Washington Afro-American Newspaper, bringing back warm memories for those gathered on a summer, Sunday afternoon. 

“This moment is historic,” said Frances “Toni” Draper, CEO and publisher of the AFRO-American Newspapers. 

The High Tea was indeed a mixture of style and substance. Each of the five honorees represented a distinct chapter in an industry in which Black women remain sorely under-represented. 

According to a 2022 report by the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, there are only 220 Black-owned radio stations in the U.S., out of more than 15,000 total stations. The percentage of Black reporters has decreased in the past 10 years from slightly over 7 percent in 2010 to 5.35 percent at the end of the last decade. Draper mentioned that there are slightly more than 200 Black owned newspapers, out of the thousands of papers serving communities across the U.S. daily and weekly.  

Cathy Hughes, founder and chairman of Urban One, and Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer, echoed Draper in expressing the importance of ownership.

Barnes received her award with gratitude for also coming from a media legacy family. She emphasized the need for Black ownership.

“One of my favorite sayings is that ‘he who owns the media controls the message,’” she said.  “It is important for Black Americans to have media that they own and control. The authentic voice of the Black community,” Barnes stressed.

Richardson, an Emmy Award winning journalist at WJZ-TV (Ch.13) in Baltimore and Temple, vice-president and general counsel of the Motion Picture Association, thanked the other honorees, who have clocked decades in the industry for blazing and literally creating the trail that allowed their goals to be attainable. 

“I want to thank all of the honorees who paved the way for me,” Temple said. 

“I want to make sure that I can do half as much as the honorees have done,” she continued. 

Gilliam, the first African American female reporter at the Washington Post, stated that her friends in the Black Press kept her grounded when co-workers and supervisors at the Post could not affirm her gifts. 

“These days you would call the treatment I received when I started at the Post, ‘microaggressions,’” Gilliam said of the insults, slights and subtle put downs that were part of her daily experience when she started at the Washington Post in 1961.

“I can’t say enough about the Black Press,” Gilliam continued. “When I really needed information, or encouragement, I would go across the street [from the Washington Post] to the D. C. office of Jet, and the staff there just took me in.” 

Hughes recognized and thanked the AFRO in response to receiving her recognition.  “What an honor for 130 years,” said Hughes. 

She then quickly pivoted to talk directly to the audience about the nation’s current political situation, and called for the removal of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. 

 “We’ve had enough,” she said to the audience who rose in applause. “We have to hold leadership accountable.” 

The afternoon High Tea event featured women donning an assortment of colorful summer fascinators and hats; fedoras, bowlers, straw hats, sequin bows, and hatinators. The audience feasted on tea fare of finger sandwiches, fresh fruit and petite deserts.

Hostess Renee Starlynn Allen, the “Peoples MC of the DMV“ kept the audience engaged and entertained as did Cellist Benjamin Gates, who serenaded the audience with a variety of original musical interpretations during the afternoon. 

After the honors concluded and accolades given, each woman in the audience had her own chance to display their colorful pastel outfits. The Masonic Lodge Ballroom was filled with laughter and music as the audience lined up and cavorted through the Masonic Ballroom in an upbeat fashion parade.

As afternoon slipped into early evening, the five Black women who are still making history to  this day in American Media and journalism laughed and danced as well. Cathy, Dorothy, Denise, Michelle, and Karyn were Black women in a room with other Black women and men where they were safe, fully understood and respected. 

Five Black media giants and trailblazers took a moment from the daunting responsibility of their roles, to breathe in, and just enjoy the affirmation of peers and admirers on a summer afternoon on U Street in Washington, D.C.

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