The Story of the Concordia Sentinel
The story of the Concordia Sentinel, the oldest business in Concordia Parish, dates back to the mid-19th century when steamboats cruised on the Mississippi River.
When the first governor of the Mississippi Territory, Winthrop Sargent, arrived in Natchez in 1798 just after the region became an American possession, he immediately realized the need for a printing press.
"We have no printing offices in this country, we are remote from all others...." A small press, he said, "would be a blessing to the people of the territory..."
Soon the need was filled.
Andrew Marschalk, a soldier from New York, was stationed at Walnut Hills (Vicksburg) with a detachment of U.S. troops. A veteran of the Revolutionary War as a member of the Continental Army, Marschalk's true love was printing.
He owned a small mahogany press and recalled years later, "Great excitement was caused in Natchez by the knowledge of a press being in the country, and strong inducements were held out for me to remove to that place."
After the Mississippi Territory Legislature was organized, Marschalk was hired as the official printer. By 1802, at the age of 35, Marschalk was publishing a newspaper, one of several he edited and published over the years. Many talented editors would write for newspapers in Natchez during the early 19th century.
The first newspaper across the Mississippi River from Natchez was the Concordia Intelligencer, established in Vidalia in 1841. Robert Patterson and T.B. Thorpe were among the first editors. Although the newspaper's birth came just a year after the Great Natchez Tornado of 1840, the second deadliest in U.S. history, the parish population had doubled during the 1830s as land was cleared for farming.
The growth in agriculture came about on the back of slave labor, and plantation owners, mostly wealthy Natchez planters, saw the cotton fields as a means in which to further enhance their riches. The Intelligencer often defended slavery. An early issue carried an open letter from several prominent citizens promoting the need to police the activities and movement of slaves.
Both Patterson and Thorpe were well-respected newspapermen. Patterson was one of the early proponents of a railroad. The newspaper covered politics, carried national and international news and was filled with advertising for a variety of products and goods sold during the day. On Page 2 of its first edition the Intelligencer printed that its mission was to "give the current news of the day," advocate for the general good of the community and promote "agriculture and industry."
After a number of editors and owners, the Intelligencer by the late 1850s was owned by John McDowell. According to Robert Dabney Calhoun in his "A History of Concordia Parish," McDowell published the final edition of the paper in 1861, which by then "had shriveled to one little sheet, about eighteen inches square, and the War suspended it entirely."
The Vidalia Herald was published by Judge Wade H. Hough beginning in 1870, according to Calhoun, but soon folded.
In 1873, the Concordia Eagle was founded in Vidalia by 37-year-old David Young, who had been born into slavery in Kentucky before running away as a teenager. Later captured, he was sold to a Natchez planter who sent Young to labor in the cotton fields of Concordia. During the Civil War, Young again escaped from his plantation master and made his way into the camp of the Union Army. There, he was taught to read and write.
After the war, Young emerged as a leading citizen in the parish. He was a businessman, minister and legislator who for a brief period was the political boss of the parish. In his newspaper, the Eagle proclaimed: "Equal Rights for All Men."
Young, however, was forced out of political office near the end of Reconstruction by heavily armed Klan-like vigilantes who had joined state forces to remove African-Americans from office.
Two other black men would publish the Eagle after Young, including, James Presley Ball Jr., the son of the prominent freeborn African-American photographer and abolitionist. Ball's father, James Presley Ball Sr., owned and operated a photography studio in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the 1850s that was considered one the best in the Midwest.
Both father and son briefly operated a studio in Vidalia while Ball Jr. operated the newspaper.
Afterward, Kentucky-born African-American Love S. Cornwell published the Eagle. He had previously served in the territorial legislature in Kansas in the late 1850s. Cornwell also served as Clerk of Court in Concordia from 1880 to 1884.
In 1882, the Eagle was purchased by Josiah Rountree, according to the Rountree family. Josiah's son and grandson would also own and operate what became known as the Concordia Sentinel. The family published the Sentinel for almost a century.
During the Civil War, Josiah Rountree witnessed the Union bombardment of Natchez in 1862, where the lone casualty was seven-year-old Rosalie Beekman. He later witnessed the bombardment of Vidalia by federal forces in 1863. During the war, Josiah Rountree studied all aspects of the publishing business at a Natchez newspaper and even sold copies to Yankee soldiers.
After the war, he moved to New Orleans where he worked as timekeeper at a sugar mill. There, he amassed a small fortune of $1,760 and moved to Vidalia, where he purchased the Eagle, renaming it the Concordia Sentinel.
Josiah Rountree published the newspaper until 1916 when son Percy Rountree Sr. took over following his service in World War I. By that time, Ferriday, born as a railroad town in the early 1900s, was growing at a rapid pace. The family eventually decided to relocate the paper's home from Vidalia to Ferriday.
The Rountrees also bought the Madison Journal, which was published by Josiah's son Willie Rountree. Another publisher was Josiah Rountree's nephew, Josiah Petit Scott, whose father, Major Scott, died during the Civil War. Josiah Scott was reared by Josiah Rountree. In 1912, Scott purchased the Tensas Gazette. He owned the paper for four decades.
Percy Rountree Sr.'s son, Percy Rountree Jr., became the Sentinel's third publisher in 1946. Born in 1921, Rountree Jr. earned a degree in journalism at LSU in 1941. A cadet colonel in the ROTC, Rountree served in the Air Force in England and France during most of World War II.
In 1965, Rountree Jr., who had long held an interest in farming and agriculture, decided it was time to sell the newspaper to pursue these interests. Three generations of the Rountree family had operated the Sentinel when it was sold to Sam A. Hanna Sr. A seasoned newspaperman from Monroe, Hanna was a native of Winnsboro. An LSU graduate, Hanna had cut his teeth in the newspaper business at The Franklin Sun where he wrote his first editorial while still a teenager.
At LSU, he worked as a sports editor at the school newspaper, The Daily Reveille, and later was advertising director. Due to his advertising work, he earned enough money in commissions to graduate LSU in 1955 with $6,000 in his pocket.
He worked at newspapers in Colfax and Bastrop before joining the Monroe Morning World in 1956 where he worked for nine years. As political editor, he covered governors Earl Long, Jimmy Davis and John McKeithen as well as a young state legislator named Edwin Edwards, who would later serve four terms as governor. As editor and publisher of the Sentinel, Hanna covered governors Edwards, Dave Treen, Buddy Roemer, Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco.
Longtime political writer Iris Kelso of New Orleans Times-Picayune said Hanna's editorials and columns represented "some of the best political writing in the state." Leo Honeycutt's 2009 biography on Edwin Edwards cites Hanna's columns as a major source for his book.
In 1967, Hanna purchased the Catahoula News-Booster in Jonesville and in 1974 bought The Franklin Sun. He later sold the News-Booster and in 1996 purchased The Ouachita Citizen along with his son, Sam A. Hanna Jr.
Until his death in 2006, Hanna considered the newspaper life a calling. He also considered the Sentinel — at 13 decades the oldest business in the parish — as a newspaper that "belongs to the people of Concordia Parish."
After his death, the second generation of the Hanna family took over operations. Mary Sue Hanna, Hanna Sr.’s wife of almost 45 years when he died, serves as publisher of the Sentinel today. The day-to-day operations of running the Sentinel are handled by one of Hanna Sr.’s daughters, Lesley Hanna Capdepon, and his son, Hanna Jr. Capdepon serves as general manager of the Sentinel and its sister newspapers, The Franklin Sun and The Ouachita Citizen. Hanna Jr. serves in an editorial/management capacity at the Sentinel and The Franklin Sun while also serving as publisher of The Ouachita Citizen.
The Hannas will mark their 50th year of ownership of the Sentinel in 2015.
In 2011, the Sentinel was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for local reporting for its investigation into the 1964 murder of African-American businessman Frank Morris of Ferriday. Also in 2011, the newspaper was awarded the first Courage and Justice Award from LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, the Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon and the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism presented by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
The Sentinel’s recognition was made possible because of Stanley Nelson, who has worked at the Sentinel on and off since 1975, most recently as editor. Beginning in February 2007, Nelson investigated and reported at length on Morris’ murder, as well as other unsolved civil rights era crimes. Nelson’s work was singled out by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, National Public Radio, and a host of other media outlets.