Mary Alice Jervay Thatch, who often told the story of how as a baby, she used her diaper to clean the floor of the Wilmington Journal and who went on to become the editor and publisher of the historic newspaper, has died at the age of 78.
“My daddy used to say that I started at 3 or 4 months old, when I started crawling around on the floor,” Thatch recounted several times, often with a broad smile and chuckle. “I was hired as the janitor to clean the floor – with my diaper.”
A teacher and educated wordsmith, Thatch had an unsurpassed commitment to providing a voice to African Americans.
She took over the Wilmington Journal in 1996, following the footsteps of her father, former National Newspaper Publishers Association Chair Thomas C. Jervay Sr., and grandfather, R.S. Jervay.
The latter founded the newspaper in 1927, while her father ultimately took over as publisher.
R.S. Jervay moved from Columbus County to Wilmington and found that the area lacked a Black-owned newspaper for three decades because of the race riots that destroyed the Daily Record, which had served all African American residents of North Carolina.
The elder Jervay founded the Cape Fear Journal, and the paper later changed its name to the Wilmington Journal.
Thatch once recalled the early days of the Journal.
“My father used to say he had printer’s ink in his nostrils because he grew up at the paper,” Thatch once remarked.
“He was the first carrier for the paper. He became editor after he graduated college.”
As a child, Thatch and her family lived on the second floor of the building housing the Wilmington Journal.
“Growing up at the paper, it was a daily thing for the family. We had family chores and Journal chores.”
During the struggle for civil rights, Thatch proved herself a champion for freedom and equality.
On Feb. 6, 1971, a white-owned grocery store was firebombed, and as they responded, emergency workers were fired upon by snipers.
Ten community activists, including Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., were falsely accused of the firebombing and convicted in 1972 of arson and other offenses.
The Jervay family were among the few to boldly and publicly support the activists known as The Wilmington Ten.
After spending nearly 10 years in prison, the state released Chavis and the others.
But Thatch kept up the fight to clear their names.
In 2011, she organized the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project and continued to push for a declaration of innocence for the group.
After a successful petition that garnered more than 150,000 signatures and with Thatch helping to uncover critical evidence, on Dec. 31, 2012, Gov. Beverly Perdue issued pardons of innocence for each member of the Wilmington Ten.
“The NNPA today learned of the passing of one of our leading publishers, the renowned Mary Alice Jervay Thatch, publisher of the Wilmington Journal in Wilmington, North Carolina,” said Chavis, now president and CEO of the NNPA. “Mary Alice Jervay Thatch was a key factor for decades demanding successful pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten in 2012.”
He noted that the Jervay family represents four generations of African American publishers in North Carolina and praised Mary Alice’s father and grandfather.
Chavis said the NNPA would sorely miss Thatch.
“Mary Alice Thatch was a freedom fighting publisher, journalist and activist. The Black Press of America extends our sincerest condolences to the family of Mary Alice Jervay Thatch,” he said.
Just as Thatch continued her father’s legacy, her daughters are current Journal staffers, and her grandchildren reportedly have also played a part in producing the paper in recent years.
“A family-owned newspaper is really part of the community,” Thatch previously told her biographer Amanda K. Lee. “This is not just my paper; it is the community’s paper. The community is family.”