It was 2011 and Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones had just overseen the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protestors from Kanawha Plaza.
That’s when Ray Boone, the publisher of the Richmond Free Press stepped in. Boone, a veteran of the civil-rights era and, conveniently, the mayor’s next-door neighbor, invited the young rabble rousers to move camp to his front yard.
Much to the consternation of the mayor, the fight lived on – just the way Boone liked it.
Boone died Tuesday morning. He was 76.
“He had a type of casual audacity that’s rare in people. The city of Richmond has men such as Ray Boone to thank for the political … revolution that took place here in the late 1970s and 80s,” says Julian Hayter, an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.
Boone founded the Free Press with his wife, Jean, in 1992. The paper, helped in no small part by his adversarial editorial voice, was an important institution in Richmond’s black community.
“His editorials were as profound and strongly steeped in black liberation as anyone in the world,” says former City Councilman Marty Jewell. “There aren’t that many left like him who stand up for courage and justice, even up until death.”
Jean Boone says her husband was guided by a straightforward mission: “He tried to fight injustice wherever he saw it,” Jean Boone said. “Without the Free Press, there would be no black voice in Richmond.”
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last summer and had been in and out of the hospital since. That hadn’t slowed down his work. He took to dictating editorials from his hospital bed, and as recently last week, he directed a redesign of the paper’s front page from an intensive care unit.
“He didn’t like the way it looked,” Jean Boone said. “He was a perfectionist, or he attempted to be a perfectionist.”
Boone got his start in journalism in the ‘50s writing for the Suffolk News-Herald. He wrote for what were then known as the colored pages of the newspaper. His reputation as a dogged reporter, who unflinchingly asked tough questions, led him in 1965 to the Richmond Afro-American, a now defunct paper some credit him with turning into an “political powerhouse.”
Boone’s crusades in Richmond were not always popular. In 2006, he took on Ukrop’s Super Markets when the store made a change that meant the Free Press wouldn’t be available until a day later. He took out full page ads and ran scathing editorials in the Free Press, deriding the Ukrop’s for infringing on the First Amendment. Boone told Style Weekly, in 2006, that Ukrop's was becoming a "whites-only distribution center in terms of newspapers."
Boone caught criticism for his strong editorial stances, but as Style wrote in a 2011 profile, the practice is not uncommon for black newspapers, which have a history of advocacy journalism. Boone’s tactics won him as many admirers as detractors.
"Ray Boone is my hero. He has what I like to call testicular fortitude," King Salim Khalfani, then-executive director of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in 2011. “My first impression: He was a man after my own heart. He was bombastic, no-nonsense, and he would take me to task all the time." In one instance, Boone called for the entire staff of the NAACP to be fired, including Khalfani.
Boone’s voice didn’t quiet as he battled cancer. “He would always say, ‘I'm a warrior Jean, I'm a warrior. I'm going to fight this,’” Jean Boone said.
In a December interview with Style, Boone was sharp as ever in his criticism of the city’s political leaders. “Give us action that will fulfill the American promise,” he said. “Show us that you are for the American principles of equality and justice. That's what we need in this city. We are the capital of Virginia, but we still have the mentality of the capital of the Confederacy. The confederacy is defeated."
Jean Boone says the Free Press, which claims a readership of 135,000, will continue to publish: “We will be strong, and we will continue in the tradition of my husband. It will not be the same. But it will be a voice for the people.”
Tom Nash and Tina Griego contributed to this story.