© 2019 Dale Brumfield and Tidal Wave Studio

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The terms “underground”, “counterculture” and “alternative” usually defy easy descriptions, although in Richmond, Virginia they can be used to describe almost any independent publication that was NOT the Richmond Times Dispatch or the former Richmond News-leader. These two daily monopolistic newspapers, owned by the same company, have provided a somewhat backhanded function whose value cannot be overestimated, for without their presence there would be no Richmond counterculture print history.


Virtually every tabloid magazine, pamphlet or photocopied fanzine published in Richmond since 1967 that could describe itself as underground, countercultural or alternative owed their very existence to their creators’ disdain of the mainstream, and the news and culture that in their opinion was ignored, misreported or disparaged by it.

After Richmond’s early independent publications dissolved many of their founders went on to productive careers in Journalism, Fiction, Law and Graphic Arts. Four of the early founders and editors of the Richmond Mercury – Garrett Epps, Glenn Frankel, Frank Rich and Harry Stein – have won or been nominated for Pulitzer prizes. Mercury illustrator Bill Nelson has won over 900 national awards.


Richmond (and America’s) first female underground editor at the Richmond Chronicle, Katya Sabaroff Taylor, left Richmond in 1970 to become active in nurturing Portland, Oregon’s women’s movement. She now teaches creative healing arts and writing workshops in Florida.


Several alternative press contributors, like Frankel, Susan Higginbotham , Anne Soffee and others became writers and novelists. One former local artist and filmmaker, Phil Trumbo, won an Emmy in 1986 for his animation and art direction on the TV show “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” and has art directed over 100 hit video games.


Several illustrators and comic artists like Mike Kaluta, Charles Vess, Stephen Hickman, Kelly Alder and Michael Cody have achieved national recognition. One Richmond artist, Joe Schenkman, left Richmond to work on numerous underground comic books on both the east and west coasts before becoming an Editor at National Lampoon magazine. Richmond Mercury Production Manager Peter Galassi was curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Independent Press in DC & Virginia:

An Underground History

In the 1730’s London had 50 daily newspapers. They were more ideological than commercial, and were born frequently on a whim by people who simply had something to say. They died just as easily.


In 1969 in the United States there were over 400 underground papers. These papers – sometimes born on a whim – succeeded at raising establishment awareness to the breathtaking potential of America’s youth, and changed the dynamic between themselves, the mainstream press and the American consumer. The underground press forced the mainstream media to confront and address social issues they ordinarily would have blown off as not newsworthy, fleeting or foolish.


Those brash underground papers relentlessly worked their way into the American vernacular. Congressional committees quoted them; excerpts appeared in President Nixon’s morning briefs; federal commissions invited editors to testify. Readers soon tended less to be bomb-carrying radicals but suburban teenagers, businesspeople and parents simply wanting to keep up or just look cool.

While the sixties establishment press rarely challenged the veracity of the first amendment, the underground press did it as a matter of routine, doing exactly what that amendment was designed to protect. People with little or no journalistic experience other than an undying passion for their revolution rallied support against an unpopular war, assailed orthodoxy and challenged those in power, sometimes in capricious, tasteless ways, but never dreary or monotonous.


Sectarianism, factional infighting and lousy finances ultimately terminated the underground press. Staffs were held together by collective friendship rather than corporate policy, therefore political and even personal disputes translated into organizational crises. That dissident power and energy, born on a whim and aspiring to change the world, in the end was simply too dependent on an unstable readership, a precarious financial base and the fickleness of political trends.


It died too young.


It is difficult today to discern the underground press’s long-term editorial impact on the mainstream press. Freelance writer Tom Miller, who wrote for the underground press in the sixties, said about writing for the “aboveground” press in the eighties: “Stories I would have done for the underground press I’m now doing for the daily papers. So either I’m slowing down or they’re catching up.”


This history of the Virginia and Washington D.C. underground press describes the evolvement of the unique underground voices of Virginia and Washington DC’s alternative press from 1965 to 1972. The focus is on the journalistic idealism represented by the papers; the belief by the publishers that society could be improved if its social ills were exposed by non-objective, or advocacy journalism, conducted in the public interest and written by and for their own communities on shoestring operations.


Articles and anecdotes from the papers illustrate both the unique voices of Virginia and DC’s underground press, the environment that created them, their oppositional attitudes toward the mainstream press and the mainstream press’s attitude toward them – especially those too of the FBI and local law enforcement. The short-lived journalistic idealism of the sixties may have been naively optimistic for treating news reporting as a form of literature rather than a form of strict communication, conveying point of view, meaning and explanation rather than just providing information, but it did most certainly did not fail – it lead to the independent and alternative papers that rose in the Seventies and Eighties that still publish today.

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"Apartment 3-G," by Alex Kotzky. 1968.