Ocala’s Mattie J. Shaw Cohens was the first Black woman in Florida to own and operate a semimonthly newspaper and printing company, and she also founded nearly 300 charitable societies.
Mattie J. Shaw Cohens, known more familiarly as Mrs. Shaw, began writing, editing, and publishing THE FLORIDA WATCHMAN newspaper in 1925 on her own printing press. But it was more than her publishing prowess that got her noticed. In her long gowns and towering, stately presence, she was said to command the attention of audiences whenever she walked into a room.
Shaw had a well-earned reputation, then and now, as a trailblazer in entrepreneurship and a visionary woman ahead of her time.
In an article titled “How To Lead,” printed in THE FLORIDA WATCHMAN, Shaw described her newspaper as a vehicle to improve her people “spiritually, intellectually, and along the lines of better health, better business and better citizenship.”
Ida B. Wells, one of America’s first Black female journalists, who was active in civil rights and women’s suffrage movements, may have been a mentor for Shaw. Indeed, to her great-grandniece, Nefayr McDonald, of Ocala, Shaw was a groundbreaking journalist.
McDonald says Shaw created the printing business because Blacks did not have a newspaper of their own.
“People called her with information because they knew she would print it honestly,” McDonald offers.
With a large, statewide circulation, THE FLORIDA WATCHMAN was a vital organ in its time, reporting on the local community and church activities in West Ocala and throughout Florida. As a prominent Baptist and member of Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, Shaw traveled extensively to attend state and national conventions, gathering news for her periodical.
A printing press involved the arduous work of setting type, running a heavy press and bookbinding. Shaw’s printing press handled all the programs from churches, weddings and funerals for miles around. Most importantly, Shaw created jobs. Locals including Robert and Alice Houck and Annie Edwards worked full time to help her accomplish the timely distribution of the paper. Robert Houck worked on the press and the Rev. Marion Tindal, a pastor at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church and New Zion Missionary Baptist Church of Ocala, worked as a print setter.
A Legacy of Service
Founder and builder are two words usually associated with Shaw—for good reason. Shaw liked to do things her way. Born in Camden County, Georgia, to a farmer, Charles Cohens, and his wife, Julia Easton Cohens, Mattie was the fi ft h of 13 children. During the school term, she walked five miles a day to attend a school in Jerusalem, Georgia. Her interest in education eventually led her to become a teacher. According to McDonald, at some point she married a “Reverend Shaw” but, for Mattie’s own reasons, she used her surname as her last name.
“She flipped it,” McDonald explains.
In the 1930s, Shaw opened a residential school for girls in the rural regions of Florida, where she taught Black teens from all over the state. She also established a kindergarten and grammar school at the Ocala Theological Seminary and served as the principal for seven years. McDonald says Shaw once operated a day care center and maintained a long-term friendship with Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the most noteworthy Black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders, and government officials of the 20th century.
In 1954, Shaw built The Sun Light Temple Masonic Lodge at the intersection of Northwest Seventh Avenue and Northwest First Street in Ocala. The Florida Watchman Publishing House was initially located in a large brick building north of the Howard Academy Community Center, at 306 NW Seventh Ave. McDonald says Shaw had both buildings built. Famed Florida historian, University of Florida professor and award-winning author Kevin McCarthy references the landmark in his book, African American Sites in Florida.
The lodge building also served as a venue for various other events. Ocala resident Cheryl Lonon Walker remembers attending at least one NAACP “mass meeting” there, led by noted local civil rights activist Rev. Frank Pinkston. Others recollect concerts featuring acts such as James Brown, known as “The Godfather of Soul,” Ike and Tina Turner and, purportedly, the “King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis Presley.
Former Sun Light Pall Bearers Charitable Society (SLPBCS) member Rev. Mack King Carter recounted in his book, How to Make Good Decisions, that when he was a child living in Ocala, “Madam Mattie J. Shaw Cohens…printed all of the black church news from Pensacola to Key West.” Carter wrote that Shaw even sold sheet music to music departments in Black churches throughout Florida. He lauded her for “printing for the ecclesiastical groups in the black church” and for starting the society in 1947.
According to a SLPBCS quarterly report in 1968, Shaw co-founded some 278 societies throughout Florida and 21 societies in Georgia.
The SLPBCS provided financial assistance to low-income families needing help with burial arrangements, according to Carter. The society also focused on providing death benefits for the family of its members upon their demise.
In an article by Bruce Ergood, “The Female Protection and the Sun Light: Two Con-temporary Negro Mutual Aid Societies,” Shaw stated at the society’s April 1969 meeting that the SLPBCS had “begun with only seventy dollars and a small number of women and now its net worth was over $100,000 and there were more than 5,000 members, including 198 ministers, in the organization.”
McDonald says many of the pastors in Shaw’s day were members of the society. Ergood’s article echoed those sentiments, noting that THE FLORIDA WATCHMAN covered the “ex-tensive ministerial involvement in the society’s activities” but was not an official newspaper for the lodge.
Shaw’s press printed the programs for the SLPBCS. Most included a schedule of events, greetings from society members and a list of the dues collected from members. In some, a clever disclaimer existed: “In The Event Your Name’s Spelled Wrong, And You’re Full of Anger and Pain; Don’t be Upset with Us, Just Sing a Song, You Should’ve Seen Our Manuscript, You Would’ve Done Worse, If Not The Same.” – Smile – The Watchman.”
In addition to running a paper and overseeing the society, Shaw held an annual Sun Light Temple parade for many years, which started downtown and ended at the temple.
Shaw also held a high-ranking position as a Grand Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star. As a youth, Brenda Croskey Vereen, a volunteer at the Black History Museum of Marion County, based at the Howard Academy Community Center, recalls being a participant in the Pride of Mattie (an Order of the Eastern Star).
100 Years of Advocacy
McDonald says that Shaw, who was born on June 15, 1878, worked until her death on August 2, 1978, and was buried in the Tucker Hill Cemetery in West Ocala. Her tombstone appropriately includes the initials of her be-loved organization, the SLPBCS.
Shaw’s only child, a son, could not continue her printing business as he died early in life.
During her 100 years, Shaw’s ambition and advocacy for education, information and aiding the poor extended well beyond Ocala, reaching throughout the states of Florida and Georgia. OS