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Adah Lee Pettey Roussan (1859–1927)

Adah Lee Pettey Roussan was a pioneering newspaperwoman who took over the Osceola Times after the death of her husband, running it for twelve years between 1906 and 1918. An indefatigable progressive, she championed political reforms and societal betterment.

Adah Lee Pettey was born on July 20, 1859, in Navarro County, Texas, the third of six children of Dr. Francis Marion Pettey and Sarah A. G. Elliot Pettey. In 1870, Dr. Pettey moved his family to Mississippi County, where he practiced medicine. On April 14, 1879, Adah Pettey married Leon Roussan, a printer who had worked at the office of the Ste. Genevieve Plain Dealer and other newspapers. In 1870, he had been one of the three founders of the Osceola Times, acquiring full ownership by the end of 1875. He later served as mayor of Osceola (Mississippi County).

At first, the new bride cut out articles from other newspapers (“scanned the exchanges,” in newspaper parlance) and offered advice. In 1879, she joined her husband at the Arkansas Press Association (APA) annual meeting and became an honorary member. Thereafter, she became a strong supporter of the APA, correctly crediting the press with laying the foundations for the Progressive movement in Arkansas. In the 1880s, as she put it, the Mississippi River Valley was “whiskey soaked all the year and water soaked part of the year.” She and her husband believed that the Times should work “toward relieving both situations, besides standing for law enforcement and honest elections.” On one occasion, the fight for honest elections and prohibition of alcohol grew so fierce that her husband had to leave town for his own safety. In 1881, the Roussans recorded their first victory over whiskey, getting a three-mile law passed, which forbade the selling of liquor within three miles of the Osceola public school. In 1915, a bone-dry law ended the “dives and honke-tonks [sic] on the plantations.” Adah Roussan later wrote: “During this more than thirty years’ war the Times had some real enemies, and it was their sworn policy to starve the Times out; and it was our business to see that they failed.” After the adoption of “so many up-to-date and forward-looking measures…I had the easiest task of anybody to edit a newspaper.”

Roussan gradually learned the mechanical side of the newspaper operation, and following the death of her husband in 1906, she took full charge of the paper. A much-circulated picture showed her in that rarest of newspaper conditions, a neat office. Her goals, which she spelled out at speeches to the APA and a women’s club convention in Hot Springs (Garland County), were “good paper, good ink, good work, and prompt delivery.” Erwin Funk, Arkansas’s premier small-town editor, called her “one of the best known and brightest newspaper women of the Southwest.” In addition to owning and editing the Times, she also served as Osceola’s postmistress.

In the early twentieth century, she supported having a county fence law, rather than the free range that hitherto had been customary, in order to keep cattle from drowning. Unfortunately, the flood of 1912 washed away the rail fences, while the wire ones entangled cattle, which resulted in many drownings. Another of her controversial causes was county drainage, a move much opposed by the small farmers, lumber interests, and hunters. “During those hectic days, her life and property were openly threatened, but she never faltered in advocating what she thought best for the community,” her obituary noted. In 1915, when she gave the APA’s annual oration, “What is the Matter with Arkansas?” she identified economic and cultural problems, highlighted by the absence of state pride among the people.

Roussan sold the Times in 1918, citing the high cost of labor. She retired to Hot Springs, where she was active in community affairs, including the Methodist church and the Crittenton Home, which took in unwed mothers. In 1922, she married Thomas C. Blackburn, and the couple maintained two apartment buildings. She had no children, but another prominent Arkansas newspaperwoman, Sallie Irene Robinson-Stanfield Riley, was her niece.

Roussan died unexpectedly on January 10, 1927. She is buried in Hot Springs.

For additional information:
Adah Roussan Papers. Arkansas History Commission, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Dougan, Michael B. Community Diaries; Arkansas Newspapering, 1819–2002. Little Rock: August House, 2003.

“Mrs. Roussan-Blackburn Dead.” Osceola Times, January 14, 1927, p. 1.

Roussan, Adah. Forty Years in a Printing Office. Unpublished manuscript, at the Arkansas History Commission, SMC XV, box 5.

Michael B. Dougan
Jonesboro, Arkansas

Last Updated 5/18/2011

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