When Christopher J. Perry launched The Philadelphia Tribune, he faced a readership problem that makes today's newspaper industry woes seem trivial.

The Tribune was founded in 1884, when the city had only 108,000 African Americans, few of them literate.

Blacks "were forbidden to learn to read and write," said Robert W. Bogle, current publisher of the nation's oldest continuously published African American newspaper. "But Chris thought those who were educated could pass the word on."

Bogle and an array of dignitaries including Mayor Michael Nutter and Pennsylvania's U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter Sunday kicked off a year-long celebration of the Tribune's 125th anniversary.

A striking grey granite monument hailing Perry as "Publisher, Writer, Statesman, Civil Rights Activist" was unveiled at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, the nation's oldest public African American cemetery.

"All these years, Chris never had a marker," said Bogle, dapper in a three-piece suit, bow tie and pocket square. "The Tribune felt it was important that he have one."

The dedication was followed by a rousing yet reverent, balloon-studded service at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in the city's Overbrook section.

"The Tribune has always been religious," said the Rev. Thomas Logan, whose square shoulders and ample hair belie his 97 years. "It has always believed in prayer, always had faith that the Lord would take care of them."

Advocating for black causes, rights and recognition has also sustained the paper, which is published five days a week and online. It's circulation last year was about 31,000, according to a Pew Research Center report on African American media.

Perry, the founder, was born in Baltimore to free parents in 1854, just seven years before the Civil War began. He grew up in Philadelphia, an avid student in the meager schools provided for "Negros." He began writing for newspapers at age 13 and rose to become editor of the "Colored Department" of a Northern daily.

He was 30 when he set up the Tribune at 1717 Sansom Street (now the heart of 'jeweler's row'). He steadily expanded but lost everything in a fire, then doggedly started over at 520 S. 16th St., where the paper remains today.

From the start, Perry's politics hewed to the party of Abraham Lincoln. An 1891 book, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, quoted one of Perry's editorials: "It is a fact of which we are truly proud, that The Tribune is the only colored journal north of Mason and Dixon's line which has never wavered in its fidelity to Republicanism."

After Perry died in 1921 at age 67, the publisher's job passed to his son-in-law, E. Washington Rhodes - later appointed the first black assistant U.S. attorney.

Under Rhodes's 49-year tenure, the Tribune successfully campaigned for much-needed black representation - the appointment of the first black Philadelphia Board of Education member, the election of the first black to City Council and to judgeships.

The paper also used its news and editorial pages for civic causes that transcended race. It helped end the 1934 race riots in then-segregated Chester, Pa. It joined with black organizations to sponsor Clean Block campaigns and raise funds for the United Way.

The Tribune has consistently offered a viewpoint sometimes missing from mainstream media, whether the story is about being black and single, or financial problems at historically black colleges, or the annual list of Philadelphia's most influential African Americans.

Bogle, whose father worked at The Tribune, was inclined to become a lawyer - until Rhodes persuaded him to join the paper. Bogle started in the advertising department in 1970 and became publisher in 1989.

While Bogle said the Tribune is "facing the same challenges as other newspapers," it serves a market that is far more than just a niche. When death threats and ticket cancellations followed a black actor's portrayal of Jesus in a Newark, N.J. theater in 1997, the Tribune lamented that "we still have a far way to go in race relations."

"Our mission has not changed very much," Bogle told the congregation at St. Thomas. "For 125 years, the Tribune has been the voice of those who would have been voiceless."

Contact staff writer Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or mmccullough@phillynews.com.