One of the reasons I became a journalist is because I always felt there was something missing in The Tuscaloosa News, my hometown newspaper in Alabama. And there was. The only time African Americans were written about was if they were entertainers, athletes or suspected of committing a crime.
A new book, "Missing Pages" (Carroll & Graf), an oral history undertaken by the late Wallace Terry, is a compilation of stories by early Black pioneers in journalism. And reading the book is similar to the swapping of stories in the headquarters hotel lobby of a National Association of Black Journalists convention. The difference is that these stories are about the times when there were few African American journalists. And those journalists are brought together on the pages to fill in some of the missing pages of history.
Ethel Payne, who worked as a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Defender, recounts a famous press conference exchange with President Dwight Eisenhower.
"Mr. President," Payne said. "The Interstate Commerce Commission has issued an opinion saying it is time to end segregation in interstate travel. When can we expect you to sign an executive order to that effect?"
Payne did not anticipate Eisenhower's response.
"President Eisenhower got so furious!" she recalled. "His face became flushed. He drew himself up. He became the five-star general again. And he chewed me out in front of the White House press corps.
'What makes you think I'm going to do anything for any special interest?' he said. 'I'm the president of all the people. I'm going to do what I think is right for all the people.'"
Tom Johnson was waiting for someone to do right by him as he wrote a column for the New York edition of the Pittsburgh Courier. He received a call from Louis Lomax, then one of the best-known journalists in the country. "Louie called me one night at two in the morning, and said, 'Hey, man, I want you to get your resume over to Newsday. They're looking for one.'
This was 1962 and of course I knew what he meant when he said, 'looking for one.' He gave me the name of the editor to see. I made the appointment. When I went to his office, I found a short muscular man sitting with his feet on the desk and a Confederate flag on the wall behind him. He said, 'Tom, we talk about integration around here, but we ain't got a single nigra in this place. We've been reading your stuff, and we want to talk to you about coming over here.'"
It wouldn't be the last time Johnson would hear the n-word.
He was in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were abducted and slain, when a White, college-educated local prosecutor boasted, "We treat niggers here as good as we treat niggers anywhere else."
Earl Caldwell, the New York Times reporter who spent much of his early career covering the Black Panther Party, knows about being mistreated in the North. He remembered: "… I was riding to work. I was reading the Post and saw my byline on a story. It was a story I hadn't written. I'd never seen this story before. 'By Earl Caldwell.' I couldn't wait to get in the city room and tell the city editor that somebody had made a mistake.
'Look at this,' I said. 'Somebody really goofed up. My name is on this story!'"
The city editor said, 'You hadn't had a byline in a while. We figured you wanted to see your name in the paper, so we put your name on that story…I called The New York Times the same day."
Throughout their careers, Black journalists have had their talent questioned. Austin Scott was covering upheaval in Miami when his veracity came under attack.
"I was in the phone booth, and somebody on the second floor on the motel balcony across the street starting shooting at the cops, who were behind me somewhere. The cops returned fire. I was describing on the telephone to the AP bureau what was going on. The firing back and forth.
The guy I was dictating to interrupted. 'You filed a lot of this kinda stuff yesterday. You filed a lot this morning. And we're getting queries from newspapers in other parts of the country saying that they don't believe your copy, because no one else is reporting from Miami the kinds of things you're reporting.' He paused for a minute. 'How do we know this is happening?'
I said, 'Just a minute.' I held the receiver up outside the booth. A whole series of gunshots went by! The guy said, 'I believe it! I believe it!' "
There is much to believe in this collection.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.