My Black History: A seat at the table

My Black History: A seat at the table

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“Ooooh-ooo-wee, Sister Lloyd!” a deacon said one Sunday morning as we were passing each other in the hallway near the office at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia. 

“I saw you on TV the other day, Sister Lloyd.” Sister is the title we use in the Baptist church to denote that we are all family in the eyes of God.

“Good morning, Deacon, what do you mean?” I slowed my walk through the hallway that was crowded with laughter, hugging and children racing about between Sunday School and the 11 am worship service.

“I saw you on C-SPAN sitting at the head of that big table at USA Today and running the meeting with aaaall those white folks around you.

The deacon went on to describe the conference room where the editors were working, an expansive table with seats for about 20 people, a wall of TV sets running different channels and another wall adorned with the newspaper’s last few days of front pages. He wanted me to know what he observed, perhaps to be convincing that he was really watching.

“Sister Lloyd,” he said, “you were in charge.”

I was Senior Editor/Days and Administration at the time. The innocuous title, not one of my choosing, nevertheless put me in a seat of influence at the newspaper, where I had rapidly shot up the newsroom ladder after joining the staff in 1986 as a deputy managing editor, then as a managing editor, and more than a decade of editing roles at The Washington Post and three other newspapers before that.

The  “Days” part of my title meant I was in charge of planning each day’s newspaper from morning until evening, when other editors would take over the duties of what we call “getting the paper out the door.” I led two of the three daily news meetings and made sure potential Page One stories and photographs were well into the planning process for the coming days’ editions.

Occupying a seat at the table gives one power and prestige, and a great deal of satisfaction comes to those who want that kind of responsibility. Here, briefly, are some of my own rules and responsibilities for those who sit at the table:

A mandate to speak up and speak out:  Sometimes young professionals — especially women — are shy about speaking up. But for those who have made it to the table, after years of hard work and recognition there must be some validity to the fact that they have much to contribute.

Research and  homework: When I joined the USA Today staff, I had to learn how to prepare for meetings, how to do thorough research so I was confident and prepared every time I walked into a meeting. Every mistake was a lesson and I was determined never to repeat bad actions.

Building a pipeline: Having a seat at the table gives one a platform to speak up on areas of coverage that are important to editors. It doesn’t mean editors ram certain stories into the newspaper, but, in my case, it gave me a chance to reinforce our editorial mandate that   stories and images should reflect our readership, taking us beyond covering stories of interest to white or male readers, but all readers no matter their race, gender, age, geographic location, topics of interest or political leanings.

On that Sunday morning in the hallway at Mt. Zion Church, it was as if the deacon was saying “Well-done, sister. You have a seat at the table. Now use it to do some good.”

Next: Diversity decisions

 

My Black History: Losing ground with diversity

My Black History: Losing ground with diversity

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” This is part of a story about the discontent among black journalists at The Washington Post. 

Eventually some of us started to share our concerns with management, including with editor Ben Bradlee. He was never one to take criticism well but he listened politely. One person he listened to was Milton Coleman, an African American who was a Metro reporter, city editor and then a reporter on the national news staff. Coleman had Bradlee’s admiration — and his ear.

In 1985, my last full year at The Washington Post, as the newspaper finally began to listen to voices of discontent, Coleman was asked to conduct a survey of all journalists in the newsroom, to gauge attitudes about affirmative action. The survey was a snapshot of employee opinions on a broad range of subjects. The underlying mission was to ascertain how African American journalists were faring, and perhaps to see if there were solutions for retaining talent.

The survey, conversations and a 15-page report were completed and submitted in February 1986. The survey team included three African Americans — Coleman,  Jeanne Fox-Alston and Eugene Robinson, and three white males — Robert Signer, Barry Sussman and Tom Wilkinson. These six were probably there as much for their areas of expertise in the newsroom as much as their races. For example, Fox-Alston, an African American, was the newsroom’s recruiter at the time; Sussman designed and conducted surveys and opinion polls for the newspaper.

There were some key takeaways in the report entitled:

BLACKS IN THE NEWSROOM OF THE WASHINGTON POST  

Where We Are; Where We Should Be, and How Are We going to Get There

A Report to the Editors of The Washington Post

The report described the newsroom as a place full of favoritism, cronyism and snobbery, a place where “edicts” dropped from on high along the lines of “so-and-so is going to Tokyo” as a correspondent, or “so-and-so is moving to work on the national desk to work in Texas, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. Some who responded to the survey asked “how is it that such things are decided?”

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On the Metro staff,  20 out of 102 (19.6 percent) were people of color, but once there, it was difficult for minorities to move to other teams across the newsroom, giving Metro the negative moniker as the newsroom’s “ghetto” for black reporters. It was difficult for black reporters to move across the room to work in sections like business, sports, features or national. Thus, many black reporters were ripe for picking by other big newspapers and The Post lost ground with diversity.

Next: A seat at the table

 

My Black History: A clash of cultures

My Black History: A clash of cultures

Sometimes having a seat at the table can be a clash of cultures for working women who are raising families. It could mean having to make choices in life, choices between having power at work, power at home or no power. In my case, the choice was to have it all.

As the number of women in newsrooms was rising in the 1970s – 1990s, as newsroom managers we were feeling intense pressure about work-life balance. Many women working in newsrooms saw the need to prove that we were cut from the same cloth as men who rarely, it seemed, had a tinge of guilt about not seeing their families news day after news day, especially when big stories were breaking. At USA Today, according to stories I heard first hand from colleagues at the newspaper when I started working there, women were hired, being promoted and valued.

Even in 1982, USA Today’s launch year, there was little difference between the schedules kept by the hard-working men and the hard-working women who were managers and editors. Not that there should be much difference, but I heard from some men that they ultimately wished they had cut back on their hours instead of being the overworked and overwhelmed role models for women.

Over time I have heard women express angst about spending time with their babies, but I don’t think males in the newsroom would have recognized at the time that they should have stepped away from work to take part in raising their own children. It would take years for them to recognize their family shortfalls, and the impact their drive may have had on other women in the workplace.

Next: Losing ground with diversity

My Black History: A Spelman student in the Movement

My Black History: A Spelman student in the Movement

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.”

As a freshman in the late 1960s, our world was changing from Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement.  Before we arrived, Spelman students had a history of being active in local civil rights activities, sitting in at lunch counters, marching, protesting, picketing with signs,  organizing in SNCC and some of them going to jail for their bold stand for equality.

One student in the movement was writer Alice Walker, who attended Spelman in 1961-1963 and in 1965 graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Walker demonstrated and was arrested for her protests while she was a student at Spelman.IMG_2050

Years later, as a senior editor at USA Today I encountered Walker, author of The Color Purple, the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning book later adapted into a film and musical. I was in the conference room running a news meeting when I looked up and through the glass wall I saw Walker standing in front of the reception desk having a conversation with Dixie Vereen, who then was the photo director for USA Weekend, a sister magazine publication in our company. Dixie had taken the Weekend cover photo of Walker some years before that, and when Walker came to visit, Dixie brought her to our suite of offices to see the huge framed and mounted picture that hung there.

Of course, as soon as I saw the two of them I excused myself from the meeting to go and meet our guest, to let her know I was a Spelman graduate, and to make sure she knew that Stacy Brown, the young lady working at the reception desk was also a Spelman graduate, someone I  hired right out of school to give her a start in the business world.

Some time after that, Dixie Vereen came to my house for a party or a dinner and she brought with her a smaller framed copy of the same photo of Alice Walker, who in the picture has her legs stretched out on a beautifully painted bench in front of a well-lit bay window. Decades later  the picture still hangs in my home.

Next: A clash of cultures

My Black History: ‘Don’t go to the beach,’ they told us

My Black History: ‘Don’t go to the beach,’ they told us

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.”

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The Tybee Island Pier

In my adult years, Tybee Island became one of my favorite places to visit. But it wasn’t always so. For my African-American childhood peers and me, Tybee was taboo.

Tybee is a barrier island and small city about 15 miles from downtown Savannah. The Island is known for its wide, sandy beaches, including South Beach, with a pier and pavilion. On the island’s north side, Fort Screven has 19th-century concrete gun batteries and the Tybee Island Light Station and Museum. The museum focuses on local history. Many historians believe the name “Tybee” derives from the Native American Euchee Indian word for “salt” which was one of many natural resources found on the island. It is said that, for many decades, pirates visited the island in search of a safe haven and hiding place for treasure.

When I grew up in Savannah in the 1950s and 1960s, Savannah Beach, as Tybee Island was called then, was off-limits to us. My parents and those of my friends would warn us away from the island as if it were a forbidden fruit.

“Just don’t go there,” they would say, and implicit in the order were Jim Crow laws that segregated the races.

To this day, decades later and after the “wade-ins” of the 1960s, I still don’t know if there was some law on the books that said “Negroes” could not ride onto the island, or if our elders just knew that going there might mean peril to our physical being.

The first time I saw Tybee Island in daylight was in March 1997, a day after we buried my mother in Laurel Grove South, one of Savannah’s historic segregated cemetaries. Her demise had come soon after the doctor told us she would not survive lung cancer, caused, we suspected by her many years of smoking. Her funeral was even quicker — my mother’s wishes. She planned the brief, elegant services herself.

The day after the funeral I told my husband, Willie,  that I wanted to go see the ocean. I wasn’t sure why; I just had a feeling that walking along the sea would put me just a few miles closer to God, and I had so many questions about why I was left motherless before my 50th birthday. I felt angry, depressed, lonely, sad, yet somewhat relieved that her physical misery was over. I was also curious about the place my family had once tried so hard to keep me from visiting.

And maybe I was feeling just a little guilty. True, I’d never actually seen Tybee Island, but I didn’t exactly obey my parents, either.

On my high school prom night in 1967, the first and last thing Aunt Catherine said to me before I walked out the door with my date was, “Don’t go to the beach.” Later that night, my date told me his parents said the same thing. And the same came from parents of the couple we were double-dating with that night.

All four sets of parents had warned us. So what did we do? Like any group of obstinate teenagers, we set out on the lonely, dark US Highway 80 to drive the 15 miles to Tybee Island after the prom, just to see what the mystery of the island was all about.

The night didn’t end well.

Next:  A Spelman student in the Movement

My Black History: The book ‘will be here next week,” we were told

My Black History: The book ‘will be here next week,” we were told

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Savannah’s Carnegie Library

When I was growing up in Savannah, Georgia, our public libraries were segregated. Carnegie, which was the black library, is on the east side of town, miles away from my west side neighborhood. The main (white) library is situated in the center of the city, housed in an elegant white columned building. Carnegie was a lifeline for many of Savannah’s black children when it was our only library. The children’s room downstairs housed a collection and was a respite for many of us before we “graduated” upstairs when we got older and in high school.

In our high school years, for those of us who lived on the west side, when we had an assignment that required research materials or a book from the public library, we would take two buses across town to get to Carnegie. Most of the time the books we needed were not in circulation at Carnegie, which, it seemed, had limited resources. The card catalog designated where the book was housed. We would take the card from the catalog to a librarian and she would “order” the book to be delivered to Carnegie because African Americans couldn’t go in the main library.  

“It will be here next week,” the librarian would tell us. Then we would get back on the bus, transfer again to a second bus and then return to the library the following week to pick up our books.

What a burden it must have been to force black teachers to build in two weeks of lesson planning, knowing how long it would take just to secure a book, much less the time we needed to read it. Years later, as a university professor when I encountered students who waited until the last minute to work on an assignment, I would share the southern equivalent of “we had to walk 10 miles to school in the snow” story by telling students how much planning went into preparing to get a book just so we could do our assignments.

“What if we had waited until the last minute?” I asked students at Savannah State University.

I’m not sure my story had an impact on getting students to begin working on assignments earlier. It just infuriates me that in the 21st Century, young people take so much for granted, even something as simple as how to manage time when they can get any book they need by walking across campus to the library, or with a couple of clicks on amazon.com, or “Google” the information.

 

My Black History: ‘What happened?’

My Black History: ‘What happened?’

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.”

In 1973, the universe of black journalists working in mainstream media was small. Some of the larger white newspapers, as we called them back then, were just starting to think about looking for black newsroom staff members. The pool of trained black journalists would come from the black press or the small number of black colleges that were starting journalism departments.

In those days, the more informed newsroom recruiters knew to reach out to professors at schools like Howard University, Clark College, Florida A&M University and a hand full of other places of higher education that had the foresight to know that newsrooms needed black journalists who had classroom instruction and experience with internships and campus media.

After the civil unrest during the Civil Rights Movement, which black newspapers — mostly weeklies —  covered in major cities, some black journalists were convinced by white newspapers to jump over from the black press. But that pool was small, not nearly enough to fill the increasing desire for talent in mainstream media organizations.

As a student at Spelman majoring in English, I was lucky to be able to take journalism classes at Clark College, even though I could not declare journalism as my major.

The legendary Elsie Carper was a long-time administrative editor and newsroom recruiter at The Post. She had worked the small minority network of newsroom professionals and called me a few times when I was in Providence, asking if I would consider coming to Washington to do a one-week tryout for The Post’s copy desk. A good recruiter calls from time to time, to catch up with potential hires and to let them know they are still interested bringing candidates in for an interview. Carper was a good recruiter.

“I thought you were going to let me know when you were ready to make a change and leave Providence. I just heard that you are in Miami now. What happened?”

Next: “Don’t go to the beach,” they told us.