My Black History: Giving back

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

In the 2009 book “COPY: The first 50 Years of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund,” by Rick Kenney, there is documentation of the founding of a summer program at Savannah State College (now university). Paul Swensson, a self-described “newsman” visited the campus in 1963 to speak to a large group of students, faculty and some high school teachers, undoubtedly including my own first journalism teacher, Mrs. Ella P. Law. Massachusetts-born Swennson had worked at newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota and California, and he became executive director of the Newspaper Fund in 1961.

In 1963 Swensson gave his “Face of the Newsman” address, in which, according to “COPY,” he described a typical newsman as having “the nose for news, the discerning eye and the chin for courage. 

“He recalled the repugnance of segregation. He could neither sit in the front seat of a car driven by a black journalism teacher nor in the back seat with the teacher’s wife. Because  he was lodged at the city’s top hotel, his hosts could not visit him in his suite or be served in the coffee shop.”

According to “COPY,” among the 19 workshops Swennson proposed and carried out for the summer of 1964 was a trial program at Savannah State for African-American teachers and some of their students in the southeastern states. I was one of those high school students selected for the workshop.

Kenney wrote: “One of the participants was a Savannah high school student, Wanda Smalls, who later attended Spelman College, became a Newspaper Fund editing intern in 1970 and — 40 years after that first Savannah workshop — was appointed (executive) editor of the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, after a distinguished career at USA Today.”

Over three weeks that summer we learned how to conduct interviews, write news stories, lay out (design) pages and how to shoot and crop photos and place the images on pages. We learned how to use news judgement, how to motivate staff to recognize a good story when they hear about it, how to raise money to support our student journalism and how to avoid getting into trouble with school administrators, who, universally had more appreciation for censoring the news than for First Amendment’s freedom of the press.

As a college student, the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund awarded me a  three-week fellowship at Temple University and a professional summer internship at the Providence (R.I.) Evening Bulletin. This was in 1970, the first year African-Americans were included in the internship program. Proudly, many years later I was asked to join the Newspaper Fund’s Board of Directors, where I served from 1992 to 1999. In my years as a newspaper editor, at USA TODAY, at The Greenville (S.C.) News and the Montgomery Advertiser, I always made sure we had Dow Jones Newspaper Fund summer interns in our newsrooms. It was important for me to give back, to help students launch their careers as someone at the Newspaper Fund had done for me.

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Tomorrow: Mistaken identity

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Author of the memoir "Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism." Available for book talks and signings, speaking. (Signed copies available on this site)

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