My Women’s History: Meeting a higher standard

My Women’s History: Meeting a higher standard

In March for Women’s History Month I am presenting weekly blog posts about accomplishments and lessons from women in my village. These are excerpts from my upcoming memoir Coming Full Circle: Jim Crow to Journalism.

Saturday afternoon shopping during the 1950s and 1960s with my grandmother on Broughton Street, Savannah’s main downtown thoroughfare, was always a treat for me. Oper Lee Walker was a study in sartorial excellence. She was an outstanding seamstress and she made all of her dress-up clothes. She made most of my clothes, too.

“When we go downtown you have to look your best,” she would tell me. “We don’t want the white folks to think the Walkers don’t know how to carry ourselves.”

Her “carry ourselves” comment was a broad term for how to dress, act, smell, speak and any other behavior that she thought white people might find offensive. I sometimes challenged my grandmother, asking how she knew how white people think, but I would come to know that she was a student of behavior on both sides — white and black. She was protecting me from potential hurt, and all I had to do was look, listen and learn from her.  

She reminded me that as a black woman, I would have to always “be better” — that is, make better grades in school, look better, think better, jump higher, wear good-looking clothes, and sit up or walk straighter than other people.

“Bring attention to yourself for good reasons,” she would tell me.

The expectation from my village to be better never left me when I left home for college, and then went into the work world. It took me a long time to know exactly what “better” meant as compared to white people, but I always knew I  had to strive to meet a higher standard.

Next week: “Time passes, but will you?”

My Women’s History: Eye contact and firm handshakes

My Women’s History: Eye contact and firm handshakes

In March for Women’s History Month I am presenting weekly blog posts about accomplishments and lessons from women in my village. These are excerpts from my upcoming memoir Coming Full Circle: Jim Crow to Journalism.

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My mother, Gloria Walker, in her retirement years.

 

My mother, Gloria Walker, began her career working in retail sales at Camp Stewart (later Fort Stewart), a Georgia military base about an hour from Savannah. Camp Stewart was established in 1940 as an anti-aircraft artillery training center. 

Somehow she must have survived what must have been a mass layoff of employees after the war. She  transferred to Fort Dix in New Jersey. I was left behind with my grandmother in Savannah.

Gloria’s professional story is one of a meteoric rise through the ranks of retail sales and merchandising. After Fort Dix, her next step was to New York City to work in the headquarters of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES). With the ultimate  title of senior executive buyer, she was one of very few African American women executives in AAFES. 

Gloria’s categories of buying ranged from automobile parts and accessories, women’s apparel, luggage to watches. But the area she most enjoyed was as a toy buyer. She often regaled  me with stories of traveling  on buying trips to toy company headquarters and factories. One year she flew me to New York and managed to slip me onto the toy fair floor with her credentials. She wanted me to see how she worked such a large and important event with thousands of people buying and selling toys, going from station to station introducing herself, shaking hands, asking questions and making appointments for future discussions with those companies that had products she would ultimately consider for her PX buys.

These were lessons I would carry with me throughout my work life as I made my own way through professional and personal relationships. Firm handshakes, looking people in the eye, doing enough homework in advance to ask the right questions. My mother never had to tell me how to do these things. Yet she constantly showed me how she did them.

Next week: Meeting a higher standard

My Black History: Lady Bird Johnson and my grandmother’s mirror

My Black History: Lady Bird Johnson and my grandmother’s mirror

Throughout February 2019, I posted brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” This is my final post for the month.

My membership in the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and my advocacy for media diversity opened a lot of doors for me. Working on committees and networking with other top editors led to me serve as a juror for the Pulitzer Prize four times, membership on the Accrediting Committee of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC), appearing a few times on CNN’s Reliable Sources and co-editing  a book on women in journalism.

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My grandmother’s silver mirror

I was elected to the board of ASNE, which afforded me the opportunity to travel to places like Minneapolis, Minnesota, Sarasota, Florida,  Portland, Oregon, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Austin, Texas, for board meetings.

A trip to Austin in 2000 was one of my favorite because ASNE President Rich Oppel, then editor of the Austin-American Statesman, took the board members, committee chairs, our spouses and guests on a bus to the LBJ Ranch, the national historic park in Stonewall, Texas. The ranch was where President Lyndon B. Johnson was born, lived, died and is buried. The president and Lady Bird Johnson donated their private home to the National Park Service but retained lifetime rights to use the home. After President Johnson’s death in 1973, Mrs. Johnson continued to live on the ranch until her death in 2007, when  the property was prepared for public use.

On the day we visited, the first lady’s staff hosted the ASNE group and our guests with a tour of the ranch house and grounds. Then we went for a cookout on the property on the banks of the Pedernales River, where LBJ spent a lot of his boyhood time. My husband and I were seated next to Mrs. Johnson, by that time sight impaired but still with a very sharp mind and a keen memory of her past.

On our tour inside the Johnsons’ house, something most visitors to the ranch don’t get to do, we were able to see that nothing much had changed. It was a modest home with dated furnishings. I even got to see a rotary dial red phone,  the one presidents allegedly use for only the most important and secure calls. I had learned about these red phones in school and I was pleased to know the phones are actually red. 

But it was in Mrs. Johnson’s bedroom that something really caught my eye. I spotted a sterling silver hand mirror on first lady’s dressing table.

“What’s the story with this mirror?” I asked our guide. The embellished heavy silver mirror was exactly like the one my grandmother used every day of her life. I used to watch her as she styled her hair and then she would hold up the mirror and turn around in front of her own dresser mirror to check the back of her head. 

“I’m not sure,” the guide said. “But if you leave your business card with me I can find out and let you know more about the mirror.”

When our group finally went outside and I had a chance to talk to Mrs. Johnson,  I asked her about the silver mirror.

“Oh, I remember where I got it,” she said. “It was a gift from Madame Chiang Kai-Shek,” wife of the former president of the Republic of China.

She sent it to me as a gift” after a visit.

Finally, I had some perspective on my grandmother’s mirror, which I still use to this day.

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Wanda Lloyd standing in the shade over Lady Bird Johnson, seated with white hair, on the day editors visited the LBJ Ranch.
My Black History: Social probation

My Black History: Social probation

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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Back in the day, Morehouse Hall had two entrances, with steps from both porches. Morehouse North, my dorm, was the left side of the building.

In Savannah my Spelman College village influence drove some of the rules for me at home. Wearing a dress or skirt, never pants, was de rigueur, required because at the time, Spelman women never wore pants or super casual clothes away from home. Spelman women were good writers, appreciative of the arts and culture, spoke in a gentle southern voice, but learned to effectively communicate to show how well-prepared they were to become leaders.  These were traits that governed my childhood, and prepared me to become a Spelman woman.

“We had to dress up with hats and gloves, stockings and leather shoes every time we left the campus,” Aunt Catherine, who graduated from Spelman in 1936  would tell me, even for a shopping trip to Rich’s downtown on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street. It was as if Spelman women were in uniform, wearing modestly fitting dresses and perfectly prepped for suitable off-campus presentation.  When I enrolled at Spelman in 1967, we could not wear pants until after 7:00 pm, and they were only to be worn on campus, never at the all-male Morehouse or co-ed Clark colleges across the street. At night when we could “take company” with a young man in the dormitory lounge, we could not wear pants in my freshman year.

Our 10:30 pm weekday/11:30 pm weekend curfews were strict. Violation of curfew resulted in punishment of social probation, a verdict meted out by women we called dorm mothers. 

As freshmen we were not allowed to ride in cars except with close family members, unless our parents placed a letter on file giving a family friend permission to fetch us for dinner or some social event. Our normal mode of transportation was walking  or public buses.

One day some high school friends from Savannah drove to Atlanta because our high school basketball team was playing in the state AAA championship game. I had the audacity to walk off campus and meet friends who were in a car. No permission from home, I just got in and went to the arena. Our team won the game. But on the way back to campus we had some kind of car breakdown and I missed curfew. I was placed on social probation for two weeks.

Next: Lady Bird Johnson and my grandmother’s mirror

My Black History: An opportunity to do some good

My Black History: An opportunity to do some good

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

On the day the deacon stopped me in the hallway at Mt. Zion Church, I could see the pride in his eyes, which made me think about what he had just described. It warmed my heart that he was proud for me. No matter how much I hear from colleagues and friends of other races who praise me for my accomplishments, it means so much more to get that kind of validation from one of my own people, the kind of validation this deacon was offering up to me that Sunday morning. I appreciate validation from people who may have walked my journey, lived a life similar to mine, suffered oppression and the indignities of civil wrongs — and overcame.

On that day at Mt. Zion, I represented members of my extended family who pushed me beyond the expected reality for a black girl who grew up during the era of Jim Crow, the teachers in my segregated high school in Savannah who challenged me beyond the resources we had been given, members of Second African Baptist Church who taught me Bible stories in Sunday School and expected me to memorize and flawlessly recite Easter speeches as my first lessons in public speaking.

I represented the neighbor ladies who told stories on the front porch of my grandmother’s house while swatting flies,  fanning the summer heat and drinking freshly squeezed, ice-cold lemonade out of Mason Jars, who encouraged me to make good grades and who scrutinized my report cards. I represented the legacy of Spelman College in Atlanta, an institution that gave leadership opportunities to generations of African American women, including two generations of women in my own family before me.

“You’ll be great, baby,” they would tell me, building my confidence along the way. That was my validation then, and on that Sunday in the church hallway in Arlington, it was as if the deacon was saying “Well-done. You have a seat at the table. Now use it to do some good.”

Next: Social Probation

My Black History: ‘Negro girls don’t work for newspapers’

My Black History: ‘Negro girls don’t work for newspapers’

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

I remember the day I told my family I wanted to become a journalist. I was in the 11th grade, living in a city not necessarily known for outstanding accomplishments in journalism at the time — in the mid 1960s. As an African American growing up in the segregated South, I don’t recall the name of a single woman who worked for our local daily newspapers or television stations.

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Lecturing “Women in Media” class at Savannah State University

One may assume women were working behind the scenes, but none, as I recall had bylines or on-air television news presence in Savannah. I’m sure there were no African Americans until my friend, Harold Jackson, a student at Savannah State College, landed an internship at the Savannah Morning News and later became the newspaper’s first full-time African American reporter.

So there I was, standing in the family kitchen announcing to my grandmother and anybody else who would listen that I wanted to work for a daily newspaper. My grandmother, a professional woman who ran her own business, asked me how I thought I would accomplish this goal, because, she said, “Negro girls don’t work for newspapers.”

Good point, but I was either too naive or too obstinate to think I could not overcome those odds.

My grandmother’s advice was this.

“Just take some education classes so you’ll have something to fall back on. Then you can always get a job as a teacher,” like the noble career of other women in our family.

I rejected my grandmother’s suggestion. I was determined to head down a different path. My path took me to newspaper journalism, but with a few detours as an educator along the way. In the long run, I guess my grandmother knew best.

Next: An opportunity to do some good

My Black History: ‘Sister Lloyd, you were IN charge’

My Black History: ‘Sister Lloyd, you were IN charge’

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

“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. My husband and I had joined Mt. Zion a few years after we were married in 1975 and I moved to the Washington, DC, area where he was living, and where he had lots of family around.

“I saw you on TV the other day, Sister Lloyd.”

“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 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 with newspaper front pages. He wanted me to know what he observed, perhaps to be convincing that he was really watching.

“Sister Lloyd, you were in charge.”

I was Senior Editor/Days and Administration at the time. The innocuous title, not one of my choosing, was nevertheless one that 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, and after many years in editing roles at The Washington Post and three other newspapers before that.

The “administration” part of my title gave me responsibility for oversight of the newsroom training and performance improvement, financial budgets, staff and internship recruiting, relationships with readers and journalism associations and just about anything else that came along as a short- or long-term project. The “days” part of my job 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 at USA Today gives editors the responsibility of sharing story ideas that might make it to the next day’s front page, or the front of other sections in the newspaper. There is no greater position for a newspaper reporter than to have his or her stories appear on page one.

The timing of the Sunday morning encounter with the deacon was in the early 1990s, when very few people of color — and certainly almost no women of color — were in positions of influence in mainstream media newsrooms,  not at newspapers and not in television news. Very few of us had seats at the table.

Next: “Negro girls don’t work for newspapers”