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

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

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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, or “Google” the information.


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.


My Black History: This didn’t feel right

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” This story is about my first job at The Washington Post, working nights and weekends with split days off alongside union production tradesmen in the composing room, not seated in the newsroom with the rest of my colleagues in journalism. I was 25 years old at the time.

I was four years out of college and a world away from a segregated upbringing in Savannah and the all-female black college I attended. Now I felt like I was out of my element, working exclusively with older white men who were used to yelling across the room and felt no qualms about telling off-color jokes.

Based on the increasingly boisterous behavior as the night wore on, I’m pretty sure alcohol was being consumed. I was not mature enough yet to ask why women or African American men were not invited to this white mens’ club, or to understand how unions were created for craftsmen who were only white and male. In some ways, this was much like the white male entitlement structure in the South where I grew up, where African Americans were locked out of certain jobs and careers, even African Americans with college degrees. I was taught, by example, to keep my head down and not to ask questions.  Maybe this is why my grandmother encouraged me to take classes in education, so I would have the credentials to run and hide from what she surely knew was a world that might not be welcoming to a young black girl from the Deep South.

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 8.18.36 PMI was beginning to understand this new world. I had to make it work. I knew God had given me an incredible gift — to be able to work at a newspaper like The Washington Post considering where I came from, a foundation of Jim Crow laws that constantly told me what I could or could not do.

I never regretted taking the job at The Post. Papers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Post were pretty much every print journalist’s dream. I knew that. But I wasn’t working inside the newsroom and I missed being able to edit copy, write headlines and commiserate with reporters and other editors. I missed putting my stamp on stories on the front end before they landed in the pneumatic-tube life cycle of the daily newspaper. I missed the copy desk. 

But then came a breaking point. A couple of months in at The Post I mustered the courage to walk into my supervising editor’s office to request a transfer to one of the newsroom’s copy desks. I reminded him that copy editing was my passion and experience and I wanted to work with some of the best editors in the business. 

I never reported the uncomfortable conversations or the physical brushes by the union men in the composing men; I never let on that I was forced to be mindful of  what I wore, where I stood and how I reacted to bad-boy behavior. I never reported the disparaging comments about women. In fact, in 1975 I’m pretty sure I was not even aware of the term “sexual harassment.” I just knew I was working in conditions that didn’t feel right.

Next: “What happened?”

My Black History: Mistaken identity

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” In this story I describe living with two white college students during a summer internship in Providence, Rhode Island. 

The other two young ladies were from New England. One, I recall, was a student at Bates College in Maine. They were reporting interns working the day and evening shift at the Providence Journal, the morning paper. I was assigned to the afternoon paper, working before dawn to mid afternoon. Our schedules were different and we hardly ever saw each other at home.

Internships didn’t pay much, but together we leased a five-bedroom, five-bathroom house in an upscale neighborhood not far from downtown where the newspaper office was located. The house was owned by a stock broker and his family. As we understood it,  the family spent summers at their place on Martha’s Vineyard. The broker took a room in Providence during the week and traveled to the Vineyard on weekends to be with his family. Income from renting the Providence house, I suppose, helped them afford the summer place. We never met the family. They lived well but they were apparently not wealthy. One day while working at the desk in the home office I found a pad of notes sitting right on top. The heading on the pad read: ” Things to do when the stock market comes back.” The short list indicated a need for things like “new roof, replace appliances, repair siding.” 

The other interns and I split household expenses and we were expected to keep the grass cut and watered. But since we didn’t see each other most days, things were pretty lonely in that big house where we were each mostly home alone. We soon adopted an adorable puppy, whom we named Pax (pronounced “pocks”) for the Roman goddess of peace. It was 1970, after all, a year John Lenon’s “Give Peace a Chance” was popular.

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Gloria’s dog looked like this Shih Tzu

One afternoon while I was walking Pax, I came upon a woman who said her name was Gloria, which was my mother’s name. Gloria was walking her little dog, whom she described as a Shih Tzu, a Chinese breed long-haired animal with a bow on its head to keep hair out of the eyes. Like the dogs in my family when I was growing up, our Pax was a lovable mutt of questionable heritage. Gloria’s Shih Tzu was obviously an expensive pampered pet with the pedigree papers to show for her cuteness and pure bloodline.  

Gloria and I stood there a moment, talking about our dogs.

Then she said “It’s too bad that you have to walk the dog and take care of the children.”

That’s when I realized that Gloria assumed I was the nanny or maid for the family that lived in the house where we were standing. When I explained to her that I was a college student holding down a professional internship at the daily newspaper I could see she was flushed with embarrassment. She apologized, and we became fast friends over the summer as we met on our afternoon walks with the dogs. I never told my roommates about my encounter with Gloria and her fancy dog. But I couldn’t wait to recount my story in my next letter home to the family.

“I met a Shih Tzu and was mistaken for the nanny at the same time,” I wrote.

Here I had come all this way from not only the waning era of Jim Crow, but far away from the South, where discrimination was still a part of everyday life. I was in New England, which, to me, might have been a foreign country. It was a place where I rarely saw people who looked like me.

Next: This didn’t feel right

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

My Black History: Teachers educated ‘Up North’

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

In public segregated schools in Savannah we were taught by first-rate teachers but I always felt we were recipients of a second-hand education. Our black teachers often earned less money than teachers at white schools and they had to be more creative in getting needed school supplies. But our teachers did something that black students missed when schools were ultimately integrated in the late 1960s and through the 1970s and beyond.

Our teachers cared — really cared about us. Our communities were cohesive. Our black teachers lived in our neighborhoods, went to church with us, and stopped and talked to our parents in the Post Office, at the beauty parlor or in the grocery store.

And if students somehow turned up missing in class for more than a couple of days, black teachers would often get on the phone or stop by the house and knock on the door to reach out to parents. No matter our economic or social status, it was difficult for black students to fall through the cracks like we see happening so much these days.

And let no one denigrate the value of education at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Looking back through the 1967 “Golden Bulldog,” the yearbook for my senior year at Alfred Ely Beach High School in Savannah, there is documentation that our teachers got their early post-secondary education at HBCUs in the South. Many attended Savannah State College (now University) and most others were graduates of other HBCUs in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida. But when it came to getting graduate degrees, most of our teachers had to leave the state to study at places like the University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University and New York University.

In the introduction to his book Bus Ride to Justice, Fred Gray, the much-celebrated attorney in Alabama who represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, described the law that allowed black teachers to be supported by segregated education systems.

“The State of Alabama, as did all of the southern states at that time, had out-of-state aid arrangements for African American students who on their merits should have been admitted to white colleges, universities, and professional schools,” Gray wrote in his book first published in 1995. “Many Southern states inaugurated these schemes to circumvent the 1938 United States Supreme Court decision, Gaines V. Canada, ex rel. The Gaines case held that states that had a segregated higher education system must provide African Americans with equal educational facilities.”

Such was the law that also compelled Georgia to send black scholars out-of-state when they wouldn’t admit them to graduate programs at white schools in the state. To comply with the law of equal opportunity for education, the state paid the tuition and other expenses for teachers to go “Up North” for their graduate education. 

Next: Giving back

My Black History: Suffering the indignities of segregation

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

Screen Shot 2019-02-01 at 6.06.12 PMI stepped into adulthood crossing the bridge between full segregation in the South and the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I attended some of the Movement’s mass meetings at churches in Savannah and later as a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, where I had the chance to see Dr. King speak at a standing-room-only and spiritually rousing Sunday evening service at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, across the street from Morehouse College.

The Civil Rights Movement left me appreciative of  the right to worship God without fear of reprisal, to vote without fear of sanction, grateful for the five freedoms in the First Amendment and the ability to celebrate the fact that I can go to any school or work in any place where I am qualified to be there.

Members of my own family suffered the indignities of segregation. Others joined the NAACP and became part of the solution, as exhibited by the collection of loving cup trophies always displayed on the living room mantle in my grandmother’s house. When the time came me to vote, I couldn’t wait to register and I have never not voted in a statewide or national election in the eight states in which I have worked and  lived since turning 18. I know that too many people were hosed down, attacked by dogs, beaten or shot to understand why any citizen would miss an opportunity  to submit a ballot of their preferences for political representation.

In Savannah, I grew up in a solidly middle class and well-educated family. Yet, we endured the city’s separate and sub par facilities for education, shopping,  dining, medical care, neighborhoods and negative media coverage. Somehow, I made it into journalism despite growing up in a place where there were no African American or female journalism role models. Newspaper and television news ranks were filled with white men. As a black female, I knew it was different for us. But I wonder how many, like me, feared just how different.

Next: Teachers educated “Up North”

My Black History: Our powerhouse group

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

At the Miami Herald we supported each other. We had to. The newspaper did the right thing in bringing so many of us into the newsroom around the same time. There is a lot to be said for critical mass in a workplace in order to help people who have common cultural backgrounds feel comfortable. But there probably was another step needed. The black reporters were sometimes not respected for their professional skills, and there was no support to help editors understand why black reporters were not always successful —  or happy.

For example, in the 1970s black reporters were passionate about covering communities of color. So the rationale was that when you hire black reporters but you won’t let them pitch stories about the black community, a reporter may wonder why the editor doesn’t understand the value a black reporter may bring to a story. On the opposite end, sometimes black reporters want to cover some of the bigger, more mainstream stories in a community. But if editors consistently overlook the black reporters and say they are not qualified, that tends to demoralize the reporter. And then sometimes, black reporters would turn in a story and an editor rejected the reporter’s work and didn’t give them proper feedback as to why it might not be the level of work that the editor expected.

Several times some of my fellow black women journalists called my desk phone and asked to meet in the ladies restroom, which was a large space that included a resting area with a sofa. Two or three of us would gather there and let the reporter vent, and often cry before we gave her some encouragement and then we all went back to work.

To be clear, Miami was the best of times and the worst of times. Best, because we had each other, and worst because the newspaper skipped a step — they didn’t give editors the training and support they needed to adequately supervise reporters who came from a different cultural perspective, instead of belittling every little thing black reporters tried to do.

I’m sure this is not unique to newspapers but probably happens in workplaces everywhere. What good is it to hire people who are different and then hold them to a standard that doesn’t fit with them culturally or emotionally.

To be sure, this was a powerhouse group of black journalists. We went on to work at bigger newspapers, including  The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Among us we went on to become Nieman Fellows at Harvard University, the founder of a non-profit to provide scholarships for students at HBCUs, authors, diversity advocates, award winners, editorial page writers and newsroom executives.

The Miami Herald editors were not alone in addressing the issue of newsroom diversity. Based on the accomplished people they hired, they did a great job sprinkling the newsroom with people of color who had outstanding potential, even though almost all of us eventually left the newspaper with the best part of our journalism careers ahead. Across the  nation newspapers would struggle for decades to recruit and retain people of color. It took many years and lots of industry training models to try to overcome this deficiency. 

There has been progress, but never total success.


My Black History: Discipline from the ‘MD’

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” Today’s posting is about going back to Columbus, Ohio, the city of my birth, and living with my Uncle Watson and his family, including my four first cousins.

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222 Parkwood Ave., where I lived with Uncle Watson’s family

I remember many spankings that took place in the basement of Uncle Watson’s Ohio house, where he lined up the kids if one wouldn’t tell on the other. From time to time, we all got spankings from my uncle, the doctor.

“You know what MD stands for?” he used to ask us.

“We know, ‘mean daddy’,” we would reply.

I always loved my uncle dearly, but that year in Columbus was one of the unhappiest years of my life. However, in 1975, when I was 25 years old and engaged to be married, I called Uncle Watson and asked him to travel to Savannah and give my hand in marriage.

He said “yes” before I could finish asking him.


My Black History: ‘Make us proud’

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

Our families were awfully proud when children brought home good grades on report cards. Sometimes neighbors would ask to see my card and, to reward my good work, would give me a dollar. When I graduated from high school neighbors showered me with small gifts — money or trinkets that might be useful in school, like a dictionary or a box of pencils. In the years when I returned home for visits from college, my grandmother would insist that I go door to door to check in with the ladies up and down the block on West 41st Street. Almost to a house, each woman would reach into her apron pocket and pull out a dollar or two and press the money into my hand, hugging me and telling me to make them proud.

My grandmother watched my procession from her front porch. I was embarrassed to take their money and I complained to her about it.

“Do I have to go to each house? I don’t need their dollars,” I once said.

“Yes, you do,” she implored me. “It’s not about what you need. Giving you money means a lot to them. These neighbors helped raise you. They corrected you when you were bad and they praised you when you did good things. They are proud of you. Giving you a dollar or two makes them feel like they are  helping to get you through college, investing in you.”

It took me years to figure out why my grandmother forced me to check in house to house. West 41st Street was more than a community; it was, my village. I had to learn to process the fact that the people who lived around me had invested in me. They protected me. They encouraged me. They taught me right from wrong, they made sure I knew when a correction was in order. In many ways, by listening to them wax tales on my grandmother’s porch, they were some of my first teachers in journalism because they told wonderful stories, which is what we do in journalism. We tell stories.


My Black History: The father I didn’t know

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

My mother, Gloria, was pregnant shortly before she turned 19 years old. She was dating John Smalls, a young man from Savannah with whom she had gone to high school. Gloria, a December baby who was put in school earlier than her peers,  graduated from high school when she was 16. Perhaps way too young to be away from her parents and out of the house, she left Savannah for Fisk University in Nashville and she later transferred to Howard University for a short time. From what I have been able to discern, Gloria and John were both students at Howard. She was an undergraduate student and he was in law school, he told me the one time I met him in my adult years.  

During the pregnancy, Gloria dropped out of college and moved to Ohio, to live with her brother, Watson, by then a surgeon in private practice. Her brother would undoubtedly assure that she had great medical care far away from the Jim Crow South, where many women were still giving birth at home. Maybe she was hiding her pregnancy from her parents back in Savannah. I never asked.

John Smalls followed Gloria to Ohio and lived there long enough to establish residency, marry my mother about a month before I was born and legally give me his last name. The marriage didn’t last long.

Six weeks after I was born, my mother left Ohio and took me on a train ride to Savannah, carrying me on her lap. We lived with my grandparents in the house on West 41st Street. My father spent a short time in Savannah with us, but he was gone long before I would remember his presence in my life. The Walkers never spoke of him. And I never asked about him.


My Black History: Making a difference

Screen Shot 2019-02-01 at 4.35.13 PMToday and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” 

In the pre-dawn hours of August 28, 1963, a bus pulled out of New York City with my mother as the organizer. Aside from her professional acumen, Gloria was a bad-ass feminist and adventurer. During the Civil Rights Movement she was energized to find ways to protest and take a stand for justice. Born in 1929 into some of the worst years of Jim Crow racism and the lack of rights for women, she was motivated to support the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the Movement.

Gloria had gone around to her coworkers at the AAFES headquarters in New York and encouraged enough of them to join her by paying for a seat on the bus and standing out in the hot August sun on the Washington Mall to rally with the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people who heard Dr. King deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that day.

“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” Dr. King told the crowd. “It would be fatal for the nation to over­look the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality –1963 is not an end but a beginning.”

That day was one of the a highlights of my mother’s life as she told me that story over and over throughout her years — how they marched, sang songs, cheered and hugged strangers of different races, people they didn’t even know, but with whom they found kinship in this moment of the Civil Rights Movement.

They went home motivated to make a difference in small ways in their own spaces of life.


My Black History: They called us ‘Nigger’

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

Growing up in the Jim Crow years in a restrictive, segregated society meant we were not able to go certain places or travel in certain ways like white people did in Savannah. But my village shielded me from many of those legal injustices. I didn’t feel the oppression until I was an older teenager.

We always had cars, or access to cars so I don’t remember riding on segregated buses until my teen years when I  started to venture out with friends to the library or the movies. Even then, someone in my family or a friend’s parent would take us and pick us up. My friends and I went to the Star or the Dunbar theater for Saturday movies, and I recall that we only saw black people there, but it would be a few years later before I noticed that the big theaters downtown were for white people only. As a young child, I didn’t ask questions about places we never went.

Parks were segregated. In our neighborhood on the west side of Savannah, my friends and I ventured a few blocks to Cann Park, a small area in a middle class black neighborhood with playground equipment for the little kids. Later the park became a hangout area in our teen years. If there was ever a place for the girls to take a walk and see where the boys were hanging out, it was in Cann Park. It was a place for the boys to shoot hoops, but that was just about it.

Other places, like Daffin Park were considered “white only” and they had features like tennis courts, sidewalks and a large stadium for baseball games. In the late 1960s, when parks were opened for all races, we still weren’t comfortable venturing outside our own neighborhood. But I do remember my first time in Daffin Park, the one with a water spout in the middle of a small lake. I was walking there with some girlfriends and we encountered a few white boys coming our way. One of the boys called out “Nigger” as we quietly passed them, and one of them spat at us.

I didn’t go back to Daffin Park for at least another 50 years when I attended a Saturday community event. In adulthood I am still not comfortable walking through Daffin Park.



My Black History: Demanding respect

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

My grandmother was an educator. She learned the trade of cosmetology at Spelman and she became Madam J.M. Walker in Savannah (no relation to Madam C.J. Walker of St. Louis, the first black female self-made millionaire). According to the book Madam C.J. Walker’s Secrets to Success, by A’Lelia Bundles, the “Madam” title was adopted by black cosmetologists from women pioneers of the French beauty industry.

My grandmother always used the moniker J.M., she told me, because she wanted to ensure the respect of white people for whom she relied on getting products and services for her business.

“I don’t want them to call me by my first name,” she said. When my grandmother would go shopping downtown on Saturdays, the white people in the stories would always refer to her as Mrs. Walker, a rare honor in an era in the South when black customers were sometimes referred to as “girl” or “gal.”

My grandmother taught cosmetology to adults in night school at Beach-Cuyler School, where my mother was a high school student. When she opened her business on West Broad Street, my grandmother was president of the company and my grandfather was vice president. 


My Black History: Separate and unequal

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

Attending segregated, underfunded schools in the Jim Crow South was a way of life in the 1950s-1960s. Having grown up in a family where education was a significant value, in my adult years I recognize that our schools, unequal as they were, gave us an education that served us well enough in college and in life. Yet, most of us didn’t know what we missed under Jim Crow education until we graduated and found ourselves in the company of people who had different kinds of experiences.  Not to mention, in high school we were denied the right to fraternize with people who were of a different race.

We later came to know that status as “diversity,” a state of unlikeness or the inclusion of people who are different in many aspects of life. In our case, our different-ness meant what part of town we lived in, what faiths we belonged to, what kind of sports, foods or music we liked or how much money our parents earned. This future term “diversity” is one I would come to know very well in my career, as I became an award-winning champion for media diversity.

In 1954, when the US Supreme Court rendered the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a case in which the Court declared that state laws with separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional, the decision legally tossed out state-sponsored segregation in public education. The court said “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The separate but unequal laws had stood for almost 60 years from a prior decision, the 1896 US Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that as long as separate facilities for separate races were equal, segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment, which reads “no State shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.”

The 1954 decision meant, in effect, that students in segregated schools should have an equal shot at education, that our teachers, facilities, materials and post-secondary education in all public institutions should be equal. It meant that my education at Hodge Elementary, Beach Junior High and Beach High schools on Savannah’s west side, schools with 100 percent black students, teachers and staff, should be equal to, say, the education that students would receive at all-white schools throughout Georgia.

I was only four years old on May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court decision was handed down, so I can’t say what the reaction was at that time in the nation’s black community. What I do know is that nothing changed right away, likely because the decision did not address implementation. A year later, the Court’s second Brown decision ordered schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” That was in 1955, the year I entered first grade.

“Deliberate speed” turned out to be a slow process. Public schools in Savannah didn’t begin to integrate until I was in high school, and because of the slowness of desegregation  I never personally benefited from Brown v. Board of Education.


My Black history: Fun ‘big sister’ Gloria


Gloria Walker as a high school student

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” Today’s story is an early look at my mother, Gloria Walker.

Gloria and others in the family, and a few close adult family friends referred to Oper Lee Watson Walker, my maternal grandmother, as Mother or Mudear. So I mostly called my grandmother “Mother” as well.

My grandmother was the disciplinarian in our house; Gloria was my fun big sister, at least in the early years. Tall, light brown-skinned with a slender figure, Gloria had soft, naturally dark-red hair. She was educated in public schools in Savannah, but at some point she was sent away to a boarding school for black girls in Jacksonville, Florida.  

Boylan Haven School was created in 1932 after the merger of the Boylan and Haven Schools. Like many non-public schools in the South, this one was started by well-intentioned Christian white women from New England who saw fit to bring the model of their own cultured education from “Up North,”  as we called it, south for promising African American girls from families who were willing and had the capacity to let their girls go to school away from home.

Gloria was one of those privileged few black girls from Savannah who had the benefit of this private school education for a while. Her own mother was a business woman and her three siblings were grown or gone from the house, leaving a void for making sure Gloria was cared for in her early teen years.

My grandmother, being the proper woman that she was, would probably not have considered what we called many years later a “latchkey child.” Sending her off to boarding school was likely the tolerable solution.

Perhaps because of her experience around the white Christian women who educated her at Boylan Haven School, in adulthood Gloria spoke not with the southern drawl of many of her friends who also grew up in Savannah, but she somehow acquired a proper, accent-less tone that belied discerning what part of the country she called home. And I never heard her use traditional southern colloquialisms like “y’all” or “fixin’ to” or “ain’t” like so many of us spoke growing up in the South.

Gloria had style. When I see photos of movie stars who were popular in the 1940s and 1950s they remind me of my mother, always neatly buttoned down in suits, wearing high chunky-heeled shoes and sometimes hats. Gloria matured in the era of stars like Lauren Bacall, Diahann Carroll, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Dandridge, Joan Crawford, Eartha Kitt and Lena Horne, and she carried herself as if she were one of those celebrities. She adored the finer things in life.



Reflections of my grandmother’s service in the Savannah community — 1930s – 1960s

IMG_1680(Blogger’s note:  My grandmother was a leader in Savannah’s African-American community, especially at Second African Baptist Church, where members of the Oper Walker Guild continue to carry on her legacy 47 years after she passed away. I was asked to address the Guild’s 52nd anniversary program to offer reflections about my grandmother, and to refresh the memory of people who barely remember her.
     (I hope my presentation inspires those who carry on her legacy to continue to serve the church and the community.) 

I grew up in Second African Baptist Church – I was baptized here, and I learned my Easter speeches and Christmas recitations here. This church gave me some of my early childhood friendships.

I learned my first Bible stories downstairs in Sunday School. One of my fondest memories was flipping the benches downstairs after Sunday School class so we would all face the front of the room at the end of our lessons. I knew I was a big girl when I was one of those asked to flip those benches. In 1975, Rev. Edgar P. Quarterman performed my marriage ceremony with Willie Lloyd, to whom I have been married for 43 years.

I remember sitting in this church alongside my grandmother, Oper Walker, and my godmother, Vivian Walker.  My godmother kept me supplied — and quiet — with her collection of peppermint candies, and she generously shared it with other children around us. The choir was up there next to the pipe organ, and I can still feel and hear the sounds of the organ’s music and the bells and choir voices.

I am elated that the church is still celebrating my grandmother’s legacy of faith, fellowship and service through the Oper Walker Guild. She would be so proud to know that her leadership and service to this church lives on through members more than four decades after her passing in 1971.

I was thinking of some key words to help me describe my grandmother. I share some of those key words with you today.

  • A loving family matriarch — mother of four, grandmother of five.
  • Disciplinarian (she meted out punishment when needed, and she forced me to go outside and pull off tiny branches from the bushes — to make switches for my spankings)
  • Community servant (through the church and other organizations to which she belonged, including the local Spelman College alumnae group)
  • Socialite (she was a member of garden clubs and bridge clubs)
  • Neighborhood leader (the 41stStreet Community Club was founded on her front porch)
  • Business woman (she was president of her own school of beauty culture)
  • Seamstress (she made all of her own clothes and mine, too)
  • And a supporter of educational values (she pushed children in the church and in the community to be good students and get as much education as possible)

My grandfather, James Madison Walker, came to Savannah alone (due to a job transfer with Atlanta Life Insurance, Co.) and then he moved the family to Savannah in 1929; my grandmother was pregnant with their last child — my mother, Gloria, who was born in the house where the family settled on West 41stStreet.

The Walker family joined Second Baptist, and they got busy serving the church and the community.

My grandfather became a deacon at Second Baptist and he also served as superintendent of the Sunday school. He was also active with the Savannah Branch of the NAACP.

My Aunt Catherine played piano for the Sunday school. Many, many years later, after my mother retired from her career (living in New Jersey, New York, Dallas and San Francisco) and returned to Savannah, she reconnected with Second Baptist and she joined the Oper Walker Guild. My two uncles – James, Jr., who was a distinguished chauffeur in New York City, and Watson, who was a surgeon in Columbus, Ohio, continued to support their mother and this church. Whenever there was a fund-raising drive for things like new carpet, painting, air conditioning, new windows – things like that — she would reach out to them to send money back to Second Baptist.

At Second Baptist, my grandmother  was active with the Trojans Club, a group that would take on projects to improve certain parts of the church. One of the projects I remember was to renovate a room downstairs into a lounge. The Trojans took everything out of the room and had the walls painted and then brought in new carpeting and furniture. My grandmother encouraged me to support the Trojans effort by taking on a project of my own. I was interested in paint by number projects at the time and I remember making a couple of pictures that we framed and hung in that room downstairs.

My grandmother was a professional woman, she established Boyce’s School of Beauty Culture on West Broad Street. Generations of women who became beauticians studied under Madam Walker.

A few years ago when I was cleaning out family photos, I found pictures of my grandmother’s graduation classes and that’s when I was reminded that she often held her school’s graduation exercises in the sanctuary of Second Baptist.

I learned a lot from my grandmother and her friends about how to be a lady. My grandmother was a stylish and formal woman in what was a formal church.

She was an expert seamstress, making almost all of the outfits that she would wear to church. She had an eye for color and design. It was always my honor as a little girl to go with her downtown on Savannah’s Broughton Street on Saturdays to Hogan’s Department Store where they had a big selection of fabrics. She would pick out several fabrics for her spring or winter wardrobe, and she and I would sit and go through patterns and pick out the styles that she would create for the next season.

Then after her outfits were just about ready to debut, we would go to Adler’s and pick out hats, taking swatches of fabrics to match the colors. And we went to Levy’s Department Store where she would get her hosiery, gloves and handkerchiefs. And then we would walk down the street to Globe Shoes to find matching shoes and handbags to go with her new outfits.

My grandmother was a gardener at home, where she took pride in growing gardenias, roses, gladioli, lilies, coleus and caladiums. She was a member of a couple of garden clubs, where they would study flowers and plants, and then enter flower-decorating contests. When she entered contests, ALL of the flowers came from plants that she grew in her own yard. I always saw blue ribbons come back into her house after those garden club events.

She loved to play bridge and when it was her turn to host a bridge party, it was my pleasure to help her set up the bridge tables in her living room and help her prepare refreshments. (I still have one of her bridge table-and-chair sets.) The bridge club women would arrive dressed in their Sunday best, including wearing stylish hats and in winter some would wear those scary fox fur stoles with the face and the little feet. It was my job to take their wraps and hang them up. Most of these women did not drive, and when I was old enough I would drop my grandmother off and then come back to pick her up after her bridge club events.

Second Baptist was a quiet church at the time. The choir always sang traditional hymns – no gospel music. The deacons sat on the front row, and every now and then you would hear a “welllll” come off this row, or a “Yeaass!” And we children were trained to sit still and listen to the sermon. Or, we might fall asleep on someone’s lap.

Since I returned to Savannah five years ago I have begun to write a memoir documenting my life and career as a journalist. The book will be entitled “Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism Giant.” As I close, I want to share a few sentences with excerpts from the book about my grandmother.

My grandmother was an educator. She learned the trade of cosmetology at Spelman and she became Madam J.M. Walker in Savannah (no relation to Madam C.J. Walker of St. Louis, the first black female self-made millionaire). According to the book Madam C.J. Walker’s Secrets to Success, by A’Lelia Bundles, the “Madam” title was adopted by black cosmetologists from women pioneers of the French beauty industry.

My grandmother always used the moniker J.M. (my grandfather’s initials), she told me, because she wanted to ensure the respect of white people for whom she relied on getting products and services for her business.

“I don’t want them to call me by my first name,” she said. When my grandmother would go shopping downtown on Saturdays, the white sales people would always say “Good morning Mrs. Walker,” a rare honor in an era in the South when black customers were sometimes referred to as “girl” or “gal.”

My grandmother taught cosmetology to adults in night school at Beach-Cuyler School, where my own mother was a high school student. When Madam Walker opened her business on West Broad Street, she named it Boyce’s School of Beauty Culture, using the middle name of her first-born child, Catherine Boyce Walker. My grandmother was a business pioneer. She created her own glass ceiling and then she broke through it, naming herself as president of the company and my grandfather was vice president.


On Saturdays, West Broad Street was our world.

Many women came into my grandmother’s beauty school to get their hair washed, straightened and curled by students at a discount price.

Like Madam C.J. Walker, my grandmother made and sold many of the pomades used in her school. At home, her kitchen often smelled of the chemical mixtures she created, put into small jars and affixed labels to be taken to the school for use by the students and to sell to customers. I believe the difference between my grandmother and Madam C.J. Walker was that my grandmother never attempted to mass produce her products, thus vastly limiting her income potential. To this day, people ask me if my grandmother was THE Madam Walker. Sadly, “No,” I say. “My grandmother was never wealthy.”

And then, a final excerpt.

My grandmother proudly made it to my Spelman College graduation, pushed by her elder son, James, Jr., into Spelman’s Sisters Chapel in a wheelchair. I was the third generation in our family to attend Spelman, followed by my grandmother and her sister, Eliza Marie, and then Aunt Catherine, who graduated from Spelman in 1936.

My grandmother passed away in August 1971, two months after I graduated from Spelman. In his eulogy at her funeral, Rev. Quarterman, our pastor at Second Baptist Church, talked about his many visits with my grandmother at home when she was ill in her final months.  

“She told me she was praying that God would keep her around long enough to see Wanda graduate from Spelman College,” Rev. Quarterman said at her funeral. “She saw Wanda graduate and I know she is at rest now.”

I knew she was proud of me but it was the first time I had heard that story.




Courageous testimony in the #MeToo era

One of my late grandmother’s handkerchiefs

“Here, pin this in your bra,” my grandmother would tell me when I was leaving the house on a date, or going out with female friends to places where boys would be present.

The item she handed me with a safety-pin was one of her personal cloth handkerchiefs knotted with a dime inside. The dime was what we called “mad money,” to be used for a pay phone call if I got into trouble and needed help.

Writing is often inspired by seminal life moments. My recent seminal moment was listening to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s courageous testimony before the US Senate’s Judiciary Committee, broadcast live for the nation to hear.

Reporters who emerged from the hearing room said people inside were wiping away tears, showing emotional empathy during Ford’s testimony about the sexually abusive incident that she said happened when she was 15 years old. As I watched the hearing live on TV, I simultaneously followed emotions expressed in my Twitter feed. A good part of the nation was weeping with Ford.

Thinking about what young Christine Blasey went through reminds me that the incidents she described under oath are unfortunately not new — not just of her generation, but certainly of mine. These attacks have gone on for generations of young people, afflicting young girls and young women (and some men) who never told anyone, never shared with their parents or teachers, or law enforcement or with friends and peers. Social mores have trained women that it may be okay to be embarrassed, to feel guilty, to internalize sexual assaults.

I didn’t live the privileged life of fancy private schools and country clubs that Ford described. I attended public schools in Savannah, yet stories I heard at the time were similar — parties where the boys penned girls in a room with other boys standing outside the door (or sometimes watching inside the room) running a “train” on girls. I’m embarrassed to say now that we sometimes allowed girls to be referred to as “fast girls,” assuming they were willing to put themselves in abusive situations. I heard similar stories later when I attended a private college of young women who came from what we called “good homes” — sometimes from fairly affluent families, sometimes less so, with hard-working parents who taught us the difference between right and wrong.

I have a daughter, and today I weep for her in this #MeToo era, because in the 36 years of her life, she, too, has grown up in a climate where young men may have abused her or her female peers. I weep for this nation, because in 2018 we still endure the overwhelming volume of abuse by boys and men who feel entitled when perpetrating sexual abuse.

I still have some of my late grandmother’s hankies, and every time I run across them in one of my dresser drawers I am reminded of the dangers my family feared. I may need to pull one of those hankies out for today’s tears.

Christine Blasey Ford has done what many others refuse to do. She broke her silence for what she believes is for the good of the country, in this case an attempt to thwart approval of her alleged abuser, Judge Brett Kavanaugh to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. She spoke up. She inspired others to speak up.

As I completed this writing, a phone notification from one of my local news organizations just popped up: “A Beaufort [SC] business owner has just been arrested after 5 female employees accuse him of sexual assault.”

The crisis continues. Time for weeping again.



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