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ESSAY: Son of a Newspaperman

southern newspaper

This photo by Andrew Emond also appears in the New South Journalism issue. 

My father was a newspaperman. Though he graduated from UNC with a degree in journalism and has an endowed chair in the School of Journalism named after him and my mother, he prefers not to be called a journalist. In 1949, the day after he graduated from college, he went to work at The Chatham News in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. He worked there until 1966, when he managed to save enough money to buy, with a partner, a weekly paper in southeastern Sampson County, North Carolina. He ran his own paper—The Sampsonian—until it merged with his competition—The Sampson Independent—putting in another twenty years until he retired.

The stability of his working life—nearly twenty years as a reporter, twenty as an editor—was at odds with the volatility of the first stage of his career, in the segregated South of the 1950s and 1960s. There was nothing “new” about the South my father covered as a reporter for The Chatham News. “It was the policy of all newspapers in the South in those days not to print any type of social news about blacks other than announcements of church services,” my father told me recently. “The Chatham News did not print birth announcements or obituaries of blacks. The only way a black person could make it into the paper by name was to be arrested.”

My father had been working at the paper for several years when a young, black woman came into the office to place an announcement of her engagement. My father conferred with the editor, who left the decision up to him. He told the woman that he would not print the story until other newspapers would also print such news. More than fifty years later, he still regrets his answer, though it was this incident, he says, that led to his decision to gradually change the paper’s position on printing news of the black community.

 


 

Siler City was home to four furniture plants and a couple of chicken-processing plants. Because the Klan in that area of the state consisted mostly of mill workers, Siler City was ripe for recruitment, and the Klan came to town for a parade. My father covered the event because it was big news in our small town, but decided not to run any photos because he did not want to give the Klan any undue exposure. That week he wrote something negative about the Klan in his weekly column and soon after began receiving telephone calls at home warning him that he would end up with a cross burning in his yard if he did not quit writing such trash.

One night, not long after writing a story about the accomplishments of a black man whose photo ran on the front page, my father was covering a meeting when the phone rang at home. A male voice asked for my father, and my mother told him that he was out. “Well, you tell him that we know what his color is, and that’s black,” the man said.  “I’ll tell him,” said my mother, “but first, I want you to know that I know what your color is, and it’s yellow.”

A few months later, my father drove out to the country to cover an appearance by Catfish Cole, the self-appointed leader of the North Carolina Klan. Catfish spoke from the back of a pickup truck parked in front of a juke joint known as Little Red’s. My father brought his camera along and decided to take some photos. He got up close to the back of the pickup and waited until Catfish was all wound up, screaming to the crowd about what he and his Klansmen were going to do to the “niggers.” He was waving his fist at the crowd when my father snapped his first picture. The flash on his Speed Graphic camera, which was the size of a 100-watt bulb, exploded, and Catfish jumped off the pickup and headed for the woods. Immediately, a dozen of Catfish’s minions came charging out of the shadows bearing shotguns and rifles, but when the crowd found out Catfish fled from an exploded flashbulb and started heckling him, the Klansmen retreated, and that was the end of the rally.

 


 

Since we moved from Siler City to Sampson County when I was in the first grade, my earliest memories of my father’s profession are from his days at The Sampsonian. The newspaper occupied a skinny storefront between a photographer’s studio and a variety store. My father’s office—a cubicle in the small, front room shared by the advertising man and a receptionist—now seems straight out of a movie set for a small-town newspaper: a cigar stub smoldering in an ashtray of silver-rimmed, cut glass; a creaky wooden desk chair; and a rolltop desk upon which sat a manual Underwood typewriter sprouting thin, yellow sheets of paper stained with uneven foolscap.

It was in the back room where the paper was put together: glass-topped tables lit with fluorescent bulbs for laying out pages, a linotype the size of a tractor operated by an elderly deaf man. The only black employee, aside from the young boys who—along with me and my brothers and sisters—came on Wednesday afternoons to insert circulars into the paper, was a man named Raymond Williams. Raymond Williams was not a reporter, nor did he sell advertising. He handled the most technical and dangerous tasks, such as pouring hot lead into molds to be shaped into ingots for the linotype. Though it was 1966, and the schools had been ordered to integrate, most newspapers still ignored the social lives and accomplishments of blacks. My father and his partner enlisted Raymond William’s wife to write a weekly column with news of the black community.

In his provocative if simple-minded New Yorker article, “The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism,” Malcolm Gladwell, discussing the Southern racial climate of the 1950s, wrote: “Politics was not ideological. It was personal. What it meant to be a racial moderate, in that context, was to push for an informal accommodation between black and white.” Later in the article, Gladwell discusses Alabama Governor James “Big Jim” Folsom, and writes: “After he was elected governor a second time, in 1955, Folsom organized the first inaugural ball for blacks in Alabama’s history. That’s a very nice gesture. Yet it doesn’t undermine segregation to give Negroes their own party. It makes it more palatable.”

Perhaps Gladwell might think that giving blacks their own society column in a small Southern newspaper was yet another very nice gesture that, because it maintained a separate but (in terms of column inches) decidedly unequal representation of the races, made segregation more palatable. The column is still running in The Sampson Independent, though my father wonders, “Maybe it should be abolished, or somehow integrated with the regular news columns.”

Yet I know from the irate phone calls we would receive at home during my youth that the only time people weren’t happy to see their name in the paper was when it was misspelled or turned up in the court docket. My father’s misgivings about where in the paper the accomplishments of black residents were reported does not diminish the fact that, if it weren’t for his efforts, blacks might not have seen their name in the paper at all unless they were arrested.

 


 

Gene Kelly said in Stanley Kramer’s film version of Inherit the Wind, “It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Such an obligation was far easier for the Washington Post, or even The News & Observer in Raleigh, to uphold than a small-town weekly most readers subscribed to in order to find out how much chicken fryers were going for at the Piggly Wiggly or gawk at the front-page photos of moonshine stills discovered deep in the piney backwoods. Being a newspaperman, rather than a journalist, meant that penning editorials or reporting on Klan rallies was only one of dozens of duties. It would have been easy for my father simply to be too overwhelmed by laying the paper out, selling ads, handling subscriptions, photographing football games and womanless beauty pageants put on by the Jaycees, and stamping the labels on the mixed-state singles and carting them to the loading dock of the post office, to express any opinion that might even slightly affect his profit margin.

My father wasn’t above prohibiting his children from shopping at stores that, before the two papers in town merged, advertised with the competition. This wasn’t ideological or personal; it was simply business. Yet where the injustices of the community were concerned, my father never allowed cancelled subscriptions or lost ad revenue to dictate his editorial stance. His refusal to allow that young, black woman to announce her engagement all those years ago might be with him still, but it taught him the true business of running a newspaper.

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