Ralph Dawson Matthews Jr., a top-flight journalist who followed in the footsteps of his father as a managing editor of the AFRO American Newspapers, was a friend to Malcolm X and Miles Davis, among others. He died on April 3 at the Adelphi House, an assisted-living facility in Adelphi, Md. He was 86 years old.
The cause of death was Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), according to his wife, Sharon Williams Matthews. They were married for 25 years.
Matthews, who was born in Baltimore, attended Syracuse University. During summer breaks from college, he worked with his father, Ralph Matthews Sr., at the Baltimore AFRO American Newspaper . The elder Matthews, a pioneering journalist was a veteran reporter and columnist who some saw as the AFRO’s counterpart to the Baltimore Sun’s H.L. Mencken, became the newspaper’s managing editor.
Matthews started as a cub reporter for the AFRO, covering religion issues, the arts and entertainment. He became the newspaper’s managing editor in 1977 and was working in that capacity in 1981when the paper’s current publisher John “Jake” Oliver, Jr. arrived as vice-chairman.
“He was a cool customer…he was a veteran journalist,” Oliver recalled. “He knew just about everybody, he was well-connected with what was going on in Baltimore City, he knew who the players were, could call up anybody he wanted to,” he added.
“He was a great managing editor, I enjoyed working with him,” Oliver concluded.
Matthews worked at the AFRO until 1986. But, he also made major contributions as a journalist in other arenas and cities.
He worked for COLOR magazine in New York, a Black publication modeled after LIFE magazine.
Later, he was an important chronicler of the Black Power movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s as the creator and editor of the New York Citizen Call newspaper in Harlem. He reported on many of the important events of that movement, meeting with Malcolm X on a weekly basis. In fact, Matthews was allegedly the only reporter allowed into the meeting at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem between Malcolm X and Cuban president and revolution leader Fidel Castro in 1960.
“I know he thought highly of Malcolm and the feeling was mutual,” said Matthews’ widow.
“Ralph always gave credit to the brilliant editors of the Black Press who worked with (him) to hone his craft. He was a consummate professional who loved his work,” she added.
During the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, Matthews traveled the country as a writer, editor and photographer chronicling the efforts of the Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty.”
According to his wife, when he was managing editor of the AFRO Matthews was able to hire Leslie King Hammond, who would go on to become a dean of the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Matthews was also an early managing editor of broadcast news at Howard University’s WHUT-TV, a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) affiliate. In that capacity he managed the grant that allowed him to hire and train many young Black broadcast professionals who worked in front of and behind the camera.
In his later years, he worked as an educator in the D.C. Department of Health and was also a speechwriter for Mayor Marion Barry.
In addition to his groundbreaking work as a journalist Matthews was a life-long lover and advocate of jazz and a jazz concert promoter. He was often called upon to lecture on the music he loved and the musicians that made it great, many of whom he knew personally. It was through this work that he met and befriended one of the greatest jazz musicians of them all, trumpeter Miles Dewey Davis.
Matthews also served as jazz historian for the Jazz Listening Group of D.C.
Ralph Matthews Jr. is survived by his wife Sharon; his daughter, Marcy Crump, an entrepreneur and publisher in Baltimore; his oldest son, David Matthews, a screenwriter in New York and Los Angeles; his youngest son, Khari Charles Matthews, a computer security analyst in Maryland; a grandson, Shawn, and three granddaughters: Talia, Zora and Isabella.
A memorial service for Ralph Matthews, Jr. will be held in May.