Journalists usually record history. George Collins made it.

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Gentlemen in front of the downtown AFRO building are, photographer I. Henry Phillips Sr., left, and reporters Rufus Wells (Dulah Okoro), Herbert Magrum (Orfa Adwuba) and George Collins (Loua Akulu).

In the summer of 1961, Collins and other AFRO conceived and executed what came to be known nationwide as “The Great Route 40 Hoax,” a ruse that highlighted the silly pettiness of segregation. Dressed as African ambassadors, Collins and his colleagues challenged the segregation policies of selected restaurants lining Maryland’s Route 40 highway.

The farce prompted both red faces and hilarity across the nation, all the way to the White House.

“The situation was a totally embarrassing one for the country but it highlighted how segregated Maryland really was,” said AFRO Publisher and Chairman John J. Oliver.

But the situation also highlighted the intrepid, journalistic prowess that marked Collins’ storied career, a legacy that is being remembered in light of his death July 31 at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. He was 88.

“In a career spanning several decades, George covered issues both local and national through a unique lens, telling stories that resonated in communities of color and beyond and opening doors to others wherever he went,” U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who counted Collins as a mentor and friend, said in a statement. He added, “George leaves behind an indelible legacy, and will be missed as a pillar of our community.”

“He was one of the deans. He was one of the pioneers who broke down and was always working to break down barriers for African Americans in journalism,” added veteran Baltimore journalist Marc Steiner, host of “The Marc Steiner Show.” “He was a legend.”

For more than 60 years, Collins reported on the Civil Rights Movement, politics and did investigative reporting. He began as a reporter for {The People’s Voice}, founded in New York by Adam Clayton Powell. He later joined the {Afro-American Newspapers} where his reporting included coverage of such historical events as the March on Washington, the John F. Kennedy assassination and other big stories of the era.

“George was a reliable journalist so Carl (Carl Murphy, the AFRO’s then-publisher) relied on him to cover the big, important stories,” Oliver, the current publisher recalled.

In 1968, having become the editor-in-chief, Collins’ ended his 18-year stint at the Black newspaper and joined the staff of WMAR-TV.

At the then-CBS affiliate, Collins worked as an investigative reporter and producer and later as an associate editor and anchor. There, Collins garnered national recognition for coverage of funerals for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, among other stellar reporting.

With Collins’ death, the station “lost one of the greats,” said Jamie Costello, a WMAR anchor, on the air. He added, “It’s tough when you lose a man like this because you lose history.”

In 2003, Collins was jointly cited by the non-profit publisher Library of America, the National Committee for Excellence in Journalism and the Smithsonian Institution as “one of the best American journalists of the 20th century,” according to a bio from his family. Two of his AFRO articles were also selected for inclusion in {Reporting Civil Rights,} an anthology of the best articles on the issue from 1941 to 1973.

Distinguished by the quality of his work, Collins was also set apart by his out-sized personality, peers remembered.

“We can still hear that booming voice of his and feel that strong handshake,” Costello said. “He made you feel like you were the only one in the room and like you were his best friend.”

And then there was his other side.

“He was a crusty curmudgeon who did not suffer fools gladly,” recalled Steiner with a small chuckle.

Steiner remembered feeling the sting of Collins’ displeasure when he joined the lineup at WEAA-FM, Morgan State University’s public radio station, where Collins had hosted “@Issue,” a one-hour public-affairs show, since 1986.

The pair developed an amicable relationship, Steiner said, and in the time he knew Collins, he came to admire his tenacity and drive.

“He loved what he did and was passionate about journalism; he never stopped,” Steiner said. “The only reason he stopped was because he was too ill to continue, otherwise, they have had to carry him out of the studio.”

Collins is survived by his wife of more than 65 years, Eloise Ross Collins; four children, Barbara C. Rhodes (Warren) of Dover, Del., Ronald B. Collins (Sylvia) of Chicago, Ill., Vanessa C. Pyatt (James) and Valerie D. Collins both of Baltimore; four grandchildren, Mandisa A. Rhodes-Trower (Christopher), Zachary P. Collins, Vashti E. Pyatt and Tabitha D. Pyatt; and one great-grandchild, Khadijah A. Trower.

 

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO