Was it only yesterday that professor Frances L. Murphy made a fateful call on my behalf to her sister Bettye Moss, then general editorial supervisor at this paper? While it might seem like just yesterday, it’s been 40 years since that afternoon in May 1970. Sitting in Frances’ news bureau office at Morgan State, I listened appreciatively as she spun the wheels of my future into motion, telling how I would come down immediately to be interviewed for a city desk reporter’s position.
What a fortunate opportunity working at the paper was for a lively young man fresh from college with a passion for writing.
When I arrived on the city desk that summer of 1970, I joined the company of an illustrious publication heralded nationally and internationally as one of the newspapers – along with the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier – most outstanding among Black publications in the world. “…he Afro-American became one of the top three black newspapers in the United States, matching its competitors the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier in circulation and influence,” The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance says.
It was almost like working on a daily. Thirteen editions such as Five Star, Nine Star (National edition), Red Star, New England, South Carolina, Richmond, New Jersey, Late City, and Philadelphia were run five days a week at the Baltimore plant and “put out” by a large, dedicated staff that took immense pride in the papers’ local and national stature.
What a spectacular time I had working at the paper when it occupied that venerable corner at Druid Hill Ave. and Eutaw St.: proudly sitting next to Max Johnson; observing Sam Lacy as he typed; soaking up Elizabeth M. Oliver’s method of telephone interviewing; watching Lula Jones Garrett McKay cropping pictures and editing copy for her society page; receiving a gruff, friendly greeting from Art Carter when he visited from the Washington AFRO; joshing with the workers in the cavernous composing room as they typeset and laid out the next edition; listening to John Murphy order press paper; remembering Bettye Moss’ reaction when she recognized a sell-out page one story and descending into the pressroom to watch true Black power as the printed AFRO shot from trusty conveyor belts.
Never again will there be a time like my first AFRO years, the boiling turmoil and unrestrained clamor of Black racial assertiveness exploding all around, loud, bold, and unrepentant. Reporting, particularly at this paper, is one of the few jobs where one person could literally go everywhere, see everything, and meet everyone.
When Prince Charles and Princess Anne of Great Britain visited the White House during my first reporting summer, the AFRO got me there. I was in the Rose Garden for the arrival ceremonies and met Nancy Dickerson of NBC News who graciously introduced me to Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
When I attended a local press conference, George C. Wallace, then governor of Alabama, sat facing a large, boisterous contingent of the national and local press corps. I knew he was going to call on me because I was the only Black reporter in the room. I was prepared to ask an important non-racial question when he acknowledged my hand.
Those assignments serve as a brief testimony to the paper’s clout and stature. Humbling experiences, truly, because as an AFRO writer, I joined a long list of luminaries hired by the paper over decades, including: William Worthy, Walter White, J. Saunders Redding, Kelly Miller, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Charles H. Houston, Countee Cullen, E. B. Rea, Ralph Matthews Sr., and Ollie Stewart.
That was yesterday, a time of unprecedented change, dramatic change, the kind of progressive advancement our ancestors selflessly bled and died to achieve. However, seismic change has occurred in Black America since the historic days of respectful assertion of Black demand for seats at the table of power. Conditions have changed in large segments of Black America – and not always for the better.
As an American man of color, I try to remember my life is not about me first. It’s about God, America, my family, friends, colleagues, students and the strangers put on my path. It’s about following in the footsteps of our Black ancestors, trying to live a life that remembers their values and their sacrifices. It’s about being deeply appreciative to have been born in the relative North in free times. Nothing is more important, nothing.
Failure to follow the careful example of our ancestors’ cultural, educational, and citizenship values is the primary reason so much of the Black community is in chaos and not always because of the racism that tortured our fore parents. This disarray manifests itself as a serious cultural, social, and moral decline within large segments of the race.
Too often, the meaning of being Black in America has been perverted and disgraced. In too many places, displaying Black consciousness means being crude, rough, vulgar, uneducated, and common in one’s speech, appearance, and public conduct. The cruder, rougher, more vulgar, and more common one is, the “Blacker” one is thought to be, a disgraceful, never-before-seen betrayal of our ancestors’ middle-class moral values and sacrifices.
Voices more prominent than mine, including Bill Cosby’s, have sounded the alarm. Charles Dutton, the actor, has feared aloud that almost two generations of Blacks are “that far” from a social decline from which they might find it impossible to rise.
Are many America Blacks ready for the hard medicine that is required to heal the often self-inflicted ravages upon so many ebony hearts, minds, and souls? Time will tell.
Who would have thought on that bright Monday morning, my first day of AFRO work 40 years ago, that I would find it obligatory to write here as I have 40 years later?
During Mr. Evans’s last employment in the 1980s, he was editor of the Tuesday AFRO and associate editor of the Friday edition. His latest book is “Song of My Soul: Poems by an American Man of Color to Commemorate the 2019 Harlem Renaissance Centennial.” His e-mail address is Pauliswriting@hotmail.com.