In Memory of the First Black Columnist at the Chicago Tribune

Roundup: Talking About History

Les Payne, in memory of Vernon Jarrett, the first black columnist at the Chicago Tribune; in Newsday (May 30, 2004):

Two hours away from my lecture at Stillman College, I needed a grenade. Speakers should always arm themselves with this percussion device when steadying the wandering minds of students at college, even a Presbyterian one like Stillman.

I phoned Vernon Jarrett in Chicago for the exact language of the Alabama slave law that forbade the teaching of blacks to read. He quickly coughed up the 1848 law carrying a penalty of a $200 fine, imprisonment and public lashing. I hit the podium that Sunday with a scholarly sheen that Vernon had been polishing since I met the Chicago columnist in 1975. Google might issue up the slave act nowadays with the right words, but in a Tuscaloosa hotel room without a laptop, Vernon was the surest resort.

Besides, it had been Vernon who first disclosed the existence of the slave act to me at an earlier meeting of columnists. As the great-grandson of Alabama slaves, I knew vaguely of such laws. But hearing the chilling language rolling off Vernon's tongue hit me like a percussion bomb. That same effect was achieved among students attending historically black Stillman College, which was established in 1876 - a few years after the act was technically overruled by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

The first time I met Vernon he spoke for 2-1/2 spellbinding hours at Morgan State University. On the second occasion, he again spoke for 2-1/2 hours, somewhat less spellbinding because of their familiarity. The third time went pretty much the same. The black history names were familiar - Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois - but Vernon imbued them with a sense of daring. He made them curtsy and dance, flutter and wow. William Monroe Trotter was so engagingly reckless that I went on a dead run for his biography. This campaigning, turn-of-the-century Boston journalist, the first black Phi Beta Kappa Harvard graduate, ran the much-feared Guardian as a newspaper slashing to the bone of the powerful, both black and white.

Booker T. Washington, the most celebrated Negro of his era, was reduced in the Guardian to a token who owed his existence to white backers - which made him not very much of a black leader at all.

In a famous White House confrontation, Trotter took a delegation of black supporters in to see President Woodrow Wilson and discuss his joyful embrace and enforcement of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Legalized segregation had stimulated lynching in the South, rioting in the North and black oppression everywhere. "Segregation is not humiliating but a benefit," Wilson told Trotter and his group. Not one to kowtow, even in the White House, Trotter lit into so spirited an argument with the racist president that he had to be escorted out onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Front-page stories the next day reported that Wilson dismissed Trotter with, "Your manner offends me."

Rudeness in the defense of black human rights Trotter considered a virtue. Compromise, on the other hand, no matter how slight, Trotter considered a character defect. in any would-be Negro leader such as Washington. DuBois admired this in Trotter.

Vernon Jarrett admired it in both men, and he embodied these same traits as a journalist crusading for the rights of African-Americans. He blasted Bill Clinton as a sly slacker on race matters - and he was as tough as any critic on Jesse Jackson, relenting somewhat after he made his second presidential run in the 1988 Democratic campaign....

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