In today’s age of hyper-speed journalism, where news cycles change hourly and consumers can get stories at the click of a mouse, it’s interesting to note how little has changed. The best reporters rely on shoe leather and guile and are willing to do what it takes to get the story. Considering the state of African-Americans in the newsroom, however, the old maxim seems to apply: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Though it’s been at least 30 years since mainstream newspapers were widely integrated, relatively few blacks have advanced to upper-level leadership in those newsrooms; meanwhile, most African-American reporters either assume or are assigned the task of reporting on minority affairs for a readership that’s increasingly white.
That irony kept recurring as I read “Ted Poston: Pioneering American Journalist,” a biography by Kathleen Hauke, an independent scholar in Atlanta. The book chronicles the life and times of Poston, The New York Post’s first black reporter. Though Lester A. Walton, who briefly worked for The New York World around the turn of the century, broke the color line, Poston’s life and career was defined by a paradox common to black journalists in the modern age: His best work transcended race, but was inextricably bound and ultimately limited by it.
Poston’s remarkable life is fascinating in historical context alone. He was a union activist, chronicled the Harlem Renaissance, and was a “Black Cabinet” advisor to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. He covered the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama, wrote a pioneering series examining race relations in New York and Dixie, and was part of the New York social scene during the 1940’s and 1950’s. His friends included Thurgood Marshall, Dorothy West and Henry Lee Moon, an influential member of the NAACP.
Hauke paints a detailed portrait, one researched during 10 years without any comprehensive sources; Poston left behind few memoirs or personal papers, and The Post restricted Hauke’s access to its archives. She managed to reassemble Poston’s life through his surviving friends, official memos, records and even his divorce papers, detailing his battles against racism and his own personal demons.
The eighth child of Ephraim and Molly Poston, Theodore Roosevelt Augustus Major Poston was taught at an early age to uplift the race. His parents were both educators, and his oldest brothers joined Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). His father and brother even tried to establish a black paper, The Hopkinsville Defender, but it failed, wrecking the family finances.
At Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, Poston was a bright, energetic student whose resourcefulness and drive showed up early. Lacking the funds even for a proper collegiate wardrobe, he paid his tuition as a railroad porter. Though hard, demeaning work, Poston saw the country and developed a love of newspapers. At layovers, he read every paper he could, particularly influential black periodicals like The Baltimore Afro-American and The Chicago Defender.
By the time he neared the end of college, Poston knew he wanted to be a newsman. He moved to New York to help his brothers produce The Crusader, the UNIA journal, and moonlighted for Harlem’s Amsterdam News as a freelance reporter and columnist. During the early 1920’s, as the Communist Party began to recruit blacks seeking equality, Poston joined a cadre of black artists, writers and intellectuals for an all-expenses-paid first-class trip to Russia. Though the project on race relations ultimately failed, Poston and Moon, then a fellow writer for The Amsterdam News, produced a wildly successful English-language daily. Poston’s career path had been established.
Back in New York, Poston and Moon rejoined The News, but labor strife and uncertain management made it a short stay. Poston, newly married to a young Harlem woman who was enthralled by his personality, emerged as an up-and-coming talent while covering the Scottsboro trial in Alabama—an assignment in which his experience as a porter came in handy. He became active in the city’s guild newspaper movement, a relationship that helped lead the financially shaky News to fire him.
During the Depression, Poston and Moon both did brief stints with the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program, until it was shut down in 1936. When The New York Times rejected them, Poston found work at The New York Post, long a bastion of liberalism. But he had to prove himself first to City Editor Walter Lister. Hauke writes that Lister, “certain that he would never hire a Negro, agreed to pay Ted 30 cents an inch if he could find ‘one story that’s an exclusive that any other reporter doesn’t have.’” That day, Poston had his scoop: A white process server, trapped by an angry mob in Harlem, was rescued by a policeman near a subway turnstile. The man was headed to deliver papers on legendary radio missionary Father Divine.
Despite the cold shoulder from other reporters and some sources, Poston parlayed his uptown connections into several Post scoops and exclusives. He briefly left the paper for a stint in FDR’s “Black Cabinet,” a coalition of African-American thinkers who advised the President on racial matters. But Poston, a dyed-in-the-wool newsman, returned to The Post when FDR, his “spiritual father,” died. Back in New York with his second wife, the socialite Marie Byrd, Poston’s career took off during The Post’s golden era.
But racism overshadowed his success. Up for a Pulitzer for his work covering the trial of four black boys accused of raping a white housewife in Florida, a jealous colleague sabotaged Poston’s nomination. Still, Hauke writes, Poston “enticed the mainstream white ethnic readership to learn about black culture, and of course through his work, blacks could read about themselves in the context of the broad American spectrum. Explaining Negroes palatably to whites wearied him but, as a colleague says, ‘it was his race and he wanted to do that.’”
Throughout the 1940’s up to the early 1960’s, Poston’s career flourished, including close coverage of the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School and the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. But it stalled when Alvin Davis—Poston’s former drinking and poker buddy—was appointed Managing Editor at age 35. Davis wanted a new kind of coverage for the old-school liberal Post, and Poston’s style didn’t fit in with his vision.
Poston’s career rallied when Davis was dismissed after a series of mistakes, but not for long. A hard drinker and lifelong smoker, Poston developed arteriosclerosis in the mid-1960’s and was largely viewed as a relic by the new generation of black reporters hired by The Post. The beginning of the end came when he was sent to cover the assassination of Martin Luther King: Poston got drunk in a Memphis bar and missed deadline as black America burned. Within a few years he had retired, and his third wife had divorced him. By 1974, he was dead.
Given the complexity of her subject and a lack of resources, Hauke does an extraordinary job detailing Poston’s life—proven by more than 70 pages of footnotes and a 59-page bibliography and index. Unfortunately, her academic writing style is somewhat dry and lacks narrative; the effect is like a collage instead of a painting. The footnotes are also somewhat distracting. But overall, Hauke puts Poston’s life in perspective and makes the ironies for today’s black journalists even clearer.
Joseph Williams, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, is City Editor of The Boston Globe.