Minorities emerged as a driving force at The Journal

Minorities emerged as a driving force at The Journal

GREGORY D. STANFORD

The color barrier cracked a bit in The Journal newsroom in 1950. Bob Teague, who had starred in football at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, became the paper’s first African- American reporter, working for the sports department.

Though it preached racial equality on its Editorial Page, The Journal previously had an unwritten rule: Colored journalists need not apply. The excuse was that “community prejudice created too many barriers for such an employee to be useful,” as Bob Wells related in his 1982 centennial book on The Journal.

The paper mirrored metropolitan dailies generally and Milwaukee in particular, where many jobs were off limits to blacks. Teague put the number of black journalists in the nation’s mainstream press at a half- dozen when he was hired.

Having majored in journalism, the former halfback did good work as a sports writer. He left in 1956 for The New York Times and in 1962 joined NBC News.

The second African-American newsman hired by The Journal didn’t pan out, according to Wells. But the third was Edward H. Blackwell, who went on to become a newsroom legend. He came here as a copy editor in 1963, and in ’64 became a City Desk reporter.

His was a colorful career. An early Journal assignment was a trip to Mississippi, where he gathered material for a series entitled “Behind the Cotton Curtain.” Because many whites didn’t cotton to nosy Northern reporters, Blackwell often masked his identity. When riding, he pretended to be a chauffeur, with the white photographer his genteel passenger.

Once he had to preach his way out of trouble. A plantation owner, suspicious of Blackwell’s claim that he was a preacher, ordered him to ply his trade before the field hands, whereupon he delivered a convincing sermon. Turmoil of the ’60s

The rioting of the 1960s caught many papers by surprise. Some discovered they had a staffing problem: no black reporters to send to the scene. The Journal wasn’t in that bad a shape when rioting broke out here in 1967. Among the reporters assigned to the action were three African-Americans: Blackwell, Kenneth C. Field and Larry Whiteside, who was borrowed from the Sports Desk.

Field had recently returned from riot coverage in Detroit, where he sent back one front- page story that was headlined “Journal Man `Almost a Statistic.’ ” It was about a frightful encounter he had with National Guardsmen.

The turmoil of the ’60s brought race home to many papers, The Journal included. Many took to heart the indictment of the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson had set up to address the riots. The commission report said: “Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes.” Diversity Grows

The Journal started to make an effort to hire black reporters. Blackwell also began writing a column, “In the Inner City,” which carried news items about the black community. The paper added a second column, “Write On,” in which black staffers could express their opinions. Blackwell

In 1979, Blackwell by then known as much for his curmudgeonly personality as for his journalistic skills retired, the first African-American in the newsroom to do so. Shortly before he bowed out, The Journal’s eight black staffers banded together into a group that came to be called the Black Caucus.

A year later, a new staffer, Mary Ann Esquivel, thought Hispanics ought to be able to join. So the group became the Minority Caucus. Besides holding annual barbecues, the caucus pressed newsroom management on issues of coverage and staffing.

Esquivel was the second Hispanic on the staff. The first was Georgia Pabst, who came here in 1975 from the Miami Herald.

The Journal aimed special effort at the Hispanic community in the ’70s. A free-lancer contributed a weekly column, which Esquivel eventually took over.

A caucus complaint in those days was that minorities were ghettoized on the City Desk. They have since spread out, covering fashion, business and entertainment. Staffers of color have begun climbing the supervisory ranks, and they have sat on the Editorial Board.

And philosophy of coverage has shifted, too, with attempts to bring people of color into the mainstream of the news, rather than into special columns.

Finally, overall diversity has widened. Joining the staff in 1983, reporter Patrick Lee was the first of a number of Asian- American journalists here. Deborah Locke, who came aboard as a reporter in 1992, was the first known American Indian staffer. The Journal Sentinel Minority Caucus has already had its first meeting, and vows to continue pressing for diversity in the news pages and in the newsroom.

Copyright 1995

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