Quietly, Heroic ‘Alibi Negro’ Integrates City Newsroom

Ted Poston: Pioneer American Journalist , by Kathleen A. Hauke. University of Georgia Press, 326 pages, $29.95.

Ted Poston always had a yarn to spin, a drink to drink, another woman to see, a story to tell and a reliable source, always, to hang that story on. He was something of a cross between the wisecracking characters out of Ben Hecht and the street-slick citizens that populate Chester Himes’ novels. Crafty, glib, full of guile, he was your classic trickster as newspaperman. He became the “first black to spend his career on a major metropolitan daily,” the then unabashedly liberal, New York Post . The paper even nominated him in 1950 for a Pulitzer Prize for his pre-civil rights era coverage of racial matters in the South.

Kathleen Hauke, who edited a collection of the journalist’s short stories, The Dark Side of Hopkinsville , has put together Poston’s biography, and it’s one of those books one is always happy to see but just a bit disappointed to read. Ms. Hauke has marshaled all the facts, talked to all the right people and yet, Poston, slippery fellow that he was, eludes her. No major crime there–Poston was tough to read.

But there are major crimes of omission. Ms. Hauke says editors at the Post benched Poston from 1960 to 1964, the very thick of the civil rights movement, but she gives no clues as to why savvy editors at what was the premier liberal newspaper of its day chose that time to muzzle its lone black reporter. And, at the very least, once you say that Poston was the first journalist to integrate a major metropolitan newspaper, surely you have to ask the obvious follow-up question–even at the risk of opening up a can of worms: How have things been for black reporters since 1935?

Not so good. Forty-five percent of the newspapers in America have no black reporters or photographers, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Not that Ms. Hauke’s biography needs to take on racism in America–or in journalism–for the greater portion of the 20th century, but without a good bit more than Ms. Hauke provides, Poston’s life and legacy lacks clarity, coherence and proper historical context. It might have been instructive, for example, if Ms. Hauke had compared Poston’s war stories and those of New York Times reporters C. Gerald Fraser and Tom Johnson, who came along in the 1960’s. One wonders how things had changed in 25 years.

Born on the Fourth of July, 1906, in Hopkinsville, Ky., Theodore Roosevelt Augustus Major Poston, the seventh and last child of teachers Ephraim and Mollie Poston, came with printer’s ink flowing through his veins. At 14, he was a copy-boy apprentice to his activist brothers, Ulysses and Ephraim Jr., who ran the family-owned newspaper, The Hopkinsville Contender . The kid, a gangling lad, had an easy resilience about him, a quick-on-his-feet, folksy style and an enthusiastic gift for gab that editors dream of in rookie newsmen.

From those relatively humble beginnings on Billy Goat Hill in Kentucky, Poston went on to become a press officer at the White House during World War II while on leave from the Post ; he was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “black [kitchen] cabinet,” a brain trust of several leading blacks. Even in the White House, Poston relied on his common man’s touch, which he had honed in Harlem pool rooms, with stints as a sleeping car porter on the railroad and as a waiter at the Cotton Club. Never a conventionally handsome man, Poston married three times and had several affairs on the side, including a rumored romance with Post publisher Dorothy Schiff. Poston retired in 1972 and died two years later, age 67, of arteriosclerosis.

Back in 1928, a talented but green Poston arrived in New York and soon commanded the Harlem Shadow column on the Pittsburgh Courier , whose biggest office was in Manhattan. It featured a little crime, some gossip and sex to spice things up. In 1933, as city editor at the Amsterdam News , Poston was sent down to Alabama to cover the Scottsboro Boys case, in which nine young men between ages 13 and 20 were accused of raping two white women.

It was a time when newspapermen were sent down South with no money and nothing but street smarts to fend off lynch mobs. But it was one of Poston’s biggest stories, and even though black reporters were barred from the courtroom, our intrepid hero quickly improvised a presence. He became the raggedy-assed country boy in overalls perched in the Negro Gallery of the courtroom furiously taking notes underneath his coat. When it came time to file, he put the copy on a partition separating the “colored” men’s room from the white “gentlemen’s” room. That’s where the white guy from the Daily News helped him out by picking it up and filing it for him at the Amsterdam News . Later, when one of the local rednecks suggested that the suspicious-looking black guy might be a reporter, Poston went into a “who, me?” routine before quickly flashing credentials showing that he was the “Rev. A Parke Williams of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.”

Meanwhile, Poston had been freelancing for the Post for some time before it was suggested that it might be cheaper for the paper to hire him. The Post , notorious for being cheap, brought him aboard. Poston described his job this way: “I explain black folks to white people and white folks to black people.”

He was a star by then, covering politics. He got to be known as the “great embellisher,” and with good reason. One of his favorite stories was about the time Mayor William O’Dwyer stopped him in the halls at City Hall and gave him an exclusive. Poston thanked him but then asked why him, to which O’Dwyer supposedly responded, “Well, I figured if you were a Negro working first-string on a white paper that you must be a hell of a reporter and I wanted to get you in my corner right away.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games at the Post . When the paper nominated Poston for a Pulitzer in 1950, another reporter quit in a huff, vowing, “I will see that the Post never gets a Pulitzer.” And it never has. That year, Poston won the Heywood Broun and the George Polk awards. Who can say how hurt he was over missing the prized Pulitzer? Like Rat Joiner, Poston’s fictional hometown buddy, hero of The Dark Side of Hopkinsville , Poston did not spend much time fretting over disappointments.

Overcoming racial disparities in the newsroom, Poston covered big stories like the Emmett Till trial, the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision, which was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court by his neighbor and friend, Thurgood Marshall, and Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s blockade of an integrated school’s door.

Eventually Poston had a falling out with the Post ‘s managing editor, Al Davis, whom he accused of neglecting or soft-pedaling black stories. Then, in 1970, in the twilight of his career, Poston found himself in the middle of a discrimination suit. A beginning reporter named Bill Artis and three other reporters charged that the Post had a quota for the number of black reporters it hired. The case dragged on in the courts for four years before the reporters lost, but Poston stood by them, saying, “I was the Post ‘s alibi Negro for 25 years.”

Thus, on the eve of his retirement, Poston was fighting the same battle he fought getting in. And the number of blacks and other minorities in the newsroom remains to this day a running story. (Just last year, the American Society of Newspaper Editors begged off a pledge it made 20 years ago to make minority representation in the newsroom equal to their numbers in the general population by 2000, arguing that the initial goal was simply too ambitious.)

Ms. Hauke’s biography means well. She is inclined to make Poston out to be a victim, but there’s little or no evidence to support that view. Had he wished to lay down and play dead, feeling sorry for himself, Poston would never have left Hopkinsville. Though deeply flawed, this is still a book worth reading, perhaps in tandem with Poston’s own The Dark Side of Hopkinsville . Quietly, Heroic ‘Alibi Negro’ Integrates City Newsroom