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Leaving a trail: oral history project seeks to record a pioneering generation of journalists.

This year, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) will celebrate its 30th anniversary at its annual convention (August 3rd to 7th in Atlanta, Georgia.)--recalling an important passage in the nation's history. The organization was founded with fewer than 50 members within a few years of the time African Americans began entering the white-owned media in the late 1960s and early '70s. It now has more than 3,000 members. In many cases, by hiring them, the media were responding to the sudden journalistic needs to cover the civil disturbances of the era and to the national pressures once it became clear how little contact media outlets had with black communities.

Many pioneering journalists got their start in the black press, while others came directly into the daily mainstream media from college or the streets. This first generation of pioneers in major media as well as the foot soldiers of the black press who covered the Civil Rights Movement include many authors who have left a trail by telling their stories. [See "To Make a Journalist Black," pg. 49.] Many of the first eyewitnesses to the racial revolution, however, are aging or dying without ever having recorded their own story. Yet a trailblazing project seeks to change that.

To preserve that legacy, the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE), in Oakland, California, has been working with Columbia University and the African American Museum of Oakland to record oral histories of black journalists. Some of the journalist's stories--both as reporters of daily events and sweeping historical change--can be read online at the MIJE History Project/The Black Journalists Movement, (The latest installments are on how some leading journalists got their start.) The History Project receives major funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Earl Caldwell, a Hampton University professor, former New York Times reporter and New York Daily News columnist and a founding director of the institute, has been recording the oral histories and preparing them for public use. Caldwell made a commitment to capture the stories of black journalists "to ensure that this era of history and the contributions of these black journalists are not forever stories not told," he says.

Caldwell is the Scripps Howard endowed professor of journalism at Hampton University, the historically black institution in Virginia. He collaborated with MIJE President Dori J. Maynard on the idea for housing the oral histories of black journalists. "He (Earl Caldwell) wanted journalists of color to tell their stories, and for those stories to be preserved in repositories where future journalists, scholars and historians could cull from them." she recalls.

Dori Maynard, the daughter of Robert C. Maynard, former editor and owner of the Oakland Tribune and a founder of MIJE, says, "Black journalists made a tremendous difference in America's newsrooms and continue to do so." Maynard is also coauthor of Letters to My Children (Andrews McMeel Publishing, June 1995) a compilation of syndicated columns by her father.

Using video on the Web to tell forgotten chapters in American history and journalism, the Black Journalists Project preserves the voices and stories of African American journalists.

Caldwell, no stranger to controversy himself, remains excited about the project. A previous writer in residence at the MIJE, Caldwell was the only reporter present when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. As a New York Times reporter, he refused to reveal the results of his reporting on the Black Panther Party to the FBI and the Nixon Administration. In 1972, The United States v. Caldwell became a landmark case in the Supreme Court. The Court ruled against him, but the case led to the enactment of shield laws in several states that allow reporters to protect sources and information. He is the author of Black American Witness: Reports From the Front, (Lion House Publishing, December 1994), a collection of his Daily News columns.

In 1996, Caldwell began producing The Caldwell Journals (, an online serial that captured the stories of black journalists, which led to the History Project.

"We intend to make DVDs and create an anthology from the collection as well," notes Caldwell, with the "kind of pride and passion that comes with shepherding projects like this into reality. "We're also in the process of designing a site that will include clips from the oral histories and many of the documents and photographs and other interesting things we've gotten from the journalists in the project."

Although the African American Museum in Oakland, California, houses 10 of the oral histories from California journalists, 20 of them are housed at Columbia University in New York City. Caldwell's goal is to document a minimum of 60 stories. "Columbia has a whole highly regarded oral history department and our collection is there," Caldwell says. "It is also housed at the Oakland Museum and Library and at Hampton University. The plan is to put it in many other places around the country in the black community."

Along with his organizing efforts to tape the oral histories, Caldwell is developing an archive for select artifacts and collaborating with faculty to design support curricula. For more information, log on to
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Author:Muse, Daphne
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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