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Ted Poston: Pioneer American Journalist.

Kathleen A. Hauke. Ted Poston: Pioneer American Journalist. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1998. 342 pp. $29.95.

Ted Poston's life was the stuff of adventure, of historic significance, of motion picture proportion, and of remarkable drama. The man who became the first African American to work on the staff of what is called a mainstream (read 'white-owned and managed') newspaper lived a splendid life. His birth early in the century perched him perfectly to witness and, fortunately for two generations of readers, chronicle America's growth out of the Depression through World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emergence of African Americans in U.S. newsrooms.

Kathleen A. Hauke researched Poston's life exhaustively and uses interviews, letters, books, and memoirs to show readers the reporter's life. And she has read Poston's newspaper writing as well as the allegories he wrote that echoed his youth in the South. Because Poston's life is so rich with experience and colored by events later recorded in books, this biography of him should be stunning. But perhaps the great sweep of events so over-whelmed Hauke that her storytelling rhythm was jarred. The time sequence frequently is difficult to follow, and there are several instances when Poston's story has reached his adult years only to turn readers unnecessarily back to his childhood.

Though the man who was born in tiny Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1906 would be remembered as the dean of black journalists, he stood on the shoulders of many whose labors have been lost in faulty memories and histories not taught. Hauke writes much of Ted Poston as "the first" black staffer, but rightly acknowledges the finely wrought distinction that, at the turn of the twentieth century, T. Thomas Fortune wrote editorials and essays that were published in white-owned newspapers and periodicals. And it is precisely that dogged research by Hauke that fills the Poston biography with such vivid accounts. She carefully provides the background for Poston's later exploits by introducing his family and giving us glimpses of his youth. In particular, Hauke presents Poston's older brothers, notably Ulysses, who became managing editor of The Daily Negro Times, a publication by Marcus Garvey. Fortune was editor of that paper; Garvey retained the title of executive editor. The Postons were well educated and lived comfort ably, for the most part, although Ted Poston's father mismanaged the family finances to the extent that they lost their house. Add the musical flair shared by some of the eight Poston children, and the remainder of the saga is easy to believe.

Parallel to the warm-up for Ted's adventurous life, Hauke raises the stature of newspapers in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly The New York Post, which now would come nowhere close to bearing the liberal standard it once held so high.

It is with full understanding that readers are taken through the whirlwind of events that became Ted Poston's life. Poston's mother died when he was ten years old, leaving much of his rearing to his elder siblings. So, as Poston grew to become an educated, self-assured, energetic reporter, it's easy to see that he would have had little trouble fitting in among a troupe of performing artists and literary icons--notable among them Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston--on a 1932 trip to the Soviet Union. By then Poston was establishing himself as a reporter for The Amsterdam News, where he met his lifelong best friend Henry Moon. The Russian propaganda tour would provide Poston a life-time of yarns to spin.

Maneuvering across Depression era France and Germany, then plopping down in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union fortified Poston's experience in ways that would yet be tested. By the time he was dispatched to cover the Scottsboro trial in 1933, Poston was an experienced reporter able to draw upon what he knew of Jim Crow laws in the South and blend that with his personable qualities to get insightful stories from the controversial case, file them (often with the aid of white reporters), and elude a burgeoning lynch mob.

Poston had an eye for great stories. What first appeared to be black toughs setting upon a frightened white man in a New York subway station turned out to be a process server trying to break through Father Divine's security ranks. Poston returned to work and wrote that story. When Governor Thomas E. Dewey ordered a crackdown on the numbers game, Harlem was hit hard, and nobody on mainstream papers knew enough to write the story. Poston did and wrote it superbly.

His career was framed by serendipity. His older brothers' hard work for the Democratic party paved the way for Poston to go to Washington during a portion of Franklin Roosevelt's administration. His social engagements gave him entree to people who would become significant figures in African Americans' struggle for equal rights. He was a friend of Robert Weaver, who would become the first African American cabinet member. Poston and Thurgood Marshall were friends and neighbors. How could a reporter have a better fix on the historic Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case? Poston, in fact, knew so many pivotal figures it's hard to imagine how his coverage couldn't have been heavily laden with conflicts of interest. But Poston came to maturity during America's fervent civil rights years, and his privileged access to sources only sharpened his ability to tell the story.

Hauke had a wealth of material to conquer and some of it, quite frankly, slipped through the cracks. For example, Governor George Wallace didn't block the door to prevent Autherine Lucy from entering the University of Alabama; he blocked the entrance of Vivian Malone and James Hood. Malcolm Little, years before he was Malcolm X, wore his hair chemically slicked in what was called a conk and styled zoot suits when he was young. And President Harry Truman, his Missouri twang notwithstanding, was not a Southerner.

The biographer is, however, meticulous in illustrating the multi-layered commitment Poston had to the cause of equal justice. And the man who said he owed his life "at least five times" to white reporters when he worked stories in the South was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for investigative articles on some black youths framed in Groveland, Florida.

If there were ever a question about the quality of his reporting, whether he was a token black man hired onto the staff of a liberal newspaper, the Pulitzer nomination erased all doubt. Hauke's work aptly tells the story of Ted Poston's life. Readers will leave the book wondering, however, how he might have told his own story.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Jordan, Gerald B.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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