History traces black correspondents

AFRICAN AMERICAN FOREIGN
CORRESPONDENTS: A HISTORY

By Jinx Coleman Broussard

LSU Press, $45

Quick: Name a black foreign news correspondent. Some may remember CBS’ Ed Bradley or CNN’s Bernard Shaw for their reports from Vietnam in the ’70s and Desert Storm in Iraq in the ’90s. Perhaps you’ve heard of Les Payne, who won a Pulitzer Prize covering Africa for Newsday.

However, few know of the long-term, important role black foreign correspondents played in providing alternative perspectives and untold stories, especially before integration of the American mainstream press. That’s what Broussard seeks to rectify with her second book, which chronicles the history of black correspondents starting before the Civil War.

Broussard, a Vacherie native who was press secretary to New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy from 1986-1993, mass communication chair at Dillard University in New Orleans and is now an associate professor at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, has written a painstakingly documented account of the bold men and women who sought to “have a conversation about race and government and race and media” in difficult circumstances.

Some traveled on their own; others went with the backing of black publications and the Associated Negro Press syndicate — all seeking to “educate readers about a wider world and the lives of oppressed and marginalized people,” Broussard writes.

She describes how black foreign correspondence evolved to meet an unmet need when the mainstream American belief system offered only stereotypical news about people of color and ignored information that was of interest and importance to subjugated people. As with mainstream foreign reporting, it started with personal reporting: Early black travelers, such as Frederick Douglass, the first “accidental black foreign correspondent,” told of places his readers would not otherwise know about as he traveled to promote abolition. How other nations treated blacks compared to the United States was a major reporting theme.

Broussard offers not just names, but details about writers and events and issues. George Washington Williams, a former soldier, lawyer and the first major black historian, was a bona fide correspondent employed by mainstream media. He disputed the “truth” of Henry Morton Stanley’s writing for the New York Herald about the “Dark Continent” and its “human vermin.” Homer Smith, aka Chatwood Hall, compared “Red Russia” to “White America” in the 1930s.

Black publications led the fight against military discrimination at a time when mainstream reporters quoted white officers questioning the bravery and capability of “tan yanks.” Black reporters covered the often-ignored stories of black soldiers’ heroism and hardships. As a result of such advocacy, black correspondents had their loyalty questioned and sometimes had difficulty getting paperwork through to travel.

Even much later, trailblazer William Worthy Jr. successfully fought against the U.S.’ refusal to renew his passport in the ’60s and in the ’80s for confiscating documents he brought out of Iran.

From slavery to the end of apartheid and beyond, and to all points around the globe, Broussard’s book offers a riveting ride into the past that anyone interested in history – be it black, media, or American history – will find enjoyable and enlightening.

Cleo Joffrion Allen, Ph.D., a former newspaper reporter and editor, is an assistant professor of mass communication at Dillard University with a research interest in foreign news.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on July 22, 2013, to add Broussard’s current position at LSU.