How John Seigenthaler created space for people of color to soar

John Seigenthaler in 2005

John Seigenthaler in 2005

Since my last post about who is welcome in what spaces, I’ve been thinking about a particular place and person: The Tennessean newsroom and one of its most amazing inhabitants, John Seigenthaler.

Seigenthaler was, among many other things, the former editor of Nashville’s largest daily newspaper. He died July 11 at the age of 86.

From the spring of 1995 to the fall of 1999, his newsroom on 1100 Broadway was my home. Technically it was no longer his newsroom, but a reporter he’d nurtured was at the helm. But Seigenthaler’s imprint on the culture of the place and space was deep.

Here’s how The Tennessean described him:

Mr. Seigenthaler championed racial equality, both as a journalist and in his job in the Kennedy administration.

…[It] became one of the only Southern newspapers to aggressively cover the fight to end segregation. That was not always popular with hometown readers, particularly the old Southern guard.

The Tennessean covered the downtown lunch counter sit-ins and other stories, when other newspapers wouldn’t, as the civil rights movement swept through the South.

This history was a selling point, particularly as the conditions in the space I occupied in the early 1990s became more and more racially charged.

While in college I interned at The Indianapolis Star, the state’s largest newspaper. After I finished in December 1992, I was lucky enough to be hired as a reporter.

Sometime in early 1995, I had an unsettling conversation with The Star’s managing editor. I can’t remember what upset me about the newsroom climate so much that I requested a meeting with Frank Caperton. I remember exactly what he said after he listened, emotionless, to my concern.

If I didn’t think the paper was a welcoming place for black people, he told me, I should leave.

I did.

A colleague at The Star connected me to an editor at The Tennessean, where I found the most supportive newsroom environment I’ve ever worked in.

People of color and women were at every level of the organization – and in true decision-making roles, with the power to hire and fire and direct the newsroom’s resources.

Sports editor Neal Scarborough, assistant managing editor Catherine Mayhew, city editor Gail Kerr (sadly, now deceased), columnist and editor Dwight Lewis (since retired), features editor Cathy Straight, assistant features editor Gloria Ballard, regional editor Margaret Sizemore – they all created opportunities for me that I treasure to this day.

Scarborough chose me to be the color writer for the 1996 Olympics. Lewis was an informal advisor in my first two years as a reporter. Sizemore must have seen something that resembled potential – she prodded me into management after convincing me that I was capable of ascending the newspaper ranks. When I followed Sizemore’s advice, Mayhew and Kerr were beyond supportive. I’ll never forget how they coached me through the first and only person I’ve had to fire.

And those are just the people of color and women. Metro editor Thomas Goldsmith and particularly managing editor David Green, both white men, were my champions. The newsroom wasn’t perfect, but I have fond memories of my time there.

A commitment to racial justice was intertwined with The Tennessean’s identity. Seigenthaler created this culture. Those who followed him followed in his path.

I do not have a personal Seigenthaler story to share. I wish I did. But when he drifted through the newsroom from time to time, I knew I was in the presence of a legend who’d created this treasured space and place.

For that, I am grateful.

 

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