A take a look at black life in New York within the 60s and 70s from a pioneer of civil rights and journalism

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Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a titan of American and New York City journalism, just released an anthology of her work, “My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives.” The title alone should tell you it is no ordinary memoir.

Her work is partly a mirror onto the lives of underrepresented New Yorkers going back to the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement and its most significant victories. Yet Hunter-Gault, 80, didn’t just write about the news; she also was part of it.

In 1961, Hunter-Gault and the late Hamilton Holmes became the first African Americans to register at the University of Georgia, after winning a court battle to gain admission. Hunter-Gault graduated in 1963 and came to New York the same year.

She became the first Black writer for The New Yorker and later opened The New York Times’ first Harlem bureau, writing about New York City’s Black community in the 1960s and 1970s.

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The former Charlayne Hunter, then 18 years old, became the first Black woman to attend the University of Georgia, after winning a desegregation lawsuit in federal court in 1961. Here she smiles as she is interviewed in Athens, Georgia, following her first class in Meigs Hall.

Horace Cort/AP/Shutterstock:

But New York wasn’t big enough for Hunter-Gault. She went on to become a national correspondent for “PBS NewsHour” and chief Africa correspondent for NPR, covering the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa.

Called “an eminent dean of American journalism” by Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, Hunter-Gault recently sat down with Gothamist to discuss her work in New York City, her approach to covering Black communities and reflections on the nation’s ongoing struggles over racial justice.

Here are some highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Coming to New York in 1963

William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker, had read about my case at UGA and had managed to get in touch with me and asked me to come to New York because he was interested in possibly giving me a job. So I went to New York, he interviewed me, and he said, “now you would start here as an editorial assistant.” That meant typing – those were the days of typewriters – typing rejection slips and you know.

Calm after a riot

There came a time when I was living in Brooklyn. There had been a riot by people who were unhappy with what was happening for people of color. And I got home, and the riot was happening, but then the next morning as I walked back to the subway, everything was eerily calm. And it just had an impact on me, I don’t know. It was so weird that the night before had been so raucous, and in here everything was really quiet. So I wrote this little piece and handed it to Mr. Shawn’s office. And that was the first piece that I ever had in The New Yorker.

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Charlayne Hunter-Gault, 1975.

Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock:

A senior writer’s challenge

Then [after my first story], I dared. So I wrote a story known as “One Hundred and Fifteenth between Lennox and Fifth.” I wrote about my first go to with my grandmother to one hundred and fifteenth Road between Lenox and Fifth [avenues]which is Harlem.

I confirmed it to a different colleague after I handed it in and he got here in, put it on my desk and stated, Harlem, not about what a superb time you had as a child.’

I assumed this was a senior journal author. I assumed, now I actually cheated. However inside minutes of this assembly I obtained a name from Mr. Sean. He stated. “Mrs. Hunter, I learn One Hundred and Fifteenth Between Lennox and Fifth, and if that is okay with you, we would wish to put it within the journal.’ I did not know what to say. If “it was all proper with me”. Do you get it? And that was the second piece.

Who wasn’t there?

I began taking a look at what was within the journal and what wasn’t within the journal. And there wasn’t a lot about individuals of coloration. The competitors at The New Yorker was very stiff, as you’ll be able to think about. To get items in {a magazine}, you needed to have one thing that was very uncommon. And the tales that I went and coated then, principally in Harlem however often in Brooklyn, had been about my individuals, they usually at all times ended up within the journal as a result of they had been uncommon. Whereas they had been frequent when it comes to the individuals who lived via these experiences, it was not frequent to get into {a magazine} like The New Yorker.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., left, executive producer of “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, center, and civil rights icon Ruby Bridges take part in a panel discussion on the show in 2013.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock:

Hired at The New York Times in 1969

There were some Blacks working at the Times at the time, and they said, “Well, why don’t you come over and interview? Maybe you could get a job at the paper.” I went, and I was interviewed by the legendary editor, Arthur Gelb, who was metropolitan editor. And it was an interesting conversation.

He said to me, “if I sent you to Harlem to cover a story about a man who had done something wrong, if he was a friend, would you be able to write that story?” And I said, “Well, Mr. Gelb, I would be able to write the story, but I would want to find out what was behind it, because so many Black people get accused of things they didn’t do. So if he in fact was guilty of something, I could write that, yes. But I would want to investigate to make sure that this was the truth about what had happened with him.” Long story short, he accepted that. I got hired.

Starting the Harlem bureau

The more I looked at what was in the paper and in other papers, the more I realized that the best way to cover Harlem was to be there. And I managed to talk him, Mr. Gelb, into letting me open a bureau in Harlem, the first of its kind in the country.

I positioned myself in a small room. The office belonged to a lawyer. He gave me the room, and I could look out the window. To the right was the legendary Apollo Theater. To the left was 125th Street and Seventh [Avenue]the place so many black males from Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X stood on the nook and gave speeches to individuals about their individuals, my individuals.

The famed 125th Street thoroughfare in Harlem, 1964.

John Lent/AP/Shutterstock:

The Black-owned bookstore

In the next block [from my office]126th Road, which was in entrance of the state workplace constructing, was a bookstore, and it was owned by a bit of black man who had one of many largest collections of actual black books and tales within the nation. Every kind of writers, black, white, Caribbean, went there to take a look at his books, have lectures and talks, and so forth. So I wrote a bit a couple of professor, and one in all his quotes was that this was once more within the early 60s, late, early 70s; he preferred to cite issues like, “the white man’s dream of supremacy has turned to bitter cream; “. And I put all of it into the material, and the material went into the paper.

There have been so many positives that had been missed as a result of a lot of the protection of black individuals as much as that time was both crime or somebody uncommon like Muhammad Ali or somebody like that. However nothing about simply on a regular basis individuals and the lives they lead.

Muhammad Ali, the then-former heavyweight champion, speaks to residents near 125th Street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem, 1968.

Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock:

A nudge toward a book

At the University of Georgia, Valerie Boyd, professor of writing, said, “you know, you really should put your articles together, because this is a good time for it when people are so confused about history. And you have recorded so much about people of color in a different way.”

Black representation in media

There are good things. There are Black people who are doing wonderful work these days, and also I think that the demonstrations and the consciousness that’s being raised by those demonstrations is leading to a greater degree of representation. You look at television these days and you see more women and more people of color in these very important positions on the air, on television and in the newspapers and magazines.

However, the one area where we still have a big challenge is in the decision makers. Those who make the decisions about who gets hired, what position they have, when they get hired, how much space they get in the paper or the magazine or on television. So we need to keep working on helping achieve greater representation from all people, especially in these areas that affect everybody, and that is media.

Progress, past and present

I listen to the news all the time, and I get questions about today and how horrible our country is. We’ve been there before. If you go back to the 1600s and move forward, you know that we make progress, and then it stops, and then you make more progress, and then it stops.

We’ve been here before and we have overcome, and that’s why our history is so important. There are gonna be “some difficult days ahead,” Martin Luther King used to say, but “we shall overcome.” That’s still relevant information, still relevant advice, still relevant to keep in our heads – that we can overcome.

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A Black Lives Matter protest in New York City in July 2020.

John Nacion/NurPhoto/Shutterstock:

Impact of Black Lives Matter protests

Well, I think it’s making headlines and affecting the consciousness of people. Now there are people who are not happy with it, to be sure, but there were people who weren’t happy with the civil rights movement. But I think that this is a new generation that has looked at things that haven’t changed and want to change them.

While I don’t go out there marching with them or any of that, I’m keeping up with their activities and their protests. And I think that it could be very beneficial to them to have exchanges with the older generation who have been through much of what they’re going through. Because none of this is new.

So that we can form a coalition of the generations. Not so much because demonstrators from my generation are gonna get out there and march with them necessarily. But they can encourage them, help them. They can say, “well, we made mistakes, but also succeeded in so many ways.” And they can share that. Our history in effect is our armor. And that armor is going to protect us no matter what challenges we face.

Measuring racial progress

Well look, we need people to become educated to the facts of this moment. And the facts are that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people of color because so many of them don’t have health insurance. The current situation with the economy, if you look at who is being the most severely affected negatively, it’s people of color – which is not just Black people, but brown people, Asian people, and Native American people.

That is another reason why it’s so important to have our history told because it will also, I hope, inspire people to do the right thing. “If they get good information,” as Jim Lehrer said, “I think they’ll do the right thing.”

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