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How Race Is Lived in America

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Gerald Boyd's high-school graduation photo.  

Gerald and his older brother joined two motherless cousins in the care of their widowed grandmother; they drifted a while before finding a three-bedroom flat on Romaine Place. Evie Waits Boyd was warm and devoted, but spread thin. Gerald would survive “by learning to rely on no one other than myself,” as he later wrote in an unpublished memoir. By high school, he was working 40 hours a week at a corner grocery. The shop’s owners—two Jewish brothers who’d hung on after the neighborhood changed—became his first mentors, the people he strived to please.

To Sheila Rule, his childhood neighbor and first wife, Boyd was “always seeking acceptance and love, in one way or another.” And so he’d swing from sureness to vulnerability, wariness to need—he was a riddle, Gerald Boyd, most of all to himself.

Because he came of age when he did, Boyd’s destiny would be bound up in the world of affirmative action. Consider: In 1968, the year he resolved to be a journalist, the Kerner Commission censured the nation’s newsrooms—then roughly 97 percent white—as “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.” The media’s status quo wasn’t merely biased; it was methodically segregated. Without intercession, Boyd’s career might never have happened.

A few weeks before he finished high school, in the spring of 1969, Boyd was honored as the top minority student in the region by the Post-Dispatch. His reward: a full scholarship to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, plus a reporter’s job after graduation. It was there, at an overwhelmingly white college, that Boyd first displayed his dexterity in straddling two worlds. The most outspoken black militant on campus, he somehow won election as student-body vice-president. He was so mature and purposeful, so confident; he won people’s trust even when they disagreed.

Diploma in hand, Boyd put in sixteen-hour days for the Post-Dispatch, living for the scoop. That debut set the pattern for Boyd’s career: Once his color helped secure an opportunity, he’d run harder with it than anyone else.

While still in his mid-twenties, he instilled the same ethic in the minority high-school students he taught at a Saturday journalism boot camp, the first of its kind. Throughout his life, he would feel a special obligation to lift the prospects of young black people, to take others up with him—but only if they shared his commitment. As Ann Scales, later of the Boston Globe, recollected at Boyd’s memorial, “There was no room for excuses. No excuses for missing deadlines. No excuses because you happened to be born black and poor.” Boyd found no conflict between high standards and the grooming of young black reporters, between merit and diversity. They were integral parts of the same mission.

At 27, Boyd made it to the Post-Dispatch’s Washington bureau, the goal he’d carefully plotted. “He had a plan,” George Curry said. “He wanted to be editor of the New York Times.” At the time, there were perhaps four black news executives in the entire industry.

Five years later, he caught the eye of Bill Kovach, the Times’ fabled Washington bureau chief, who had one black reporter and wanted more. By Times standards, Boyd was a pedestrian writer. But as a classic “hard-news man,” he would not be outhustled. (Nor outdressed; if his suit felt tired, he’d race home midday to change.) After a strong performance in the 1984 presidential campaign, Boyd won the backing of deputy bureau chief Howell Raines and moved to the White House, the prestige beat.

As Boyd’s generation of young black men began to trickle into the Times, it became clear that Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor, had no idea what to do with them. He generally stuck them on the so-called urban-disintegration beat and let them languish there. Though the Times of the seventies was “trying hard,” said Ron Smothers, who left the company last summer after 35 years, the paper was “unable to see black reporters beyond being black … Race was the water we swam in.”

Minority journalists, then as now, were up against an all-white managerial tier that mentored people just like themselves: the original affirmative action. As black reporters stalled at the bottom rungs, the notion hardened that they belonged there. (Latin and Asian journalists weren’t even on Rosenthal’s radar.) “It’s the kind of stuff we called institutional racism,” Smothers said. “And that’s why affirmative action was needed—not because we needed the leg up, [but] because those guys needed to put a blindfold on and just do it on merit.”

Paul Delaney became the Times’ first black Washington correspondent, in 1969; he would make it to senior editor, but no higher. “There was an elitism at the Times,” he said, a “belief that there was no black as good as any of the white reporters and editors.”


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