Three Black journos had memorable MN careers

NABJFrom Wednesday through Sunday, Aug. 5-9, members of the National Association of Black Journalists will convene their first convention in Minneapolis. This Twin City — along with sibling St. Paul next door — has had special relationships with Black journalists.

By the mid-’70s, NABJ founder Sam Ford worked at CBS affiliate WCCO-TV, where he did enterprising and heart-wrenching reporting. Walter Middlebrook, another young journalist, began long and rewarding career at both city newspapers. And Michael Days learned valuable lessons as an intern the climbed the industry ranks to editor of a metropolitan daily.

Here are their stories.

Related contentBlack journalism conference kicks off in Mpls — a remarkable 40 year milestone

Walter Middlebrook (via  Facebook)
Walter Middlebrook (via Facebook)

“My Minnesota tenure, said Middlebrook, “included a 1977 summer internship at the Minneapolis Star (then the afternoon paper of the two-paper town), returning in 1978 for two years and then heading over to the St. Paul Pioneer Press  (morning) and the St. Paul Dispatch (afternoon) before they merged for the next seven years.

“The Minnesota I know is freezing cold. Electric extension cords can be seen running from the houses to the street in the cold of winter, to send juice to the heaters and blankets that are covering or are wrapped around the car engines.

“You learn to drop that ‘being cute’ thing. You must dress for the weather. Long underwear is a fashionable statement. I still remember the one colleague showing off her Betty Boop designer long underwear.

“When the snow finally melts, the grass is green. Summers are short, but hot and humid. The self-described state bird is the mosquito. The real state bird – the loon – mates for life and they only travel in twos. You can see and really appreciate them when you travel up to North Minnesota and spend time in the Boundary Waters – great camping and fishing.

My most discouraging story of Minnesota – one of the most liberal and socially conscious states in the U.S.A. (A Republican in Minnesota would be a Democrat in any other state.) — was watching how Black folks treated the new immigrants — the Hmong — when they started settling into the area.

When I worked at the Minneapolis Star as a summer intern in 1977 I had a great summer and was offered a full-time position, if I wanted to stay. They even gave me a nice check to take back to school with me. I chose to return to my second year of grad school at Indiana University. I messed up my knee that fall and was unable to finish school so I reconnected with the editors at the Star who said the job was mine if I wanted it. I joined the Star full time in 1978 as a general assignment reporter.

That generally meant covering the suburbs, so I was in on the early coverage of the planning for the Minnesota Zoo in a far off place called Shakopee, and, the early planning for the Mall of America, which was to have a body of water big enough to hold a submarine-type vessel that visitors were going to be able to ride.

I lived in the shadows of the legends Milton Coleman (Washington Post) and David E. Early (San Jose Mercury News). There was never a day that I was not reminded that those gentlemen had preceded me in that market.

One of my best Minneapolis reporting stories: I was out driving around with an older white photographer in a company car in the well-to-do suburb of Minnetonka after completing a “nice” story assignment and we were on our way back to the office when a Minnetonka police officer pulled us over. We had done nothing wrong, but I knew the drill (having been raised in segregated Memphis and attended school in Boston during the busing issues there).

My colleague was beside himself trying to understand why this Black and white duo was being pulled over by the white officer in this tony neighborhood. I spent a lot of time telling this photographer to chill out. I deal with the officer and we go our separate ways. This photographer went on a tirade about this stop and continued his rants for days when we got back to the office. “This is what (Black folks) go through all the time,” I tried to explain. He never got it.

Or there was the time I was in the Target store in suburban Bloomington when I hear a white infant looking at me ask her mother: “What happened to him?”

Professionally, I knew it took a special temperament of a journalist to work in that region. I was able to rise up the editing ladder, which included getting my editors to send me to editing/training opportunities, such as NABJ, at the company expense, and the Maynard Institute’s editing program. I also went back for several years as an instructor in the program. I think the newspapers did this to keep its minority reporters happy. I truly enjoyed my experience in Minnesota. I had some good editors and colleagues who became lifelong friends.

I went from a GA reporter in Minneapolis, to a business reporter/marketing columnist in St. Paul to a copy editor to an assistant metro editor. I think I was the paper’s first Black editor. I left town in 1987 to join Gannett/The Detroit News as an assistant features editor.

Those stories are numerous but what was most telling about Minneapolis was its small, but professional Black community. There was a small group of Black clubs  and groups within the companies (3M, Honeywell and CDC) whose presidents met informally once a month to talk about what we were doing and the like. This little advisory board spread the word of activities around the area and it was a great way of bonding.

Socially, Minneapolis didn’t have a “Black” nightclub, per se, but we as a group liked to party. So we established the 5:31 phone call, which was the alert that all of the professionals would gather at the designated club beginning at 5:31 on Friday evenings. We would move the location around town and I’m telling you, by 6 or 7 p.m. that week’s party site would be jumping.

Folks would come in shifts, holding tables and the like so that one could go home and change if need be (to get into party attire) or get out to eat, and still get back and have a place from which to get their party on.

At this time the Minneapolis music scene as in its adolescence. Prince, Terry Lewis, Jimmie Jam, Morris Day and all were on their way, but they could still be found at the local clubs — First Avenue, the Spaghetti Emporium. That was a good time to be in the city.

By state law, all clubs had to be closed by 1 a.m. That meant that you were getting kicked out of the clubs by 12:45 a.m. — so we had to get our partying on in a hurry. And that’s why we started early (say 5:31). But it was always fun seeing all of the clubs dumping all of their patrons on the streets at 1 a.m.  It was really fun watching this on Hennepin Avenue, where Prince’s fave haunt First Avenue was unloading its eclectic crowd into the masses from the gay club.


 

Sam Ford (via Twitter)
Sam Ford (via Twitter)

“I came to Minneapolis to attend graduate school at University of Minnesota,” explained Sam Ford, “from my native Kansas and through a minority scholarship program that opened a number of doors. In my three or four years there, I worked or interned for a Black newspaper, two radio stations and two television stations: KSJN and WCCO Radio, and KMSP and WCCO- TV.

“The Black newspaper, The Twin Cities Communicator, was owned by a lady named Mrs. Jeanne Cooper. The office was in an old building downtown and essentially I wrote for food. Cooper never gave me any money, but she fed me well and on cold snowy Minnesota days, I would be up in that office writing copy or on the phone interviewing people for stories that I wrote for her newspaper.

“She was a Republican and well connected in that state. I recall that after I joined the NABJ as a founder and regional director for the Upper Midwest, I wanted to fulfill the requirement that we hold a regional convention. Working with Jeanne Fox, then of the Kansas City Star, we decided to hold it in Kansas City. When I told Cooper about the convention, she told me she was going to get all of us down there. Thanks to connections with her rich Republican friends, about 10 of us from Minneapolis flew to Kansas City on Braniff Airlines and held our regional convention at the Muehlbach Hotel. We were joined by colleagues from St Louis, Des Moines and Wichita.

“I have always been interested in Black history and WCCO-TV supported my doing a series of stories for Black History month called “Blacks in Minnesota.” I traveled around the state collecting material for stories we did as a series. We went to Leech Lake, Minn. where we found descendants of George Bonga, an African who had moved to Minnesota in the 1800s and opened a trading post on the lake. His descendants, Black and Indian, were still living in that area.

“We went to Duluth, where in 1920 three young Black men working with a traveling carnival was lynched by a mob after some teenaged white girls claimed they were raped by the men. We got photographs from the Duluth library showing the boys hanging from light posts before a white crowd. We also talked to a woman who told us that the girls were never raped but made the story up as a high school graduation prank. She then gave me the phone number of one of the girls, by that time a 74-year -old woman. I asked her if she indeed had been raped. She was very upset. She would only tell me, “Make up your own mind,” and hung up the phone.

“We also traveled to Cook County, Minn., the northernmost county of the state, and did a story on John Lyght, the sheriff up there, a Black man. The Whites and Indians did not trust each other, but they all trusted and elected Lyght as sheriff.

“As for my stories, I did not do that many stories on Black people. The story that perhaps had the greatest affect on me involved a 12-year-old white girl named LoAnn Stacey Erickson. She had turned up missing, after her parents let her babysit for this guy they didn’t know. He turned out to be worse than a child molester.

“Our station, WCCO, did a story about the fact the girl was missing. The parents called the television station. I answered the phone and learned the father was extremely upset. I told him that we would come out to interview him and perhaps someone would see the story and know what had happened to his daughter. I was excited by this big story and I didn’t have a crew with me but decided to head out there and let them send the crew to me. I drove to North Minneapolis where the parents were frantic. The crew arrived and I interviewed the family. I then drove over to the house where the girl had been babysitting. We shot some video there.

“I was going to leave, but in my excitement, I had locked the keys in the car. I didn’t want to have to ask the station to send out another set of keys so I decided to borrow a hanger from one of the neighbors and break in the car that way. I went to a neighbor’s house to borrow a hanger.  While they were getting one, the man said you me, “You know, our son was kidnapped with her.”

“What?

“At that point this family, the Wolneys, brought their 13-year-old son to our camera and he told the story. He and LoAnn were at the guy’s house together babysitting his child while his wife was at work. The guy suddenly pulled out a gun and made them both go into the basement.  He raped the girl, locked her in the basement and left. The boy said he found that the basement window would open and so he crawled out of it and told LoAnn to come on. She said no, she was afraid she might get shot. So he went home and told nobody.

“The guy comes back, sees the girl alone and thing takes her away. In fact he took her to Northern Iowa, shot her in the chest and buried her in the woods.

“I was there in front of his house when he got back and the police grabbed him. He claimed he didn’t know anything about the girl’s disappearance. Police started a search and we followed the cops. We put the story on that night and it was a big story for our station.

“When the cops put the guy in jail, the prisoners learned of what he had done and they beat the hell out of him in the Minneapolis jail. The cops took him out and told him that they would not put him back in there, if he told them what he did with the girl. He then took them to Northern Iowa. We got a tip and went down there with them in the woods and cold they found the little girl’s body. I sent the family a sympathy card. I also won an Associated Press award for the story.

“I was locked up in Minneapolis. One of my neighbors called and told me that she had gone to the store and lost her food stamps and her money. She was a welfare client.  I told her that she should call the police and file a report.

“An hour or so later, I received a call from the woman who said, a lot of good that did, the police came here listened to what she had to say laughed at her and walked out.

“I was shocked. I called the police precinct and complained, They put one of the cops on the phone. I asked him why. He said he had to laugh. These welfare people are always trying to get something for nothing.

“I was livid. I told him that was not his job to make those kinds of judgments, but to fill out a report. He asked me ‘who was I?’ I told him, her neighbor Sam Ford.

“The police looked in their computer to find out anything on me. They did, an old unpaid parking ticket. They asked me if I would be over at my neighbor’s house when they came to fill out the woman’s report. I said I would. They walked in and started filling out the report and looked at me and said, oh by the way, get your coat, you’re under arrest.

“I was hauled out handcuffed in front of all my neighbors. I was extremely embarrassed. The cops asked what I did for a living, I told them I was a reporter for Channel 4. When I got to the jail, the jailor looked at me and asked, what was I doing there? I told him I made his cops mad. I was fingerprinted, photographed and put in a cell with a bunch of other men for 45 minutes.

“I went before a judge for my ticket, which was failing to pay the meter on Nov. 11. I told the judge that apparently Minnesota had a different Veterans Day, but the meter said you did not have to pay on Veterans Day, so I didn’t. The judge agreed it was confusing and threw out the case. I was released, but I had to call the station and tell them that I would be late because I was in jail. When I got there and told them what had happened, the station management was livid. They did an editorial on the police department and the Minneapolis Star and Variety magazine did stories on what happened to me.

“Months later, I was doing a story on gays bombing cop’s homes. I contacted one of the gay groups and they did an interview with me saying that they were not personally involved but they knew why gays were doing it. The cops whose homes were firebombed had been harassing the gay people in Loring Park.

“I put the story on television and that was apparently the first time the cops had any idea why they were being bombed.

“I got a call from the deputy chief of police who said, ‘Yeah, it’s terrible about people getting their houses bombed and people who don’t pay their parking tickets.

“Yeah,” I said, “whatever happened with that?

“The deputy chief said, ‘you know, since that happened to you, we have changed the policy. Police are no longer allowed to arrest people on the spot for parking tickets. They can tell you that you have 24 hours to take care of your tickets or you are subject to arrest.

“And one reason for this is that a month before I was arrested, the son of the president of the Minneapolis NAACP was killed in one of the Minneapolis suburbs, because cops had decided to stop him, check the computer and they said he owed some parking tickets. The son said he didn’t owe anything and wasn’t going anywhere with them. They had a fight and the police killed him.

“Turned out, he did not owe any tickets.  He had just got back from fighting in Vietnam. His brother owed the tickets.

“Finally, in terms of what it was like living in Minnesota as a Black person: Coming from small- town Kansas, for me it was a step up to a big city. I loved the excitement of living and working there. It always seemed to me racial tensions were low. Many of my best friends were white people. One is still one of my best friends.

“I was active in our small Black journalism group. I sometimes worked with Denise Johnson on the Urban Journalism Workshop for high school students.


 

Michael Days (via Twitter)
Michael Days (via Twitter)

“I arrived in Minneapolis in early January 1977, shortly after finishing my master’s program at the University of Missouri-Columbia,” said Michael Days. “At the time, The Minneapolis Tribune (in those days there was the Minneapolis Star, as well) offered one-year internships for journalists of color, and a former professor at Missouri, who had moved on to the Tribune, recommended me for the program. It came down to taking a full-time job at the former St. Louis Globe-Democrat, or taking my chances in Minneapolis. At the time the Twin Cities felt familiar probably because of years of watching the Mary Tyler Moore sitcom based in Minneapolis. So I happily headed north.

“It’s been almost 40 years ago, but I consider my time there fundamental to my career, to helping me understand the importance of always listening, always growing, always learning. The harsh weekly critiques of my work, led by the prickly Dick Cunningham, made me a better journalist and a better writer. And although I never quite figured out how to wear enough layers of clothing to stay warm, the harsh winter taught me that you can never let a brutal day get in the way of aggressively pursuing a story. For most of my time there I was a general assignment reporter working nights and weekends. I spent a little time, as well, on the business desk. If there was a story to be gotten, I knew not to return without it. It’s a standard I’ve always held for myself, and for the staffers that have worked with me.

“I had never lived in an environment where strangers were so helpful, and the streets seemed so relatively safe. Car stalled in a snowstorm? Folks would descend from all over to help.  Interracial dating was more common than not, especially among Black men and white women.   Openly gay couples? No big deal. This place was much more progressive than what I had witnessed in Philadelphia and other Northeast towns, and I suspect it was more open than most of America at the time, this being 1977. Still, many people felt comfortable in chastising Native Americans to my puzzlement.

“At the time, there were not many people of color at the paper. There were two full-time reporters, Carl Griffin and George White, and a brother on the copy desk. I sat across from Elena de la Rosa, another one-year intern and likely the only Hispanic at the paper. There may have been other people of color, but I do not recall them. I did not have the good sense to know that you shouldn’t beg or borrow from strangers so I did so because I was flat broke when I arrived in Minneapolis with just a few dollars in my pocket. Cunningham, who passed in 1996 at the age of 70, co-signed a loan at the credit union so I can come up with the deposit for an apartment. And Martha Allen, the desk assistant who recommended me for the internship, took me in until I could find an apartment. Carl and George took the lead in welcoming me to the newsroom, made sure I knew the key players and welcomed me into their social circles.

“And those two brothers are the reason I was able to attend my first  NABJ convention in 1977 at the Lord Baltimore Hotel.  The newspaper had decided that it would pay the expenses for one staffer to attend. Instead of Carl and George deciding between themselves and leaving the lowly intern out of it, they let me “draw for straws” with them. I got the longest one, and have felt very blessed to have won the competition all of these many years later. That initial conference, with maybe 200 attendees, most in their 20s, just like me, both energized me and gave me the resolve to carry on. We all left Baltimore knowing that we were not alone, that we could make a difference. I have served on the NABJ board as a regional director, been editor of the NABJ Journal, co-chaired a Philly convention back in the ’90s and made many lifelong friends, including my wife, through NABJ.

“While working in Minneapolis I met my brother from another mother – Walter Middlebrook, who was a summer intern that year at the Minneapolis Star. When I married in 1982, he was my best man. We use to spend a lot of time at an excellent ribs restaurant called Rudolph’s. Walter sent me a note this week saying that the place is still there, and still going strong. Looking forward to chowing down there with Walter after I arrive.”

FINALE: Thriving today in the Twin Cities

Related contentBlack journalism conference kicks off in Mpls — a remarkable 40 year milestone

Thanks to Wayne Dawkins for sharing this story with us.