Baton Rouge Pioneers: Black Women Break into Newsrooms
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we looked into our own industry to find the presence of Black women in news. Today, there are 13 Black female journalists and news producers in Baton Rouge who have followed the path chartered by three phenomenal pioneers. Here are their stories:
During the same span of five years in the late 1970s, Yvonne Campbell, Genevieve Stewart, and Maxine Crump were on the path to becoming the first Black women of news-even though that wasn’t their intentions. Crump, a native of Maringouin, was a graduate of LSU’s office administration program and working as a secretary at a Baton Rouge chemical plant. Campbell had left the city and began teaching journalism in Tensaw parish. And Stewart, a Fisk graduate, was a Ford Foundation Fellow in Development at Dillard University in New Orleans. By the end of the decade, they would be pioneers in the news and control rooms of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, Citadel Broadcasting, and WAFB Channel 9.
“I wasn’t thinking about being the first or being a pioneer,” said Crump “I was focused on doing my job and doing it well.” Stewart said she was interested in radio and news but never thought to pursue it as a career. But, Campbell was enamored with writing and newspapers as young as six years old. “I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” said Campbell Born to politically active parents, both Stewart and Crump remembers family discussions centered on current events and national issues especially about the escalating civil rights movement.
With regular house guests like professors from Oberlin College, Zelma George who was an alternate delegate to the United Nations, and NAACP National Director Walter White, Stewart saw firsthand the value of questioning international and local issues. “I grew up in an adult household where things like these were discussed all the time,” she said. Much like Stewart’s parents, Crump’s mother and father hosted many lively conversations mostly centered on politics and news. “I was always interested in people’s conversations,” she said. “My entire family is full of great storytellers.”
It is her storytelling-and voice-that most Baton Rouge residents found dynamic when Crump first begin hosting Channel 9′s morning show. Robert Rene who was a photojournalist with Channel 9 at the time recommended her for the job. Crump said Rene and the late Ed Buggs who worked at Channel 2 encouraged her to take the job at Channel 9-and ultimately becoming the first Black female reporter there.
‘This is Jazz’
At 24, Maxine Crump was independent, bold, and working in what had been seen as a highly successful career for women. “During those times, you were encouraged to be a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary.” Crump-who taught herself to type-was a secretary, but on Sunday nights her voice piped through Greater Baton Rouge’s radio waves through the city’s number 1 Urban Station Q106.5FM. “This is Maxine Crump. And. This is jazz,” became her opening billboard. A
fter a year hosting a Sunday jazz show on Q106FM, she moved to at WFMF, playing hard rock, blues, and British rock. Managers with Channel 9 offered Crump a job in the newsroom. “At this time a lot of the media outlets were looking for diversity,” she said. “I was very much reluctant.” Although she was well-known because of radio work, she said she was still hesitant to take the job because she enjoyed being “incognito”. ” I really didn’t want to go to television at all.” “I knew I could deliver it but I didn’t think I could write it,” said this pioneer who pushed her way from secretarial duties of filing film to doing stand-up reporting and anchoring the station’s morning show-while facing racism and sexism. “I was out to prove I could cut it,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking (about being a) pioneer at all.” The ratings showed she was the most popular reporter in the newsroom. “At that time you also had to be reporter, the writer, and the producer,” said Rene who recalls Crump handling all facets of news production. “She was the very first, and she was dynamic all around,” he said. One hallmark of success came when she realized that Black viewers were proud to have her representing them on television. After 13 years in the newsroom, Crump moved into public affairs, producing video projects on life issues ranging from poverty and racism to town meetings, festivals, and continuing education. She also worked with BET and interviewed David Duke during his run for governor.
Her reputation as a great storyteller has followed her for four decades of news reporting and video production. Today, the city’s first Black woman of television news owns Success Communication and is executive director of the YWCA’s Dialogue on Race, which pushes an open discussion on institution racism. “I was very blessed to have had the opportunity to reach the community profile and status through television. It’s definitely empowered me to knock on doors and move this thing forward,” she said.
Her message to Black journalists: “Get the truth about the history,” she said. “When you really know the truth, it really does make you free. Free to act in a right and principled manner.”
Starting with Debates
“For some reason, I was drawn to radio,” said Genevieve Stewart, Baton Rouge’s first Black female in talk radio. With no journalism degree or experience, she would take a career path through institutional fundraising and motherhood before landing her first job in television-then came her passion: radio. A fearless and skilled debater in college, Stewart won awards for spontaneous and extemporaneous speaking at Lorraine Community College, beating Case Western and Oberlin before winning second in national championships. “I had those skills, those interests of current events, (beginning) when I was old enough to read,” she said. “My dad made us read Time magazine every week and discuss it at the dinner table. It was requisite.”
After attending Lorraine, Stewart went on to complete a degree in political science at Fisk before marrying and moving to Louisiana. Turned away from a NBC-affiliate for a broadcasting job inNashville (she was told to come back after she removed her braces), Stewart began working in fundraising as a Ford Foundation Fellow in Development at Fisk, then Vanderbilt and Dillard universities. She and husband, Louis, moved to Baton Rouge to start and work in his anesthesiology practice. She was invited to participate in the annual LPB telethon. That led to her later being asked to be a co-producer and host of LPB’s “Folks” show, a one-hour weekly broadcast of state news. “I said ‘I can’t do that!” she said. “I can stand up and ask for money but I can’t do that.” But she did do the show and did it well for nearly five years. “I did enjoy TV. I enjoyed being able to tell as story in pictures. And to be able to go around the state and interview people who I felt had something to contribute to the critical masses to getting a message out,” she said.
A lover of history, Stewart said she found the stories of Louisianans fascinating, including the history of the Freed People of Color, sociology of Patwah, creole language and dialects of French-speaking people. She left LPB to pursue a master’s degree in communications at Southern University. While there, she produced short documentaries and an instructional series for LPB on Louisiana Black history called “North Star”.
Even with the vibrant stories and the imagery television and video offered, Stewart said she was still hooked to radio. Her entrance into radio came after she was vocal at lunch hosted by the Baton Rouge Chamber that included an audience of mostly Black leaders. “I was tired of being placated and being talked down to,” she said. “And I stood up and said so.” Unknowing to her, an owner of Citadel Broadcasting who owned three radio stations at that time, was listening. Peter Moncrieff called Stewart and invited her to the station to host Hank Spann’s “Question of the Day” morning show. She took the job and within weeks she was number one in the morning drive and her show had national and local advertisements. The ad rates doubled in the first year and sold out three months in advance. “Guy Brody was on 94.1FM and was number 1 in the 18-25 market and I was number 2 in that market.” she said. In her demographics, 25-55 year-old listeners, she was consistently number one.
“We had the morning drive!” even with the competition of nationally syndicate radio show broadcasting on the station. She said she saw herself as an advocate and a journalist which was easier for her in talk radio than in television. “I was an advocate who could follow the rules of journalism,” she said. There were issues, however, that she would find herself distinctly in the role of advocate. For example, she was one of eight plaintiffs in the Glasper Civil Right Suit that called for the metro council to bail out the city’s bus system. She knew from studying history that her advocacy, especially through media, was dangerous. “I knew about the coercion that can take place,” she said. As a result, she very carefully handled sources’ privacy and anonymity when necessary.
She registered as an independent voter and cleared any financial debts. “I wanted to be free to tackle any topics without anyone pulling my strings,” she said. “The Question of The Day with Genevieve Stewart” became a powerful voice for Blacks in the city. “The spontaneity of it; the immediacy of the moment; the fact that you could tackle more controversial issues; and The fact that you are on the air five to seven hours a week,” she said were reasons why she was hooked and why, unfortunately, she literally worked herself “in the ground”. In May 1999, moments after her live show, she began feeling symptoms of heart problems. Her husband sent an ambulance for her at the station and waited her arrival at the hospital; she had suffered a mild stroke and was now off the air indefinitely. Shauna Sanford, who had begun co-hosting the “Question of the Day with Genevieve Stewart”, took over the show for years before leaving for a job in television.
Stewart said it is as important for Black journalists today to make a very conscious decision to distinguish themselves as “Black journalists” or “journalist” only. Now that she has recovered, Stewart said she is looking at opportunities to return to advocacy. “There’s a lot to be done,” she said.
First graduate, twice first reporter
Writing was an everyday activity for Yvonne Campbell. Starting at a very young age, she penned poetry, stories, letters, and speeches for church. “I was fascinated by newspapers. It’s how I learned to read.” “Since elementary school, I wanted to be a writer,” she said. “I had written all my life.” In sixth grade, her poetry was selected for the graduation reading. For every group or club she participated in, she became the reporter or historian. She’d been writing speeches for church, was a teen editor for theBaton Rouge News Leader, and became editor of McKinley High School’s newspaper and yearbook, then, became the first journalism graduate from Grambling State University.
With degree and clips in hand, Campbell went to the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate to apply for a reporter’s position. “They weren’t looking for (reporters) of my color at the time,” she said. (The only Black person in the newsroom at the time was photographer John Williams, who worked part time.) She went on to teach journalism in Tensaw parish and publish the local school board’s monthly newsletter. Her heart was still set on writing for a newspaper even with her mother, Charlotte Anderson, asking “how many Black people do you know who are reporters?…Why can’t you do something sensible?” But the time, Campbell left Grambling, there were more civil rights uprisings that news outlets needed Black reporters to cover stories.
“At that time, there was starting to be an influx of Black journalists,” she said and she was hired as a general assignment reporter at the Tallahassee Democrat-becoming the first Black female reporter hired at the daily paper. One year she was visiting family in Baton Rouge and the Morning Advocatecame calling and offered a better salary and the opportunity to return home. “I never got into it for the money,” she said. “I decided I wanted to show them what they had missed.” She took the job and became the first Black female reporter for the Baton Rouge morning paper. In less than a year, she moved from general assignment to court reporting, covering, city, supreme, and appellate courts, DA’s and coroner’s offices, and major cases, began writing 20 -23 stories a day for the paper. To do less, meant she wasn’t doing her job, she said. But, her editor’s thought differently. “They would say I had diarrhea of the typewriter,” she said. For 12 years, she worked at the Morning Advocate along with Black journalists Ed Pratt and Cleo Allen. Journalism required more than 14 hours many days for Campbell.
She put in eight to 10 hours following court cases, completing interviews, and investigating leads, then returned to the newsroom to complete stories before heading home to young children-one who has Asperger’s syndrome. “I worked really hard to be fair and just in my writing,” said Campbell who has retired from Southern University, “I wanted to make sure both sides were covered.” She said she loved working as a journalist and being a part of breaking and current news. “It’s a taxing job and very hard to cover that much.” Her investigative reporting earned her numerous awards and recognitions from journalism associations and the state bar association, but by 1988, “I was burned out,” she said. By then, her reputation for being fair had preceding her and opened an opportunity to chair the state parole board-a four-year job under then-Governor Buddy Roemer. By the time the job ended, Allen invited Campbell to apply at Southern University’s mass communications department as an adjunct professor. “I got an opportunity to transfer the knowledge I gained in reporting to the students,” she said. And, she did so in the classroom, as a mentor, and as adviser to the Southern Digest.
A true journalist, Campbell could not get away from the newsroom. She also worked as managing editor for the Baton Rouge Tribune, a monthly Black newsmagazine published by the McKenna Family in New Orleans, for two years. “I miss it,” she said. “I realize that the younger generation need to step up.” During the era that she was reporting, it was important to be Black first, then a journalist, she said. “Although you kept your feelings out of it, there were some stories I could affect as a Black female. That is more true then, than now.” She remembers pushing against stories that unnecessarily identified criminals as Black and photographs of Blacks in the Advocate that were racist.
She also had to defend a few of her stories, but never thought she was making history as a journalism pioneer. “It never crossed my mind,” she said. She frequently looks through newspapers with “a jaundice eye, dissecting articles right away.” For now, she said, that’s enough journalism for her. She has retired from the university after leaving for medical reason but plans to continue writing and hopes that she has left a legacy for being a fair and impartial reporter.
Blazing the trail
Campbell, Stewart, and Crump tilled the path of exceptional journalism and set the bar for Black women anchors, personalities, and reporters in Baton Rouge.
Today, there are more than two dozen Black women journalists and news producers who have followed their paths. Although there is currently no Black female reporter at the Baton Rouge Advocate, Cleo Allen, Leah Bennett, Frances Spencer, and Chante Warren have worked full time for the paper. In television, Dorothy Kendrick is the Black female producer and Shauna Sanford is a reporter at Louisiana Public Broadcasting. At WAFB Channel 9 are Michelle McCalope, reporter and web producer, and reporters Kelsey Davis and Tyana Williams. WBRZ Channel 2 has morning show producer Cheryl Story, producer Michelle Harrington, 2une In planning producer Jillian Washington, anchor Sylvia Weatherspoon, and reporter Olivia LaBorde. The Black female radio producers are LaTangela Sherman of Cumulus Radio, Jacqui Griffin of WTQT 94.9FM, Missy Gordon of MissyRadio.com. WJBO 1150AM’s talk news host is Karen Henderson, formerly of WRKF 89.3FM. In print, Francheska Felder is editor of Swagher magazine. (Read more about these women at www.jozefsyndicate.wordpress.com)
Even with the growth of Blacks in journalism, these pioneers agree there need to be more Black news reporters covering the pulse of the community; and where there are none, “Demand it,” said Stewart.