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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Go West, Black Woman

1980 Summer Program for Minority Journalists at the University of California at Berkeley of 19 reporters with editors and photographers (Author is in the last row, fourth from the left)


At the 40th reunion in December via Zoom, our class agreed to write a piece about our first newspaper. The following was my experience:


On my first day at my first newspaper, the security guard in the lobby told me that his grandfather was very good to his slaves.

Our brief conversation, which ended when the elevator doors opened, set the tone for my year at The Virginian-Pilot. I just didn’t know it.

When I drew the Norfolk paper as my job after the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at the University of California at Berkeley, I was drawn by the romance of The South. I conjured up writers, such as William Styron, a native son of Tidewater; Thomas Wolfe, from neighboring North Carolina, and Mary Lee Settle, of West Virginia. A Northerner, I saw little difference among the three locales, which were all in The South, a haven of down-home food and fabulous storytellers.

How could I lose?

I walked out of the elevator into a white male newsroom of about 50 with a few exceptions: two black men and four white women. I was the only black woman. However, from first grade through graduate school, I was accustomed to being the only Black person in the classroom. Also, at Williams College, I was often the only woman as the school had only begun accepting women the previous year. At The Pilot, I viewed myself as one of the cub reporters, of whom there were about six.

It was 1980.

At that time, there were so few journalists of color that I either knew them personally or I knew someone who did know them. In 1978, only 4 percent of journalists in the nation’s newsrooms were people of color compared with 17 percent of the population, according to the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. The Kerner Commission had sharply criticized the imbalanced white-oriented media in its investigation of the causes of the 1967 riots. The Summer Program attempted to ameliorate the inequity. It selected participants, who had demonstrated a commitment to newspapers but not held a full-time position.

The summer before I arrived in Norfolk, 19 of us reporters of color published a weekly newspaper edited by exemplary journalists from The New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers. It was intense, exhilarating and life-changing.

The managing editor of The Virginian-Pilot, who had worked at The Times, had committed his newspaper to take one of the Summer Program graduates. However, he did not work with reporters. He stayed out of the newsroom.

I struggled to get assignments that were not forthcoming. So, I worked to find stories, such as:

The scaffolder who fell to his death in the early hours of the morning, leaving his pregnant wife behind. I happened to be walking past the building after it happened;

The predawn fire at a historic St. Mary’s Church. Friends at the paper, who knew that I was floundering, called me when they heard about it on radio news. The paper sent out another woman cub reporter to help me. After hours of work, I did not get a by-line: my colleague did. An oversight, said the Copy Desk, whose chief already had lambasted me in front of the City Editor for writing something like “Norfolk Navy Shipyard” instead of “Norfolk Naval Shipyard”. “A reporter who gets wrong the name of the area’s largest employer!” he had said.

And the Plaza Hotel, a historic Black hotel, where jazz greats stayed and played, set for the wrecking ball. The City Editor, who was local and in his 30s, gave me this story at the suggestion of one of the two Black men reporters, who was from Norfolk (the other Black reporter was a Summer Program graduate the year before me), but whose by-line I never saw in the paper. The Plaza Hotel is one of the best stories of my career. Jim saved it, he said, until he could run it on the front page, which was weeks later on December 8.

Ironically, in their heyday, the Plaza Hotel and its owner, Bonnie McEachin, had graced the pages of national black publications, such as Sepia and Jet. They only made it into their local white-owned newspaper when they had fallen onto hard times.

Apparently, the Plaza story for The Pilot was not impressive enough to get me more substantial work.

For the most part, I was given weather stories a few paragraphs long with photographs that sometimes got them on the front page or the local front. I jazzed up these stories as best I could, interviewing people in the street, but they were not leading to anything else at The Pilot or as clips I would need to get another job.

Finally, out of frustration, I asked for the night police beat. Nobody asks for this, but the other Summer Program graduate had worked it and suggested it as a way to do consistent reporting. I did get it. What I was not prepared for was the conversation I had with the City Editor after asking him for a meeting.

We sat face to face, no desk between us. He did not look me in the eyes, and he spoke in a measured way. He told me that he could not deal with me because I was a Black woman. I was flabbergasted. I still am.

Why would a newspaper, or any business, not use the talents and skills of all its employees? My attempts at proving myself would never lead to my acceptance onto the staff. I would be forever a problem, not an asset. Eventually, I had been assigned to an Assistant City Editor, a former veteran reporter who had turned hard news stories into pieces for the Women’s Pages because she could not work in the newsroom as a woman.

After a long pause, I asked my City Editor why he couldn’t deal with me as a cub reporter. He just shook his head. He also said that the cops would not talk with me because I was a Black woman. He advised me to leave Virginia and go back to California.

So, I put in one year and left Tidewater, still fighting the Civil War, with its segregated pizza parlors, beaches and restaurants, the latter of which always hushed a few beats after I walked into a white one.

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