Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America
An Oral History
By Wallace Terry
Carroll & Graf
368 pages, $15.95

In the spring of 1944, John Q. Jordan told his local draft board chairman, “I’m a fairly good journalist but I don’t know what kind of marine I’ll make. I’ve never fired a gun.”

The chairman was apparently persuaded. Jordan, a correspondent for a black-oriented newspaper, The Norfolk Journal & Guide, bought a uniform, was issued an army captain’s insignia and headed to Italy to cover all-black units.

While there, Jordan did, indeed, file regular dispatches. He also helped to carry the wounded from the battlefield, prepared black soldiers for interviews before white audiences, and, on one occasion, issued orders after he was mistaken for a real Army officer.

That’s just one of the remarkable stories told by the pioneering black newsmen and newswomen featured in Wallace Terry’s oral history. With this final project, Terry intended to fill the gaps in the historical record, to remind readers that black journalists, too, covered some of the premier news events of the last century. He accomplished that and more.

Terry interviewed nineteen journalists whose body of work spanned a couple of generations. The earliest had careers starting before World War II; others worked during the era that included the civil rights movement and Vietnam; the successful broadcast careers of Bernard Shaw, Carole Simpson, and the late Ed Bradley ended more recently.

With this treasure trove of history, readers are reminded of not-so-long-ago events that made journalism history. There’s Earl Caldwell’s historic legal battle against the FBI, which tried to press him into service as an informant against the Black Panthers. Then there’s the rollicking testimony of Chuck Stone, who as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, was a swashbuckling figure to whom many criminals surrendered. Nobody owns a city anymore quite the way Stone or his peers, Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko, did.

Now that newsrooms are comfortably, if not completely, integrated, it’s striking to recall how recently they abandoned their “whites only“ hiring policies. Many did so only during the urban riots of the 1960s, when news organizations did not want to risk sending white reporters, in essence, across enemy lines.

But Missing Pages is more than a history of black journalists. It is a history of journalism–a stark reminder, in many cases, of the ways in which the practice of newsgathering has changed over the last several decades.

Carl Rowan, for example, ended his career as a highly respected syndicated columnist. But he had spent years trotting between newspapers and political service; at one point, he was ambassador to Finland.

Rowan’s first political appointment came during the administration of John F. Kennedy, when he was working for the Minneapolis Tribune. “When Kennedy and Nixon were campaigning for the presidency, I was asked to do a series on them,” Rowan told Terry. “The guys who ran the Washington Tribune bureau weren’t pleased worth a damn that
the editors had asked somebody from the home boonies to write the story–
especially a black guy. But I came down, did the series, and wrote a piece for
Ebony magazine.”

Later, after the inauguration, “I was awakened by a call from Louie Martin, a black advisor to the White House. ‘The president asked me to wake you
up and tell you that he wants to talk to
you,’ he said. ‘He wants you to join his administration.’ ” Rowan was named deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

These days, if a journalist received a high-ranking political appointment following his high-profile–and probably flattering–newspaper series about the candidate, media critics, ethicists, and bloggers would give him a lashing
with a verbal cat-o’-nine-tails. But
back then, when James “Scotty” Reston and other well-known columnists were Oval Office confidants, it hardly raised an eyebrow.

Similarly, Jordan’s complicated roles as “simulated captain” and newspaper reporter created confusion but, apparently, little consternation. “A sergeant in the Pentagon gave me the oath as a captain in the Army,” he told Terry. “It meant that I would rate the privileges of a captain on the bases, and if I got captured the Germans were supposed to treat me like an officer.”

He was more than embedded; he was ensnared. Yet Jordan never misunderstood that his first duty was to his readers. He clashed with Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., son of the famous general; Davis didn’t want Jordan to mention even a single casualty or print anything that might in any way suggest that black troops were not superheroes.

Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer for commentary in the spring of 2007, and is a syndicated columnist and editor of the opinion section of The Atlantic Journal-Constitution.