Vernon Jarrett, 84; Journalist, Crusader
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page B07
Vernon Jarrett, 84, a pioneering African American journalist who tackled the tough issues of race relations and politics as a newspaper, television and radio commentator throughout a 60-year career, died of cancer May 23 at the University of Chicago Hospital.
From his beginnings in the mid-1940s at the Chicago Defender to becoming the Chicago Tribune's first African American syndicated columnist, Mr. Jarrett continually shone a light on African American history and pertinent issues in Chicago and throughout the country. He stoked the political embers in Chicago that led to the 1983 election of the city's first African American mayor, Harold Washington.
Jarrett, who nurtured generations of young journalists, was one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists and the second president of the organization, which now has 3,000 members.
"He used his journalism as a way of ensuring that the achievements of blacks would never be forgotten and the struggles of blacks would never be ignored," DeWayne Wickham, also a founding member and past president of NABJ, stated in a news release from the organization.
Mr. Jarrett was born in Paris, Tenn., the youngest son of two western Tennessee schoolteachers. He graduated from Knoxville College in Tennessee. Like many southern blacks of his era who wanted to escape Jim Crow laws, he came to Chicago in 1946 as part of the Great Migration to the North. On his first day on the job at the Chicago Defender in 1946, he covered a race riot.
From 1948 to 1951, he and budding composer Oscar Brown Jr. introduced the nation's first black daily radio newscast on Marshall Field's 50,000-watt WJJD-AM, called "Negro Newsfront."
Mr. Jarrett became the first African American syndicated op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune in 1970. Then in 1983, he moved to the Chicago Sun-Times as an op-ed columnist and later became a member of its editorial board, from which he retired in 1995. He was a senior fellow at the Great Cities Institute of the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he created the Freedom Readers, a young reading society.
Mr. Jarrett, who had a distinctive voice and a gift for regaling others with his stories, also spent more than 30 years as a host of a Sunday morning television talk show. His commentaries could also be heard on "The Jarrett Journal" over WVON-AM, Chicago's black-owned radio station. He also hosted TV interview shows for the Chicago public schools' Educator program.
He was devoted to helping young African Americans achieve their potential. He founded in 1977 the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, designed to give young black academic self-starters the publicity and scholarships routinely accorded athletic stars. The ACT-SO competitions, as they were called, were sponsored by the NAACP.
In a Washington Post article in 1988, Mr. Jarrett was quoted as saying the competition helps black youth wage war against a "smothering climate" of low expectations and low scholastic achievement.
"There has to be a guerrilla warfare conducted by black people . . . because black people are being overwhelmed by ignorance," he said then.
He was an on-camera source for two lauded PBS documentaries, "Harry Truman" (1997) and "Eleanor: The Life and Times of Eleanor Roosevelt" (2000). He also was featured in the BBC production of "The Promised Land," which documented the migration of southern blacks northward after World War II.
Mr. Jarrett's journalistic and humanitarian efforts won him numerous awards. In 2000, he was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent at the Gwendolyn Brooks Center of Chicago State University. In 2001, the national Academy of Television Arts and Sciences presented him with its Silver Circle Award for his contributions to serious television.
A son, Dr. William Jarrett, died in 1993.
Survivors include his wife, Frenetta Jarrett of Chicago; a son, Thomas Jarrett of Chicago; and three grandchildren.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company