Elsie Carper, 87; Pioneering Post Reporter, Editor

By J. Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 17, 2007

Elsie M. Carper, 87, a retired reporter, editor and administrator at The Washington Post whose career ranged from covering the civil rights movement to editing the newspaper's Style section and promoting opportunities in journalism for women and minorities, died May 16 of complications from a series of strokes at her home in Huntingtown.

Ms. Carper was the first woman named an assistant managing editor at The Post, in 1972. When she retired in 1989, Katharine Graham, a former chairman of the company, described her as "one of the most remarkable people ever to walk through the doors of The Washington Post. In a career that has spanned a half-century, [she] has left an indelible mark on The Post as an institution and on the lives of hundreds of people in the journalistic community."

A lifelong resident of Washington and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of George Washington University, Ms. Carper joined the paper as a part-time file clerk in the library in 1939. She became a full-time library employee two years later. During World War II, when many of the men working in the newsroom were called to military service, she got her chance at reporting. In subsequent decades, she alternated between writing and editing assignments.

When she began, the media world was overwhelmingly male and, like other institutions in national life at the time, segregated by race. "White" papers largely ignored the black community, and "black" papers reciprocated in kind. Front-page "news" generally meant politics, crime or sports. Education and family issues were relegated to the "society" pages or covered not at all. "Life styles" was a term that had not yet entered the language, much less become the focus of serious inquiry by journalists.

Although not widely known to the public, Ms. Carper was both an instigator and a beneficiary of the changes that have taken place in the profession over the years, particularly in respect to how news is defined, who covers it and who makes the decisions.

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said in a memo to the newspaper staff yesterday that Ms. Carper was a "legendary" journalist who was "talented, tough and slyly funny."

In the late 1940s, having become the first Post reporter assigned to education on a full-time basis, she was the first writer on a newspaper of general circulation to cover black schools in the then-segregated D.C. public school system. In 1949, she was the first woman elected president of the Washington Newspaper Guild. In the early 1950s, as personnel manager of The Post, she led the paper in hiring the first African Americans to work in the advertising, accounting and other commercial departments.

Assigned to cover civil rights in the late 1950s, she traveled widely in the South. A newspaper in Birmingham, Ala., denounced her work in an editorial entitled "Hold On Miss Elsie." In Montgomery, Ala., she once helped a network cameraman smuggle his equipment through a line of demonstrating Ku Klux Klansmen into a church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy were conferring.

She was furious when she was pulled off the beat because it was dangerous and The Post felt it should not put a woman in harm's way. This happened after the Associated Press distributed a picture from Jackson, Miss., of a group of Freedom Riders who had been attacked by segregationists. She was among them, conducting interviews.

Back in Washington, she covered D.C. affairs on Capitol Hill and various government agencies. She went to New York to interview members of a youth gang. She helped cover the riots, burning and looting that broke out in the District in the wake of King's assassination in 1968.

The Style section of The Post made its debut in 1969, and subsequently she led it. Its predecessor, the For and About Women section, had been known for its stories about Embassy Row parties and Washington society. Style gave notice that it was following a different path with its first edition: The lead story, edited by Ms. Carper, told about the first woman to make the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

During the great Woodstock rock concert in 1969, she published a rear-end picture of a nude male. It was an unusual thing for a "rather square, rather puritanical type person" to have done, she later remarked, but she noted that the photograph exactly captured the spirit of the event.

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