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The Man From Jet
As recently as last year, he was still calling around to his contacts, talking loudly, asking the soul on the other end of the line to speak up a little. He wears a hearing aid. He wanted to get the facts down; he had deadlines. Weekly deadlines, true enough, but deadlines nevertheless.
He's never thought of himself as the story. Which is why he's never talked about himself. The accolades now coming his way befuddle him. "I don't need no damn honoring," he says.
Many of the pictures of him at work in the South were snapped by David Jackson, an Ebony-Jet man, too. Booker and Jackson went up and down tobacco roads together. Fried fish sandwiches and a Coke at anyplace that would serve them; candy bars in the front pockets. Booker carried pens and notebooks. Jackson carried his cameras. And also a pistol. When Booker found out about the pistol -- Jackson always tucked it away in a bag -- he lit into Jackson. "I said: 'Man, don't be carrying that thing around! You gonna get both of us killed.'"
There's a cornucopia of black-and-white photographs. Because it was a time of black and white.
In the box of photographs . . .
It's a wooden table, and more than a dozen souls -- black faces -- are wrapped around it. They're inside a Mississippi courtroom, covering the trial of some evil men who've killed that child, Mamie's boy, Emmett. You can almost feel the heat in the air, even see it. Maybe there's a fan humming just out of camera's view. Windows are open to Faulkner's Mississippi light. And somewhere, beyond the windows, folk are surely picking cotton. The men at the table are dressed nicely, churchy. They're newsmen. Some are smoking. The white reporters are elsewhere in the courtroom, owing to segregation. There's a woman in a black dress, huge white collar, with a face that appears both soft and worried. It's Mamie Bradley, Emmett's mother. She's come down from Chicago. The man sitting next to her, neat haircut, rail-thin, light-colored suit, cigarette dangling from his mouth, is the man from Jet magazine.
THE OLD NEWSPAPERMAN WAS BORN IN BALTIMORE. And he wasn't born hungry and impoverished, either. His daddy was executive director of the "colored" YMCA in Baltimore. There was food on the table, a stereo that played sweet music. Dreams were hatched. Young Simeon's uncle, J.H.N. Waring Jr., knew Carl Murphy, publisher of the Baltimore Afro American. And all through high school -- the family by then had moved to Youngstown, Ohio, so the father could open a colored Y there -- Booker told himself he wanted to write. In high school, he started sending stories to the Afro American. Some got published. In college, at Virginia Union in Richmond, he did the same thing; more stories began to get published. Little sweet stories about Negroes doing something prideful, sometimes edgier stories about a protest march.
Waring became enamored of young Simeon. He would take him to football games at Harvard. Waring was a Harvard graduate; he wore it like a high hat, too. Strolling the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Simeon felt light on his feet. He'd suck in the very air. "I was becoming acclimated to the Ivy League, which was odd, given my existence, where I was from and my community," he says.
He told the folks at Virginia Union -- he finished in 1942 -- he wouldn't be attending graduation. They wanted to know why not. He told them he had a job awaiting him at the Afro American, and jobs didn't wait, so he lit out from the campus like a man afire.
The bane of the Negro press was that although it could give you a leg up, a welcome into a newsroom when other newsrooms wouldn't, the pay was awful and the hours brutal. Upside: bylines. Downside: penury. Booker started out making $18 a week. "I'd go $10 in the hole every week," he remembers. He had to borrow money to keep afloat.
He found a place to lay his head though: He bunked at the old Baltimore Y, where his daddy had once worked.
He broke no big stories in Baltimore. He overheard no editors talking up his potential. "It was boring." He decided he was going to get out of there.