Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

In Memoriam: Thomas A. Johnson, Pioneering Journalist and Teacher

June 7th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

Thomas A. Johnson, pictured in the Times newsroom in 1977 [Source: The New York Times].

Thomas A. Johnson was born in St. Augustine, Florida on October 11, 1928. He died at the New York State Veterans Home in St. Albans, Queens on June 2, 2008.

Johnson served in Japan for three years during the Korean war. He graduated from Long Island University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1954. Johnson initially found it difficult to find work in his chosen field. In 1963, however, he became the first Black journalist at Long Island’s Newsday daily. You can read Newsday’s obituary for Johnson at THIS LINK.

In February of 1966 Johnson joined the staff of the New York Times, where he became the first Black reporter in the paper’s 100-year history. In this paper’s obituary for the history-making journalist, reporter Douglas Martin describes Johnson’s career at the Times:

Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor for The New York Times, wrote in his memoir, “City Room” (2003), that when Mr. Johnson joined the paper in February 1966, he was the only black reporter at The Times.

The next month, Mr. Johnson covered racial unrest and violence in the Watts section of Los Angeles, seven months after the riots there, notably beginning one article with a dramatic quotation from the owner of a shoeshine parlor: “These kids hate white people — they hate them very strongly.”

Mr. Johnson won several awards for his coverage of black servicemen in Vietnam and Europe. He found that many black soldiers resented being sent into danger when civil rights demonstrators were being harassed at home.

Mr. Johnson was frequently called upon to find the views of black people on important issues, including the investigation of a prominent black member of Congress, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., by a House committee in 1967. The next year, he began an early article on a nascent black power organization with a question: “Who are the Black Panthers and what do they want?”

Mr. Johnson also covered many events having nothing to do with race. Mr. Gelb credited him with “stiffening our resolve” to plunge into an investigation of corruption at the Human Resources Administration in 1968.

While working at The Times, Mr. Johnson was based in Lagos, Nigeria, from 1972 to 1975, and earlier held temporary postings in Vietnam, Europe and the Caribbean.

A less publicized but equally important part of Johnson’s legacy is his introduction of the issue race into the study of journalism. His NY Times obituary explains his innovation in this area:

The journalism course he taught at New York University from 1969 to 1972, “Race and the News Media,” was widely imitated.

Black on Campus extends heartfelt condolences to Johnson’s family, and honors his legacy as a pioneer in journalism and journalism education.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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Posted in Journalism, Journalism School, New York Times, New York University, Newsday, race, Thomas A. Johnson

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