In 1950, Robert Churchwell became the first African American journalist on the Nashville Banner, a Southern daily newspaper. A 1949 graduate of Fisk University, he was hired by the paper's publisher, James Geddes Stahlman. Regarding the job with the Banner, people told him that he would be like Jackie Robinson, the African American, who broke baseball's color line three years earlier. Because the Banner was considered the organ of the Old South, the antithesis of everything that Churchwell believed, he was not excited about accepting the appointment. For the first five years of Churchwell's employment as a Banner reporter, the paper's editor and publisher, who adhered to the South's code of racial separation, barred him from sitting in the newsroom. Churchwell wrote his news stories at home and carried them to the Banner's office every day. During the 1960s, he covered the civil rights movement in Nashville. Because he carried the torch for future African American journalists, Churchwell earned the soubriquet, "the Jackie Robinson of Journalism."
Born on September 9, 1917 in the West Tennessee town of Clifton, Robert Churchwell was one of Jesse and Johnnie Churchwell's six children (two girls and four boys). Before moving to Nashville, Tennessee, the family lived in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. After moving to Nashville, to support the family, the father, a strict disciplinarian, worked for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company and as an auto mechanic. Churchwell's maternal grandparents lived in Nashville, where his maternal grandfather served as a Methodist minister. Adhering to the segregated arrangement of the city and the southern region, the Churchwells reared their children in an all-black neighborhood in southeast Nashville and sustained themselves in that world within a world. Churchwell attended Cameron Junior High School where he played football, and he attended a Baptist and Methodist church in the neighborhood. In 1935, because there was only one high school for African Americans in Nashville, Churchwell attended Pearl Senior High School, where he played center position on the school's football team. He dropped out of high school for two years, but graduated from Pearl Senior High School in 1940.
A year after Churchwell finished high school, the United States found itself embroiled in World War II. He was drafted in 1942. Called up for a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, he underwent basic training camp in Ft. Belvoir in Virginia and then became a part of an engineering battalion. A non-combat soldier, Churchwell went to England, France, Holland, Germany, Belgium, and the Philippines.
Enters Fisk University
Four months after World War II ended (September 2, 1945), platoon staff sergeant Robert Churchwell was honorably discharged. The following month, with assistance from the G.I. Bill, he entered Fisk University, where he majored in English. During his first semester, the effects of having served in the war's European and Asian theaters began to manifest themselves. Although he sought medical attention from physicians at Nashville's Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, he was repeatedly told his problem was unconnected to his military experience. Holding steadfastly to their declaration, VA physicians never changed their medical opinion and never examined Churchwell.
Refusing to give in to his bout with depression, Churchwell stayed at Fisk and completed the requirements for his degree. Attending the university in the 1940s exposed him to many personalities of the Harlem Renaissance, including Arna Bontemps, Aaron Douglas, and Charles S. Johnson, editor of the Urban League's Opportunity magazine and the first African American president of Fisk University (1946). It was during his college days that his desire to become a writer became clear. By attending summer school at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (or A&I, now Tennessee State University), Churchwell completed his studies at Fisk University in less than four years and earned his B.A. degree in English.
- Born in Clifton, Tennessee on September 9
- Drafted in the United States Army
- Honorably discharged from the United States Army
- Graduates from Fisk University with B.A. in English
- Accepts position at the Nashville Banner, becoming the first African American journalist to work for a white newspaper in the South
- Marries Mary Elizabeth Buckingham of Bell Buckle, Tennessee in June
- Given a desk in the Banner's newsroom
- Receives TEA's School Bell Award for the Banner for outstanding contributions to the interpretation of issues facing public schools
- Retires from the Banner; receives an award from the Nashville Chapter of the NAACP for achievements in print journalism and for contributions to the community
- Made a charter member of the National Association of Black Journalists; inducted into the association's region VI Hall of Fame
- Honored with wife as one of five Middle Tennessee families chosen for the Family of the Year
- Nashville Public Library honors Churchwell for his work as a reporter for the Nashville Banner; Churchwell's lifetime collection of newspapers and personal papers added to Emory University's Special Collection Department
- National Visionary Leadership Project honors Churchwell for his pioneering efforts in journalism
Unemployed and without funds from the G.I. Bill, Churchwell started a news magazine called Yours, with friends Fred Booth and James Nall. He gained some experience as a writer by contributing columns without compensation for the Commentator, a local tabloid-size paper published for the African American community. Although the three men were supposed to be in the business together, Churchwell served as the writer, editor, and advertising manager. However, because of the lack of sales, Yours lasted for only about eight weeks and after that forced its owners into bankruptcy. Again, without a means of financial support, Churchwell sat at home temporarily unemployed.
Becomes Nashville's First African American Journalist
In 1950, Churchwell received a telephone call from Coyness Ennix, an African American attorney and president of the Solid Block Organization, a civic group organized to get African Americans to the voting booth. Considered by many as one of the most influential political leaders in Nashville's African American community, Ennix received a call from officials of the Nashville Banner, the city's daily evening newspaper, seeking a reporter. The paper's publisher, James Geddes Stahlman, an avowed segregationist, wanted to hire a black reporter to cover black news because the paper suffered decreased circulation and was all but nonexistent in the African American community. Newspaper executives thought they could boost revenue if they attracted African American readers, especially if they and their community were covered in the Nashville Banner, Nashville's oldest and most conservative paper that sanctioned segregationist ideals of the Old South. Concern about the paper's profit line brought Stahlman to the decision to hire an African American reporter full-time. The task of implementing the publisher's mandate was given to Charles Moss, the paper's executive editor.
Moss turned to Ennix, explaining that the Nashville Banner wanted to report progressive news in the African American community. Attorney Ennix approved of the paper's so-called policy shift and agreed to search for a person to fill the position. Later, Ennix called Churchwell. Churchwell disapproved of the publisher's position on race matters. Stahlman's hegemonic attitude permeated the paper but was especially explicit in his own column, "From the Shoulder," which criticized public officials, politicians, and organizations among others, who objected to the separate-but-equal edict, especially in the South. The paper gave top priority to stories that maligned blacks as second-class citizens. Stahlman's views, which the Banner mirrored, were antithetical to Churchwell's viewpoint and values.
Although he had almost decided against accepting the Banner offer, Churchwell agreed to meet with Ennix and L. J. Gunn. Because he was unemployed and insolvent, Churchwell, without a topcoat, walked to Ennix's downtown office. The men argued for awhile, then Ennix and Gunn convinced Churchwell to agree. Approximately three days after the meeting with Ennix and Gunn, Moss offered Robert Churchwell the position as a staff reporter for the Nashville Banner, at $35 per week, which he accepted, thus breaking the South's journalism color line.
Hired to write on how African Americans were doing in their own community, Churchwell did not even own a typewriter or, for that matter, know how to type. He borrowed a typewriter from a former high school teacher, and after he printed the stories out for her, his sister typed them. Although an employee of the Banner, during Churchwell's first five years of employment, Moss never assigned him a desk in the newsroom. Churchwell covered activity in the African American community: the boy and girl Scouts, the YMCA and the YWCA, the city's four African American institutions of higher education (American Baptist Theological Seminary, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee A & I State College), businesses, the Masonic and Elk Lodges, and the churches. To make his 8:00 a.m. copy deadline, Churchwell's day began at 3:00 a.m. The newly assigned reporter walked from his home in southeast Nashville to the Banner office on Broadway, to give his copy to Moss rather than the city editor.
In June 1951, Churchwell married Mary Elizabeth Buckingham of Bell Buckle, Tennessee. They became the parents of Robert Jr., Andre, twins Kevin and Keith, and Marisa.
In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Banner gave Churchwell the assignment of covering education throughout the city, including the Nashville Board of Education and white institutions of higher education. While still covering the African American community, Churchwell also covered the Parent Teachers Association and the Tennessee Education Association. A year later, Churchwell was given a desk in the paper's newsroom. Despite the era's social code, from the beginning a few reporters on the Banner staff went out of their way to be nice to Churchwell. As far as Churchwell was concerned, however, the Banner city room remained filled with those who shared the publisher's sentiment. Although he desegregated the paper's newsroom, including the men's room and the water fountain, Churchwell in the early days never felt a part of those who worked for the paper. There were no friendly lunches with co-workers and he and his wife were never invited to the annual Christmas party, which was held at a local segregated private club. Churchwell received a check to cover the cost of dinner somewhere else until the early 1970s, when staffers agreed that the custom was no longer acceptable.
Perhaps one of the biggest stories to emerge during Churchwell's early tenure at the Nashville Banner was the protest against segregated lunch counters launched by student activists. Because such demonstrations challenged the Banner's mission, its reporters were prohibited from covering the students' protest. However, as a part of his ongoing coverage of the African American community, Churchwell attended mass meetings held throughout the community almost every night. Although he covered the Nashville sit-in movement and wrote stories on it, they never appeared in print. The paper refused to carry any news of a major struggle for African American civil rights.
By the 1970s, almost two decades after Churchwell joined the Banner staff, white colleagues began to respect his reporting acumen, especially as an education reporter. In 1972, the Gannett Corporation purchased the Banner, and many felt that the acquisition signaled its transition to a more racially tolerant position. However, as the veteran reporter continued his work with the paper, Churchwell did not witness any change connected to him personally. Even with the change in the paper's ownership, Churchwell, unlike the younger reporters, did not advance. According to A. Tacuma Roeback of the Tennessean, during his final two years at the Banner, Churchwell said "he went from educational reporter to writing obituaries and compiling the stock market report."
Retires from the Nashville Banner
Churchwell retired from the Nashville Banner on September 10, 1981. For more than three decades of service, he received a wristwatch, $2,000 and a cake. After retirement, Churchwell worked for Tennessee State University in its Bureau of Public Relations. Because of his experience in the media and his familiarity with TSU's program, Churchwell was appointed as its interim director in 1982.
Irby Simpkins, the new Banner publisher, offered Churchwell a consultant position in 1987, but Churchwell was not interested. Eight years later, when the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) held its convention in Nashville, Banner officials asked Churchwell to write a history of black journalism. The following year, in 1996, he began writing a monthly op-ed column. The paper had changed, but it only continued to operate another two years.
In 1965, Churchwell became the first African American member of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi (now known as the Society of Professional Journalists), a society in which he served as chapter vice president in 1969. A founding member of the NABJ and the Nashville Press Club, Churchwell was inducted into the NABJ's Hall of Fame in 1994.
Robert Churchwell paved the way for other young African American reporters to enter newsrooms of Southern newspapers. The recipient of numerous awards and honors for his outstanding service as a reporter, Churchwell knew the tribulation of being the first African American journalist in Nashville struggling to report and reporting the struggles within the confines of the Jim Crow South.
Conkin, Paul K. Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
Cosby, Camille O., and Renee Poussaint, eds. Legendary African American Elders Speak: A Wealth of Wisdom. New York: Atria Book, 2004.
Halberstam, David. The Children. New York: Random House. 1998.
"5 Midstate Families Win Awards for Strengths and Achievements." Nashville Banner, 22 October 1996.
"Banner Gets TEA Award." Nashville Banner, 5 April 1974.
"Churchwell Appointed TSU Interim PR Chief." Nashville Banner, 2 September 1983.
Embry, Pat. "Churchwell Blazed Trail at Banner." Nashville Banner, 21 July 1996.
Hance, Bill. "Pioneer at Banner: Veteran Newsman Robert Churchwell Retires." Nashville Banner, 10 September 1981.
"Nashville Young Adults to Honor Banner Writer." Nashville Banner, 15 February 1969.
Pride, Dana. "Pioneer Black Journalist Set for Hall of Fame." Nashville Banner, 11 March 1994.
Roeback, A. Tacuma. "Beyond the Byline." Tennessean, 7 April 2002.
Wadhwani, Anita. "Pioneering Black Reporter Churchwell to Be Honored." Tennessean, 9 October 2003.
The Churchwell Biography file is held in the Nashville Room of the Nashville Public Library. The Churchwell Papers are held in the Special Collections Department of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Linda T. Wynn