The career of journalist William Brower spanned vast developments in African-American life, and he chronicled them all. When he was hired by the Blade newspaper of Toledo, Ohio, in 1946, he was one of just a handful of African-American journalists employed by white-owned newspapers. Over the next 50 years he never stopped perfecting his craft, and by the time he retired he had received a host of honors for his reporting and writings. Among those honors was a designation as one of the most influential black journalists of the twentieth century by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ).
Brower was born on October 8, 1916, in McColl, South Carolina. One of eight children of a barber who was sometimes active as a traveling preacher in the A.M.E. church, he grew up under the full weight of Southern segregation. "Clearly it shaped his consciousness," his son William Brower, Jr. told the Blade. "People want to know about his epiphany. He didn't need one. It was his life; it was everything that defined his existence." The family moved to High Point, North Carolina when Brower was young, and it was a high school principal there who pointed him toward a better life by suggesting that he go on to college at Wilberforce University, a historically black school in Xenia, Ohio.
Although he applied and was admitted, Brower showed up at Wilberforce with no money to pay his tuition; his total assets on arriving in Ohio amounted to $17 plus some extra stamps and socks. But he quickly landed a job and managed to pay his own way through school, earning a degree in 1939. He then returned to North Carolina for several years, teaching adult classes and also breaking into journalism as a correspondent for a small-town paper. At first he worked as a sportswriter.
That job led to a reporter position in 1943 with the black-oriented Washington Tribune, and six months later to a similar post with the Baltimore Afro-American, one of the oldest and best-established black-owned newspapers in the United States. At the time, the Afro-American published editions in Richmond, Virginia and in Philadelphia, and Brower became the editor of each in turn. In Philadelphia he met his wife Louise, a teacher and later a Toledo school administrator; their son William was the couple's only child.
In 1946 Brower applied for an open position at the Blade. He was unsure he wanted to make the move, but after being told that the paper had no plans to relegate him to coverage of the black community, Brower replied (according to the Blade ), "That's the kind of a job I want. When do I go to work?" Brower was hired as a general assignment reporter, covering the crime beat along with the education scene and other daily happenings. Even after he became well-known for his writings on African-American life, Brower continued to cover other topics such as the efforts of Toledo prosecutors to rein in the activities of the city's notorious Licavoli organized crime syndicate.
As Brower gained experience, the paper began to send him out on more extended assignments. In 1949 he traveled to New York City to cover a trial of 11 members of the Communist Party, and two years later he had the chance to undertake a project of national scope: a 16-part Blade series entitled "Fifteen Million Americans", based on information gathered on travels through 20 states, that surveyed the living conditions of African Americans in a still largely segregated country. In 1951, the civil rights movement was still several years in the future, and journalistic exposés like Brower's were rare. The series was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the first time a Blade story had been so honored. "The more the conscience of the American people is pricked by the shame of racial violence, the more such outrages will decline," Brower wrote.
Although Brower had a stellar career at the Blade, his life was touched by housing discrimination in Toledo. Fellow Blade reporter Seymour Rothman recalled that when a group of writers worked through the night on a story at the home of a white reporter and emerged in the morning, Brower noticed neighbors in the segregated white area coming out of their houses as well. He turned to the reporter who owned the house where they had been working, shook his hand, and said, "Thank you very much for letting me see your home. It's pretty much what we want. We'll give it some serious thought."
Brower rose through the ranks at the Blade, becoming rewrite editor in 1957, assistant city editor in 1963, a wire desk editor in 1967, news editor in 1968, assistant managing editor in 1971, associate editor in 1976, and finally to senior editor. In 1972 he returned to many of the sites he had visited for his 1951 series in order to assess the progress of race relations in the interim. His new series, "Black America: 20 Years Later," was again honored, this time with a citation from the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation's journalism awards. Brower took time off from his work at the Blade to teach at Ohio's Defiance College in 1974 and 1975, at Central State University in 1978 and 1979, and at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1979 and 1980.
As his influence grew, he served as a mentor to younger black journalists like Greg Moore, who worked for Brower at the Blade for five years. Moore, in a speech quoted on the website of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, recalled Brower as "a hell raiser and an inside player. He taught me the importance of staying connected to one's roots, that my strength and my base—the place where I could always find stories—would be the African-American community."
Brower wrote a three-times-a-week column for the Blade from 1976 to 1996, when he finally retired. One of his last projects was a third survey of black life nationwide, "America in Black & White," written with Eddie B. Allen and once again an award winner, this time for best minority issues coverage by the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists. He was a member of Ohio's state library board in the 1990s, and when he retired, a bridge was named after him by the Toledo city council. Suffering from various health problems in his later years, Brower moved with his wife to Washington, D.C., where his son's family resided. He died in Washington on May 28, 2004.
Numerous awards garlanded Brower's career toward the end of his life. Of particular note is his NABJ citation as one of the twentieth century's most influential black journalists followed upon a Lifetime Achievement Award given to Brower in 1996. Seymour Rothman called him "the most courageous, most determined, and possibly the most hated reporter in the Blade 's post-World War II history." He had done much to advance equality in American life and to blaze the way for African-American journalists.
At a Glance …
Born on October 8, 1916, in McColl, SC; father was a barber and minister; moved with family to High Point, NC. Education: Wilberforce University, Xenia, OH, 1939. Religion: Episcopal.
Career: High Point, NC, teacher, early 1940s; Washington Tribune, reporter, 1942; Afro-American, Baltimore, and Richmond and Philadelphia branches, reporter, 1942; Toledo (OH) Blade, reporter, 1946-57, rewrite editor, 1957-63, assistant city editor, 1963-67, wire desk editor, 1967-68, news editor, 1968-71, assistant managing editor, 1971-76, associate editor, senior editor, and columnist, 1976-96.
Selected awards: Named one of the most influential African-American journalists of the twentieth century, National Association of Black Journalists.
Blade (Toledo, Ohio), May 31, 2004.
NABJ Journal, October 31, 1999, p. 10.
—James M. Manheim
"Brower, William." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brower-william
"Brower, William." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brower-william