Curry, George E. 1947–
George E. Curry 1947–
Editor, reporter, author
George E. Curry has made a big impact in the world of journalism. In the year 2000 he is expected to become the president of the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). This appointment will make him the first African American and editor based outside of New York to serve as the society’s top officer. Curry is the editor-in-chief of Emerge, an award-winning national African American news magazine. The Philadelphia Daily News described Emerge as “a feisty, slam-’em-to-the-wall publication for African Americans that’s quickly gaining a reputation for taking no prisoners in its search for truth.” As Emerge magazine’s chief editor, Curry tackles tough subjects of concern to the African-American community. He also regularly appears as a panelist on Lead Story, a news analysis program shown on Black Entertainment Television (BET) in Washington, DC.
“We try and be a cutting-edge, news-oriented, serious magazine,” Curry told Liza Mundy and Clara Jeffery of City Paper. “[We’re] not a lifestyle magazine like Ebony. We’re not a woman’s magazine like Essence. And we are not a business magazine like Black Enterprise.” Curry strives to create a forum for debate in his magazine. The hard-hitting cover of his premiere issue showed a young black man being arrested by a policeman using extreme physical force. Since then Curry has printed numerous vivid articles, including one about secret medical experiments done on African Americans; another about a young woman spending 24 years in prison for her minor role in a drug ring; and yet another about the rape of a Spelman College student. Even more daring, Curry ran a cover that portrayed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wearing an Aunt Jemima-style handkerchief on his head. Curry also commissioned an illustration of the judge as a lawn jockey. In addition, Emerge depicted affirmative action opponent Ward Connerly as a puppet. Though the magazine has generated controversy, under Curry’s leadership it has won over thirty journalism awards in six years.
Curry was born on February 23, 1947 to Martha Brownlee, a domestic worker, in racially-segregated Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His father, Homer Lee Curry, a mechanic, left his mother when George was very young. He was raised by his mother and his stepfather, William Henry Polk, who drove a dump truck for the University
Born George E. Curry, February 23, 1947, in Tusca foosa, AL; son of Martha Brownlee (a domestic worker) and Homer Lee Curry (a mechanic); married; divorced, 1997; children: Edward. Education: attended Knoxville College in Tennessee, Harvard and Yale.
Career: Editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, Began his career as a reporter for Sports Illustrated; worked for 11 years as a reporter for the St. lours Post-Dispatch; joined the Chicago Tribune in 1983, served as New York bureau chief and Washington correspondent; served as chief correspondent for the television documentary, Assault on Affirmative Action, 1986; became editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, 1993-.
Member: Vice president, American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME).
Awards: Named journalist of the Year by the Washington Association of Black Journalists, 1995; Unity in Media Awards, Lincoln University, Jefferson City, MO, 1994, 1995, 1996; Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Kentucky State University, 1999.
Addresses: Office—Emerge, One BET Plaza, 1900 W Place NE, Washington, DC, 20018-1211.
of Alabama. He grew up in a housing project, of which he has fond memories. According to Curry, it was a very caring neighborhood where everybody accepted responsibility for the raising of children. “All my life as a journalist I have spent a lot of time writing stories about people in the housing projects,” he told Contemporary Black Biography during an interview. “I never wrote a whole class of people off because I know about that community.”
Curry grew up with racial prejudice all around him. In one incident, a white man pulled a knife on him and a friend when they attempted to sit at the front of a bus. He remembers refusing to drink from the colored water fountain. In Emerge, Curry wrote about an incident when he was about seven or eight years old that shaped him “more than anything else during that period.” While being driven home by her white employer his mother had to sit in the backseat, even though there were only two people in the car. “That was the day I unilaterally decided that none of your children would ride in the back seat of any White person’s car.” Curry recalled to CBB, “Segregation affects people in different ways. Some people it crushes, other people, like me, it makes more determined that you’re not going to let it defeat you.”
Against the turbulent background of the civil rights movement, Curry was driven to succeed where his parents had not. “Neither of my parents finished high school and my [biological] father was an alcoholic,” Curry told Folio. “I relate this to kids because they think that you have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to be successful. The difference is that there were people who encouraged me and said I could make something of myself.” His stepfather had the greatest influence on him. Curry recalls that his stepfather listened to the news everyday and subscribed to a black newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier. Even though they were poor, Curry’s family also got the daily hometown newspaper, The Tuscaloosa News. Curry remembers his family discussing the news at the dining table. During his high school years, Curry read The Tuscaloosa News, which only mentioned African Americans in connection with a crime or when someone was looking for a local busboy. “In the eighth grade, I knew I could write better than that,” he said in Presstime. “I knew I wanted to be a journalist.” He was encouraged to pursue his dream by teachers, his football coach, his mother, and others.
While in high school Curry was the sports editor of the high school newspaper. In 1965, when Curry graduated from Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, he went on to attend the historically-black Knoxville College in Tennessee where he was the editor of the college paper and played quarterback on the football team. During two summers while he was still in college he studied at Harvard and Yale. Financial difficulties forced him to leave Knoxville College for a semester. At that time he worked in the mailroom at Life magazine in New York, an experience which taught him what types of publications journalists read. An offer to work for Sports Illustrated convinced Curry to leave Knoxville College permanently. He became a reporter in New York and spent two years covering track, football, and basketball.
Emerge’s top editor has a lot of newspaper experience behind him. After working at Sports Illustrated, Curry spent 11 years as a general assignment reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As a newspaperman, he spent a lot of his time out on the streets looking for stories from people who would not necessarily have a voice in a newspaper. His first front-page story was about a boy who was shot in the back and paralyzed when two rival drug groups began firing at each other. “My first year there I had something like 25 stories on the front page,” he recalled to CBB. While at the Post-Dispatch, Curry began to win prizes for his work. In 1982 he received the National Urban Coalition’s urban journalism award for his five-part series in the Post-Dispatch on an affluent suburban woman’s involvement with drugs. The coalition also cited an investigation Curry did of the housing projects in St. Louis. Also in 1982, he was awarded an “Excellence in Journalism” prize from the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists for his story of the imprisonment of a woman living in East St. Louis after 11 of her 13 children had died in a fire. The following year Curry’s paper won first place in the spot-news category in the United Press International Missouri newspaper competition. The Post-Dispatch won in the large newspaper division for its report by Curry and two other journalists on the poor qualifications of some candidates for chief of police.
From the Post-Dispatch, Curry became the New York bureau chief and Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He wrote about events of interest to the African American community as well as other topics. While at the Tribune Curry covered the 1984 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson and the vice-presidential campaigns of Geraldine Ferraro and George Bush. He traveled to Rome with Jesse Jackson in 1985 for an audience with Pope John Paul II and to London for a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1988, he wrote about presidential politics, the vice-presidential campaigns of Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen, and the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. He also covered the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. As the Tribune’s New York bureau chief, Curry wrote about the election of former New York Mayor David Dinkins; the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; problems on the St. Regis Indian Reservation in upstate New York; the life of black males growing up in Harlem; and the state of black politics 25 years after the Selma-to-Montgomery March. During his stint at the Tribune he wrote and served as the head correspondent for the television documentary, Assault on Affirmative Action, which was shown as part of the “Frontline” series on PBS in 1986.
“I was the only black at SI, the only black at the Tribune’s Washington and New York bureaus,” Curry commented in Folio. “As much as I enjoyed working at the Chicago Tribune, I believe that even if I had been there another fifty years, I still would not have been named editor-in-chief. A lot of people don’t take the same chances on women and African Americans that they do on white males.” When Curry got to Emerge in 1993 he was finally able to work with other black people. It was “a dream for me to be able to come in and say this community deserves a first-class magazine,” he said in Folio. And he was brought on board as editor-inchief. Immediately he set out to restructure the magazine. “I felt Emerge had an identity crisis,” he explained in Folio. “People were confused by the entertainers and athletes on the covers. Emerge hadn’t done a good job of selling itself on the newsstand, yet I’ve also made it clear that I’m not going to be driven by newsstand sales. I’m not going to go crazy putting pop celebrities on the cover. My first obligation is to the people who subscribe.” Curry took a risk when he fired the magazine’s old staff because none of them had news backgrounds and hired people who had never worked for the black press but were nevertheless from top publications across the country. “We came down here together as an experiment,” Curry explained to CBB. But ultimately Curry wanted people, as he said in City Paper, to “think of us as a black Time or Newsweek, or, better yet, think of them as a white Emerge.”
Curry’s other aims for the magazine include adding a financial column and a column on the future. As he told CBB, “By the year 2019 African Americans will have been here 400 years. What is the world going to look like in terms of technology? Are we going to be ready for that change? And what are we doing to prepare ourselves for it?”
A longtime champion of attracting minority youth to the journalism field, Curry is disappointed with the news industry’s recruiting efforts. “I get sick of excuses, of people that say we can’t find [black journalists],” he told City Paper. “I’ve been running lots of journalism workshops, and I have no problem finding them.” Curry created the St. Louis Minority Journalism Workshop in 1977 and served as its director until he stepped down in 1981. He worked to get minorities started in newspapers, magazines and books while still in high school, and followed them through college to help them with job placement after graduation. During workshops, he pushed his students to achieve professional standards.
Curry continued working with minority youth through the 1980s. After moving to Washington DC in 1984, he founded the Washington Association of Black Journalists’ yearly high school journalism workshop. In 1990, he put together a similar workshop for the New York Association of Black Journalists. As a trustee of the National Press Foundation, Curry chaired a committee that funded over 15 workshops modeled after the one he directed in St. Louis. Curry also has taught teen workshops in Germany and in 1995 he directed a program that brought together college students in America and those studying journalism in Senegal to produce two newspapers for the African/African-American Summit in Dakar, Senegal. His work with young people attracted television attention. He was featured in a segment of “One Plus One,” a national PBS documentary on mentoring that aired in 1989.
In addition to his work with youth, Curry also has written a book which reflects his interest in sports. The book is titled, Jake Gaither: America’s Most Famous Black Coach, and was published in 1977. His later interest in newsworthy topics of concern to the black community is reflected in the anthology he edited in 1996, The Affirmative Action Debate. Curry also contributed to the compilation, The Darden Dilemma: 12 Black Writers on Justice, Race, and Conflicting Loyalties, which came out in 1997. After participating in a “Black Genius” lecture series at New York University, his and other participants’ speeches were printed in the 1999 anthology, Black Gen ius: African American Solutions to African American Problems.
Curry has received numerous awards from the journalism community. In 1995, the Washington Association of Black Journalists named Curry “Journalist of the Year” for redesigning Emerge graphically and editorially two years after he was hired to take over the magazine by Black Entertainment Television which has a majority interest. In 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1998 his editor’s notes and articles won awards from the National Association of Black Journalists, Lincoln University’s Unity in Media, and Amnesty International USA. Some of his prize-winning editor’s notes deal with issues such as the value of black colleges and ending corporate welfare. His award-winning articles have included “Farrakhan, Jesse & Jews: Can They All Get Along?”; “The Death of Emmett Till,” the story about the 1955 slaying of Till in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman; and “The Final Days of Malcolm X.” In 1996, while at Emerge, Curry appeared on the televised Nightline special, “America in Black and White.” He also has appeared on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Washington Week in Review, and other television programs.
Curry, George E., editor, The Affirmative Action Debate, Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Curry, George E., Jake Gaither: America’s Most Famous Black Coach, Dodd, Mead, 1977.
Grant, Joanne, editor, Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analyses, Fawcett, 1968.
World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1989, pp. 434-35.
City Paper, December 17-23, 1993, p. 21.
Emerge, March 1990, pp. 20-24; August 1990, pp. 31-35, 37; August 1991, pp. 30-33; March 1994, p. 4; July/August 1994, pp. 1, 28-31, 34-37, 40-41; September 1994, pp. 1, 28-36, 38; February 1995, editor’s note, pp. 34-36, 38, 40, 45; March 1995, editor’s note, pp. 38-42; June 1995, editor’s note; July/August 1995, pp. 24-30, 32; August 1995, editor’s note; October 1995, editor’s note; September, 1996, p. 84; December/January 1997, editor’s note; March 1997, editor’s note.
Folio, September 15, 1993, p. 70.
Frontline #418, “Assault on Affirmative Action, “George Curry, WGBH Transcripts, 1986, pp. 1-34.
Philadelphia Daily News, October 14, 1993.
Presstime, April 1988, p. 37.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 5, 1981, p. 8A; May 16, 1982, p. 24; September 26, 1982, p. 16; October 18, 1982, p. 12; June 26, 1983, p. 3B; June 19, 1994, p. 3D; June 27, 1994, p. 2B.
Virginian-Pilot, February 5, 1997, p. B7.
Washington Post, October 30, 1996, p. D3.
Additional material for this profile was obtained through the Chicago Tribune archives; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch library; UPI; an interview with George E. Curry; and through materials supplied by Emerge magazine.
—Alison Carb Sussman
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