Jarrett, Vernon D. 1921–
Vernon D. Jarrett 1921–
Journalist, radio show host, television show host
The last words Vernon Jarrett wrote when he retired from the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994 were “The struggle goes on.” Those words might serve as a summary for the efforts of the man many called the dean of black journalism. During his career of well over 50 years, Jarrett addressed issues of fundamental fairness in American society, tapping into a long tradition of African-American journalism that spoke truth to power and campaigned for black self-improvement. Serving as an editorial-page columnist for the Chicago Tribune and then the Chicago Sun-Times for several decades, Jarrett was an unwavering voice for African Americans in the contentious city that in many ways stood at the center of the civil rights struggle.
Vernon D. Jarrett was born on June 19, 1921, in Saulsbury, Tennessee, near the Mississippi border. “I still see life through the lenses of a small Southern town experience,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and that experience included both the crushing discrimination of the pre-World War II South and the positive examples provided by Jarrett’s parents, who worked as public school teachers in West Tennessee for 104 years between them and placed high value on the written word. His maternal grandmother learned to read by eavesdropping on the lessons given to her mistress by a visiting tutor.
Jarrett and his two brothers all pursued education with a similar passion; one brother became a university president and literature professor who taught for a time at Oxford University in England, and Jarrett himself attended Knoxville College, graduating in 1941 with a history and sociology degree. A frequent speechmaker when honored later in life, he impressed audiences with the range of his historical knowledge. Jarrett joined the great migration north to Chicago and enrolled at journalism classes at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston in 1946. That year, he landed his first writing job at the city’s black-oriented paper, the Chicago Defender.
Covering a race riot on his first day at the job, Jarrett experienced a baptism by fire. But he persisted, honored to be part of the long tradition of the black newspaper. “I was steeped in the tradition of the black papers,” Jarrett told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “They used to be a link in the chain of survival.” Soon Jarrett was branching out, writing syndicated stories for the Associated Negro Press and in 1948 making a move into radio. With composer Oscar Brown, Jarrett produced Negro Newsfront, probably the first daily newscast in the United States created by African Americans. Jarrett and his wife, Fernetta, raised two children.
Jarrett continued to further his education; in the 1950s he studied television writing and production at the University of Kansas City and sociology at the University of Chicago. He wrote for other newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier, and became widely known as a radio commentator illuminating aspects of the black experience and discussing political events of the day. By the late 1960s Jarrett had moved to the other side of the classroom lectern, teaching history at Northwestern and television classes at the City Colleges of Chicago. His distinctive journalistic voice emerged around this time as he began to host and
Born on June 19, 1921, in Saulsbury, TN; married Fernetta; children: William (deceased), Thomas. Education: Knoxville College, BA, 1941; Northwestern University, studied journalism, late 1940s; University of Kansas City, studied television writing and production, 1950s; University of Chicago, studied urban sociology, 1950s.
Career: Chicago Defender, reporter, 1946-48; Negro Newsfront, co-creator, 1948-1950s; Northwestern University, lecturer, 1960s; City Colleges of Chicago, lecturer, 1960s; WLS-TV, Chicago, television host, 1968-99; Chicago Tribune, editorial columnist, 1970-83; Chicago Sun-Times, editorial columnist, 1983-94; Jarrett’s Journal WVON-AM, radio commentator, 1990s; New York Times New American News Syndicate, columnist, 1990s.
Selected memberships: ACT-SO, founder and president, 1977-; Great Cities Institute, University of Illinois at Chicago, senior fellow, 1990s-; National Association of Black Journalists, member and co-founder, 1975–, president, 1977-79; DuSable Museum of African-American History, board of directors.
Addresses: Office —Great Cities Institute, Suite 400, 412 S. Peoria, Chicago, IL 60607.
produce a talk show on Chicago television station WLS. In 1970 the Chicago Tribune, the city’s leading daily newspaper, made a move to integrate its staff and hired Jarrett as a columnist.
In 1972 Jarrett won the first of seven Pulitzer Prize nominations for his writing, and he served on the Pulitzer jury in 1976 and 1977. His columns, which could be angry and confrontational when necessary but were unfailingly elegant and authoritative, began to become fixtures of Chicago’s political discourse. Jarrett became a co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists in 1975, promoting the organization energetically during its fledgling years and serving as its second president from 1977 to 1979. Jarrett’s prestige helped get the NABJ off the ground, and he was one of the journalists who participated in one of its early milestones: a meeting with President Jimmy Carter in 1978.
Jarrett founded ACT-SO, the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics, in 1977, in order to recognize academic achievement among African-American students. When he moved from the Sun-Times to the Chicago Tribune in 1983, Jarrett often wrote of the problems facing black families. “Black progress can be attributed largely to a collective attitude dating back to slavery that decreed that we not only are our brother’s keeper, but also the keeper of our brother’s children,” he wrote in a 1992 Sun-Times column. And more ominously, two years later (in the same paper): “If we don’t become the keepers of our brothers’ children, they will create a living hell for all of us, including our children and grandchildren, as society’s despairing outcasts destroy themselves and their surroundings. The issue is self-preservation, rather than charity.”
Many of Jarrett’s efforts of the 1980s, however, were more combative. A strong supporter of Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first African-American mayor in 1983, Jarrett reacted strongly to Washington’s death in 1987 and opposed the appointment of Eugene Sawyer as mayor, a black candidate who had the backing of many white Chicago aldermen. “Black people can do just as much damage to each other as white people do to us,” Jarrett fumed in a memorial address for Washington quoted in Editor & Publisher, “and if we don’t do something about it, then they will destroy us before the white man gets a chance.” Several white politicians called for Jarrett’s dismissal from the Sun-Times and WLS, but Jarrett rolled with the punches. Street demonstrations that followed a 1993 rumor of Jarrett’s firing attested to the strength of his following in the black community.
Jarrett finally retired the following year from the Sun-Times, where he had long served as a member of the editorial board, but retirement for Jarrett meant a variety of new challenges. He became a senior fellow of the Great Cities Institute, an urban research agency, and launched a radio commentary, Jarrett’s Journal, on station WVON-AM, of which he was one of five owners. He also began writing columns for the New York Times New American News Syndicate. His television program was unceremoniously dropped by WLS in 1999 after 30 years on the air, but silencing Vernon Jarrett was not within the realm of possibility. Jarrett is the author of two books in progress, The Jericho Continuum and the autobiographical But We Had Each Other, which covered his early life in Tennessee. Among his many honors was the premiere James Weldon Johnson Achievement Award from the NAACP in 1994.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Chicago Sun-Times, April 30, 1992, p. 39; November 24, 1993, p. 43; July 7, 1994, p. 29; July 13, 1994, p. 37; July 29, 1994, p. 28; January 6, 1999, p. 49.
Editor & Publisher, August 28, 1993, p. 15.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 15, 1989, p. E3.
“Vernon Jarrett,” The History Makers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=12&category=mediaMakers (October 9, 2003).
“Vernon Jarrett,” National Association of Black Journalists Online, www.nabj.org/html/jarrett.htm (October 9, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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