SPJ news release from this morning:
INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is pleased to honor pioneering Tennessee journalist Robert Churchwell with the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement. Churchwell, who died Feb. 1, 2009, was the first black journalist to work as a full-time reporter for a Southern general interest newspaper.
The Helen Thomas Award is presented to an individual or individuals for a lifetime of contribution and service to the journalism profession. The award is named after longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas for her dogged pursuit of the truth in a career that has spanned almost 60 years. Thomas received the inaugural award in 2000.
In 1950, the Nashville Banner, a conservative daily paper, hired Churchwell after his graduation from Fisk University, where he’d studied English after a four-year tour in the Army. The white-owned paper didn’t hire the World War II veteran to show its racial integration agenda, but rather as a business decision to attract black readers.
Though he spent most of his career with the Banner, Churchwell’s early treatment – even by his employer and colleagues – was anything but pleasant. Initially he wasn’t assigned a desk in the newsroom and worked from home, dropping off stories to an editor. Some fellow journalists ignored his presence and routinely directed derogatory epithets toward him. He was also barred from staff meetings during his early years at the Banner.
Eventually Churchwell garnered the respect he deserved – from the community and his colleagues – being named to the education beat and holding the post for 20 years until his retirement in 1981. Among many awards for community activities and journalism is a 1994 induction into the regional hall of fame of the National Association of Black Journalists. In 1996 he earned a presidential citation from the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
Aside from his monumental first in a white-dominated newsroom, Churchwell also made strides within the professional journalism association community. In 1965, he became the first black member of Sigma Delta Chi’s Middle Tennessee Professional Chapter. He served as chapter vice president in 1969. Sigma Delta Chi later became the Society of Professional Journalists.
Churchwell will be recognized Saturday, Aug. 29 during a dinner at the 2009 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference in Indianapolis.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information on SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.