The Society of Professional Journalists has announced that it will bestow its Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement on the late Robert Churchwell, the first African-American to be a staff reporter for a major Southern newspaper.
Churchwell passed away on Feb. 1 of this year at the age of 91. After serving in both Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War and graduating from Fisk University, he joined the Nashville Banner in 1950. Editorially, the Banner was staunchly conservative on virtually all matters, including race relations. But it hired Churchwell on the theory that his byline could help boost circulation in the black community.
Churchwell endured cold-shoulder treatment and some outright hostility from his Banner colleagues in his early years as a reporter. According to David Halberstam's 1998 civil-rights history The Children, some in the African-American community also criticized him for working at a paper that espoused retrograde views.
In the newsroom and beyond, however, he eventually gained widespread respect for his astute reporting, especially on education issues.
Churchwell remained with the afternoon paper until he retired in 1981. (The Banner eventually folded in 1998.) In his later years, he received numerous honors. These included his 1994 induction into the regional hall of fame of the National Association of Black Journalists and a 1996 presidential citation from the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
The SPJ will present the posthumous award in honor of Churchwell on Aug. 29 during its annual convention in Indianapolis.
The Thomas Award is named for former senior UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas. SPJ initiated it in 2000, with Thomas as its first recipient. Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw received it in 2004.