22 Slices
Medium 9781936227068

19. Special Reports

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

In the beginning, almost no one noticed the ominous oddity. But in the early 1980s the clues were laced through San Francisco’s obituary pages, where week after week reports told of young men dying of pneumonia, skin cancer, or a vague “prolonged illness.” These men were seldom survived by spouses or children. Many of them called the city’s Castro District home.

My friend Randy Shilts was the first to draw my attention to an unnamed plague surreptitiously sweeping through the gay community. The two of us had worked at PBS station KQED—in fact, I anchored the election season panel there at which conservative state senator John Briggs publicly “outed” Randy, scorning his questions by declaring he expected as much from “a homosexual like you.” We fumbled our way through the rest of the newscast without addressing the subject again, but the minute we were off the air, Randy, who talked in rapid-fire spurts, uncorked a barrage against Briggs. Most of the rest of us didn’t know quite what was appropriate to say.

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1. "What the Hell Are You Niggers Doing in Here?"

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I could feel the hostility rising like steam off a cauldron of vitriol: floor delegates and gallery spectators at the Republican National Convention were erupting in catcalls aimed at the press. South of San Francisco, people were sweltering inside the cavernous Cow Palace, which typically hosted rodeos. In July of 1964 it offered ringside seats for the breech birth of a right-wing revolution.

My radio news director, Louis Freeman, and I lacked credentials for the press box—actually we knew that some whites at this convention would find our mere presence offensive. Although Louis was brilliant and had a deep baritone voice and a journalism degree, his first boss had warned Louis he might never become a radio reporter because Negro lips were “too thick to pronounce polysyllabic words.” But Louis, whose enunciation was flawless, eventually landed an on-the-hour news slot on KDIA-AM, the Bay Area’s premier soul-gospel-jazz station; and he was determined to cover the convention. It was said that the national press was flocking to the GOP confab to “report Armageddon.” Louis wanted to be at the crux of the story, relaying to our black listeners all the news that white reporters might deem insignificant. I was the station’s intrepid ad traffic manager, a thirtyone-year-old divorced mother of two, who had no journalism training. No question Louis would have preferred a more formidable companion: I’m delicately boned and stand merely five foot one in stockings. But I was an eager volunteer. More to the point, I was his only volunteer. And I was, in his words, “a moxie little thing.” He had finagled two spectator passes from one of the black delegates—they made up less than 1 percent of convention participants. So there we were, perched in the shadows under the rafters,scribbling notes and recording speeches, mistakenly presuming we had found the safest spot to be.

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10. New Station in Life

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

Debating whether television was “to be or not to be” a national pastime, a New York Times reporter in 1939 dismissed it as having an inherently fatal flaw:

The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American hasn’t time for it. Therefore the showmen are convinced that for this reason, if for no other, television will never be a serious competitor of broadcasting. Radio can flow on like a brook while people listen and go about their household duties and routine. Television, on the other hand, is no brook; it is more of a Niagara.

Well, by the 1960s, the Niagara that was television gushed on with more thunderous force than ever. In the Bay Area, as elsewhere, radio was stricken with an identity crisis—and newspapers were closing and consolidating or going out of business. I perceived that radio and newspapers were not journalism’s future. No, the future of journalism was in television: immediate, vivid, powerful.

What television was not, in those days, was in any way representative of the population. But TV stations began hiring women and minorities for three reasons: A few realized that broadening their viewer demographics was smart journalism and smart business. Others began hiring blacks because they realized that when stories such as a small riot in Hunters Point or a big riot in Watts would erupt, the station would be uncomfortable sending reporters with white faces into the melees. And a few did it because critics were filing federal complaints seeking to have the broadcast licenses of recalcitrant stations revoked. The NAACP and local black leaders such as San Francisco supervisor Terry Francois and newspaper editor Dr. Carlton Goodlett were pressuring stations to break their color barriers and were threatening boycotts and license challenges. Stations feared being forced into compliance.

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6. Vapors and Black Ink

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I drove the Grapevine highway straight back toward the Bay Area, making as few pit stops as humanly possible traveling in the company of a six-yearold boy and a baby girl.

We hoped to lie low while I obtained an apartment and a job. My mother agreed to let Darolyn and me squeeze into her place, which already was housing enough relatives to remind me of D Soloman’s Alley. My old best friend, Rose Mary, offered to take Steven in for a while—an act of bravery considering she had no experience whatsoever with small children. Nor did Steven make it easy for her, considering that he somehow managed to crawl out of a tiny upstairs window and onto her roof, necessitating a Fire Department rescue.

Returning to my mother’s home one night, I observed a car parked across the street and the glow of a cigarette from the driver’s side. Mother, watching anxiously out the window, saw me rushing up the steps; and she quickly opened the door and closed it behind me. She continued to watch from the corner of the window in the darkened room. I sat on the sofa in silence, trying not to panic. Finally, she saw the glow of the cigarette extinguished, the headlights switch on, and the car pull slowly away. Now Frank knew where I was. I had to move, and move quickly.

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2. Up from Troubled Waters

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I was conceived in Monroe, Louisiana, in the depths of the Great Depression, the reign of Jim Crow, and the “Flood of the Century” on the Ouachita River. My mother, a laundress who earned four dollars a week, was only fourteen years old.

Apparently if I was going to be lucky in life, I would have to be patient.

No doubt I would never have been born if my mother, Florene, had known how to resist the charms of John Melton. My father was a handsome, savvy but volatile man who swaggered his way through life, despite never having finished grammar school.

In 1932, Monroe was in dire straits, inundated when the Ouachita River crested fifty feet above flood level and gushed over the millions of sandbags futilely attempting to hold it back. By the beginning of February, more than a quarter of Monroe was submerged, and the Ouachita did not dip below flood level until mid-April. “The flood waters are contaminated beyond realization,” the director of the Ouachita Parish Health Unit declared, warning that without vaccination “one is very likely to contract typhoid from merely wading and working in the flood districts.” Makeshift tent cities sprang up on higher ground, as white and black families began living next to each other in a fashion that would have been unimaginable in any condition short of an emergency.

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