Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Overcoming Racism

BOND: And one incidence in your life, this disparate treatment, worked out well for you, this ugly note left for you in the newsroom where you're working or where you’re interning and the result is that you get a job.

IFILL: It’s true. I was working my very first job at the Boston Herald American and it was an internship, a summer internship, and I was very happy to be in a newsroom. That’s what I’d always wanted to do is work in a newsroom and all I was was a gofer. You go for this, you for that. I was just a kid in the newsroom. There were lots of them. There were several of us. Of course, I was the only one of color and they put me in the photo department to be the gofer there. I discovered years later that they put me there because they didn’t want me in the newsroom proper, but I didn’t know any of that at the time. I was just happy to be working. And I came to work one day and I found a note for me on my little workspace and it said, “Nigger, go home.” And honestly, my first response was, I wonder who this is for. I didn’t automatically think, "Oh, what an insult." I automatically thought, "What an odd thing to find here," and when I showed it to my boss, he instantly got what it was and was immediately apologetic.

Of course, by then it was dawning on me this was for me and it dawned on everybody fairly quickly who had written it. It was an older white guy who felt threatened by my presence, but they didn’t want to punish him. They didn’t want to fire him which is what they would’ve had to do if they publicly said who was responsible for it, so instead, they said, “Listen, you know, if you ever need a job, you ever need a place to be, you know, come back to us. We love you. We think you’re great.” In other words, “don’t sue us,” which, of course, I was too naïve to have considered at the time, so I put that in my back pocket and had no intention of ever taking them up on it because in my 1977 way, I thought that I would never work for these racists, but I also realized a year later when I was looking for a job that there were no other jobs. And so I went back to them and said, “Remember this promise? Remember this chit?” And so they gave me a job, but then it was on me. Getting in the door because I had survived this insult or behaved in a certain way was one thing. But then when I got in, I had to prove to them that I could write, that I could meet a deadline, that I could be a good colleague in a newsroom, in a newsroom environment where once again, I was one of very few people of color, so once — so just getting in the door isn’t enough. It’s what I always say about affirmative action. It’s nice that the door opens but then what do you do once you walk through it, and that was the next challenge for me.