(This letter from Christopher Brooks, a former Memphian now living in Los Angeles, was written to The New Tri-State Defender President/Publisher Bernal E. Smith II. In it, Brooks, who helped birth The Tri-State Defender, bridges the gap between then and now.)
Dear Mr. Bernal E. Smith II,
Sir, first, you don’t know me, so please allow me a brief introduction. I was rambling through some of my old collections of documents, books, etc. I came across a November 10th, 2011 edition of the Tri-State with a front page, 2-column spread with a caption, “The ‘Defender’ at 60.” I remember that day (of the first edition) and have recalled it many times in that span between then and now.
Ms. Aretta Mitchell, the Tri-State circulation manager and I drove down to the station in her Ford station wagon and picked up the first edition of the papers as they were being off-loaded onto the ground. We went back to the office, a converted residence, with a basement, where I placed the first 25 copies of the edition on the ground floor. We had put in place the planks that would elevate (and) keep the packages dry. That was the beginning of the morgue and it was my responsibility to add to the stacks each week, until I left in 1954, after graduating from St. Augustine High School, and proceeding to Lakeland Air Force Base, Texas.
I began recalling names associated with my life from the age of 10 or eleven when I was a Memphis World paperboy, living in the Lemoyne Gardens projects. It was during that time I met Mr. Lewis. O. Swingler . . . generally shortened to L. O. (former Editor of the Memphis World and the first editor of the Tri-State Defender).
During my years at the Tri-State, the “South’s Leading Negro Newspaper,” some of my treasured images are those of Mr. Swingler, typing with two or three fingers as fast as Ms. Grafton, the office manager, would with 10. Mr. Alex Wilson, a major historical figure of the time, was probably 6’2” or 3 with a strong but never loud voice, typing with two fingers, or cutting and pasting copy for page layouts. There was an early morning radio news program initiating from one of the offices called ”The Negro in the News.” I’ve forgotten the reporter/newscaster, but for emphasis and punctuation he used one of those old-fashioned telegraph keys used by Walter Winchell, which he used to structure his stories.
(Forgive me; I don’t believe you are old enough to have experienced Walter Winchell.) Our reporter was let go after a relatively short run of it.
There was the representative from the Chicago Defender, phone number, CA5-5656, who periodically came down to the Tri-State. He was always well dressed, and generally asked me to go and get him a box of Corona cigars. On the first occasion I went down to a hotel on Main Street, walked in the front door and toward the counter where I saw the tobacco stand. I was stopped and told I was not allowed in the area. I explained that all I wanted was a box of Corona cigars. I was told that if I wanted to go to the counter, I would have to come in the back door. I was about 5-6 steps from the counter.
I went outside around to the back. I was always given a $10 tip for running errands. At the time I was probably making about $15 a week for cleaning and errand running for Tri State. I saw a man in the alley and asked if I could get him to go in and get the box. I would give him $5. He was out in 2 minutes, smiling as if he had won a big one. I always had a problem with back doors. That’s another story.
The Chicago Defender representative was later killed when he stepped out of a small private aircraft and walked through a front propeller. Actually, I don’t believe he completed the walk through!
Mr. Swingler had a green Packard and often had occasion to have me with him. He got a new one after I left for military service.
There was Elizabeth Grafton and her sister, the wife of one of the first Negro policeman in the city. There was a Ms. Cora Lawrence. She was the first woman of my late teenage crush. She gave me a soft sweet kiss as I left to enter the Air Force, later moved to Saskatchewan, Canada and also sent me a little letter while I was in Boot Camp. Norman Hudson, one of the photographers of that time, was my uncle.
A few years ago I was in Memphis and wanted to go by the Tri-State office. I eventually found it, a small building, which was open with one or two people on site. I walked in for a moment. It was a heartbreaking, heart-stopping moment. The paper had grown old. It reminded me of “old” people I knew as a child, attending Metropolitan Baptist Church, as they were sitting quietly in a back pews, discussing “Old Man Joseph who died last week. He was old, you know. Gettin’ way up in his 50s.”
As we walked back toward the car, my wife asked, “Are you OK!”
“Yes,” I answered, as I felt that little cramp for a moment on the side of my chest just under a rib. Over time I would check the Tri-State online. Then I stopped.
A week or so ago I was speaking with some of my siblings, who still are in Memphis, and I asked them if they ever read the Tri-State. It seemed as if had just drifted into the past for them. I then decided to take another look at the website and was awe-stricken.
I have spent all my professional life since 1965 in Information Technology. I know what it takes to create a good website. Tri-State made the cut! I was so proud of it. It has the appearance and functionality of a top-tier newspaper, periodical, etc. My complements go out to your development team. This time a year or so ago, it was a black and white posting with a focus on religion, some local social filler and . . . Today, it makes me wish I was there when it started again.
The next time I am in Memphis, I will make a point to drop by your offices, and let your people know that I WAS THERE, FOR THAT FIRST ISSUE, ON DAY ONE, AT THE FIRST HOUR IN NOVEMBER 1951!
Best regards Sir, and my compliments to TRI-STATE DEFENDER!
Los Angeles, Calif.