Journalism Visionary and Founding Board Member of Black Enterprise
American journalism lost a major figure and advocate last week. The funeral for Thomas A. Johnson, was held June 9 in Queens, New York, where Johnson had lived in a Veterans Home.
Johnson was a native of St. Augustine, Florida, the son of a seamstress and undertaker. He joined the army after high school, where spent three years in Korea and he earned the rank of master sergeant. After leaving the military, he attended Long Island University on the GI Bill, graduating in 1954. At that time, an aspiring journalist who was black faced bleak professional prospects. In spite of some important civil rights victories, American newspapers remained very segregated throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Unable to find a job at a paper, Johnson worked as a social investigator for the welfare department of New York City.
As the civil rights movement came to a boil, Newsday Magazine went in search of a black reporter to cover it and hired Johnson, the first black reporter to work there. Three years later, he achieved another first when he became the first African American foreign correspondent at a major daily newspaper, The New York Times. He traveled the world, sending home reports from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and more.
But Johnson didn’t collect plaudits simply for being a pioneer. The quality of his work was widely respected. He earned many awards, and was nominated for a Pulitzer for his serial coverage of black soldiers in the Vietnam War. The viewpoint he provided as a black journalist was truly fresh and his editors relied on him to convey perspectives and stories not formerly seen in mainstream media. His life experience as well as the hardships he’d survived as a black intellectual in a largely racist culture gave him a perceptiveness and sensitivity, combined with a grit that reporters from more privileged and strictly academic backgrounds could not rival.
He could have rested on laurels. Instead, he was generous with his time and knowledge, a champion of black entrepreneurs, and a mentor to many emerging media professionals. In 1967, he founded Black Perspective, the first professional organization in New York City for black journalists. He taught at New York University until 1972. 1981, he founded Johnson & Associates, a public relations firm in New York City. Years later, he would develop the “Race and the News Media” course that would be used widely, into the present.
Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife, three children, and three grandchildren.