It’s almost lunch time, and it’s almost warm. On the Tuesday that I’m scheduled to talk with Michael Paul Williams, downtown Richmond is nearly bustling.
Several days of overcast skies appear to be past, and office denizens fill an outdoor square for an overdue share of spring. Williams points out elements of the changing block at the Times-Dispatch, where he is a well-known columnist.
“It used to face Grace Street, not long ago. The printing press was back on Franklin Street. But [the front] still faced Grace. We underwent a renovation in the late nineties. Obviously this is not as tony an address as historic Franklin Street, so they kind of flipped it. They built that new building on Franklin, the new corporate headquarters. When they renovated this building, it has no resemblance to the old building.”
Renewal at the paper hasn’t been limited to its façade. Just inside the door, framed newspaper columns document some of the paper’s history. Together they suggest that the institution has consistently responded to the march of time. Yet its efforts to address racial gaps in its staff lagged years behind national progress. Although the city had elected its first black mayor in 1977, it was not until 1979 that the T-D newsroom hired its first full time black reporter, Bonnie Winston.
Two years later, Michael Paul Williams accepted an Internship there at a time when fewer than half the nation’s daily newspapers employed a black journalist. In 1989, Virginia elected the nation’s first black governor, and Doug Wilder moved into the Executive Mansion. Williams has served as president of The Richmond Black Media Professionals, founded in 1995. That non-profit group has more than 50 members while the National Association of Black Journalists has a membership of about 3,000. And in the top post at the Times-Dispatch is Glen Proctor, an acclaimed editor, journalist, and African American as Executive Editor.
In his twenty six years at the paper, Williams has witnessed transformations in media and in the city of Richmond. While it was never part of his plan, he has been a catalyst for many of them; changes that have taken place in the historic building behind us that continues to accommodate and defy history, as well as changes in neighborhoods beyond the gated plaza that still looks toward Grace.
1976: Hundreds of Residents Displaced by Downtown Expressway Construction
Michael Paul Williams is Richmond. He grew up on Maplewood Avenue near Byrd Park and attended parochial schools, including Cathedral Elementary, St. Benedict’s, and St. Elizabeth’s in Highland Park. When construction of the Downtown Expressway invaded his neighborhood, and his mother’s serenity, the family moved to Glen Allen.
“I wasn’t real happy about it, of course. I was a city kid. I told my friends, ‘I’m moving out to the country,'” Williams recalls. For the observant and reflective young man who at one time considered the priesthood, the moves provided insight into the differences and conflicts between city and suburban living, aspiration, and opportunity. After graduating Hermitage High School, like many young adults, he was unburdened by solid professional plans, but expected to attend college.
“I went to Virginia Union University and majored in English with the idea of being a lawyer. It just sounded good. I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” he says. During college, he did some writing for the paper, played sports, and worked retail at Thalhimer’s. By his own admission, he was an unremarkable student.
“I was a senior at Union about to get my English degree with all the enormous career potential that entails. I said, ‘Well, I enjoy writing. Writing has always come easily to me and I love sports. I’ll be a sports writer!'” A recent federal report had exposed the scarcity of blacks at daily newspapers and his adviser encouraged him to apply to graduate school. He applied to Northwestern University, outside Chicago, and was waitlisted. While he was on a shift at Thalhimer’s, Northwestern called.
“It seems like within hours my brother and I were in his little subcompact car doing the weekend trip from hell on our way to Evanston,” he says. For the formerly “unremarkable” student, academia was getting pretty noteworthy.
“Well, here I am a guy from a very small historically black college and a guy who hadn’t been a stellar student by any stretch of imagination. And there are all these kids and they’re from much larger schools, some from Ivy League schools. For a brief second I’m like, ‘Do I belong here?’ But I got to work. After a few weeks, a professor took me aside and said, ‘Who taught you how to write? You’ve got a really nice touch.’ It was then that I realized, yeah, I belong here. I’ve been well prepared.”
“It was a really great experience in that I’d never really spent any time outside of Richmond. I had obtained a certain amount of values and much-needed education at VUU, and then it was a different side of the world that I needed to see.”
In his last months in graduate school, Williams worked in Washington D.C. as an environmental reporter. With typical humility, Williams waves off his achievement as minor. “I was weak in the sciences, didn’t really know much. But Ronald Reagan had just become president and Jim Watt was his Secretary of Interior. And if you’re going to be covering the environment, you want to cover it under those circumstances because Jim Watt was like a real hoot. He was the veritable fox covering the environmental hen house. He was just determined to despoil the environment. Every time I looked around, Sierra Club or one of the other clubs was having a press conference to decry some sort of cockamamie scheme that Jim Watt had.”
Williams consistently emphasizes the fortuity of honors he’s earned. “It was just the luck of the draw. That’s how they divvied up the beats. I can’t sit here today and pretend that I even knew what I was doing. I didn’t appreciate it. But a few years later I recognized that was a real goldmine.” When the quarter was over, Williams collected his degree and came home.
1981: U.S. Stalled in Economic Recession
“I thought I’d reenergize and plot my course. Any newspaper worth mentioning, I sent an application to. I was ready to go,” he remembers. ” But the nation was in the midst of a recession. When offered a winter internship at the T-D, he accepted. As soon as a staffer left, he was told, a job was his. For nine months, no one budged. Then, in November ’82, came a break. He was hired as a Williamsburg correspondent. In ’85, he returned to the area to cover Chesterfield County, and three years later, to cover Richmond City Hall.
Today, his admirers see Williams as an outspoken ally with bullseye aim on corruption. But if the description fits today, it didn’t always. “I hadn’t really found my voice yet,” Williams admits. “I feel like the first ten years I was in journalism I was someone who was working at a trade. It takes dedication and long hours, and all that’s a given. I enjoyed it on a certain level. But if you’d asked me where I [wanted] to take this, I would have answered, I’m just working. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing down the road.”
1989: A Dream Fulfilled: Nation’s First Black Governor Elected
Doug Wilder’s election was unprecedented, and heralded in national press. T-D Managing Editor at the time, the late Marv Garrett, asked Williams to attend the Inauguration and write about its meaning for black Americans. Williams was stumped, and scared.
“I was uneasy about being asked to be this voice for black people. I was like, ‘I’m just not a guy who gives my opinion. I’ve never really given my opinion in stories.’ I had never written a column in my life. I was an old school, just-the-facts reporter. I was so uncomfortable with the subjective aspect of the assignment that I went out and interviewed a bunch of people, some in advance, and some at the actual inauguration and I tried to process the event through their lens. I felt uncomfortable trying to encapsulate all the diverse black voices and perspectives that went into witnessing that event. But I wrote it.”
The piece grabbed public attention and his editor’s praise. But before the confetti was swept away, Williams gratefully returned to his beat, where for the next three years, he says, “I was a pretty unremarkable City Hall reporter.”
But the Times-Dispatch was about to renovate.
1992: Richmond News-Leader and Times-Dispatch Merge
“It was an extremely traumatic time. People were laid off,” Williams says. When the dust cleared, remaining staffers were asked to choose additional beats. “I saw it as an opportunity because there was something about that initial column that triggered something inside me that had lain dormant. I tapped some sort of vein of assertiveness that I didn’t know existed.”
Williams had an idea. He approached his editors. “Here’s what it was, because I can’t pretend that it’s played out in any kind of cohesive way. I basically said, ‘We have a lot of columnists in our paper, and we have a lot of commentators. But I don’t see anyone in there who looks or thinks like me, or who has my background. I see a bunch of white suburban voices. Newspapers should reflect all aspects of the community, and not just in their news coverage, but in their commentary and in their opinion. I’m a voice that you need reflected in your newspaper in a city that is predominantly black, and among a readership that is significantly black. I’m bringing something to the table that you don’t have here.'”
“That’s the kind of thing you toss out there not expecting anything to happen, but you do it. To my amazement, they bought it. I became a columnist, initially once a week.”
Public response was immediate. “It was all over the place from, ‘Why am I reading this African American racist in my newspaper?’ to ‘Yeah, boy! I can’t believe you all are doing this!’ It really is a new Times-Dispatch!’
That was sixteen years ago this month.
2008: Forecast is Favorable
In nearly twenty six years, Williams has found much more than a career at the T-D. He met fellow reporter Robin Farmer there. They’ve been married for nearly ten years and live in Hanover. On July 9, he’ll turn 50. While no one who reads his opinionated columns expects him to pause in nostalgia to gather his memoirs, one wonders if the man who once aspired to write the great American novel plans a book. “That’s definitely something I want to do. It’s a desire but not a plan at this point. Something happened that helped me find a voice that took me in this direction. Now I’m waiting to discover that voice that might take me into books.”
In the meantime, Michael Paul Williams is happy. He hits the Y to work out, and is an avid bicyclist. “It’s just a time to clear my head. I’ll hop on the bike and ride up to Ashland to the coffeehouse and have a cup of joe and just chill on the patio. It’s just a nice way for me to get in the exercise. If I’m doing something that involves physical activity, I’m pretty happy.”
While he claims he never planned prominence or leadership, the fact is indisputable that by consistently putting his gifts and skills to use, by his willingness to speak up when he felt more comfortable on the sideline, Williams has served as an example to us all to write our own headlines.
The Quotable Michael Paul Williams
Michael Paul Requests the Honor of Your Presence
“Young people have got to just claim a stake in this city’s future. I wish younger people were more politically active in Richmond. I wish the students at VCU would be a more visible and vocal presence in the city’s political and social dynamic. You’ve got a university with 31,000 students and they just kind of disappear. That should be like the nuclear reactor in the middle of Richmond in so many ways. It should be this kind of locus of so much creativity and dynamism.”
“I was going to write the great American novel and journalism was a way to put food on the table.”
Debut Column, June 1992
“At the time, “Malcolm X” the movie was out, and Spike Lee the filmmaker had this big marketing campaign. X merchandise was all over the place. Some black kids at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Hanover wore their X paraphernalia and it upset some of the white kids who wore their own brand of X paraphernalia; Confederate flags, tee shirts and caps. It caused a lot of drama. Basically my column was about, when are we going to come to terms with our history here? We have this shared history here that we can’t take advantage of because it’s too painful and too controversial, and how do we resolve this? In hindsight, I don’t look at that as controversial at all. But this was not a newspaper – and Richmond, frankly was not a city – that was accustomed to discussing its racial dysfunction openly and candidly. We had a level of communication, but not nearly enough. This was a little in-your-face for genteel Richmond that liked to pretend it didn’t have the kind of racial issues in the face of all evidence.”
“I don’t have any illusions about what I do. I write a column for a daily newspaper and people react to it. I just put it out there. I don’t want to be cynical about it, but I just try to start conversations. Sometimes that’s the best you can expect, but sometimes things happen as a result of conversations. I just think a newspaper should be that kind of forum, that kind of clearinghouse for ideas. That’s the most important thing we do. I hate to throw out the cliché, but “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Frankly, the media as a whole sometimes seems [as if] we’ve lost sight of that mission.”
by Cesca Janece Waterfield