Fearless! The life and legacy of Wilbert A. Tatum

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 4:40 p.m.

Few men combined journalistic integrity and business acumen as well as Wilbert "Bill" A. Tatum. Tatum was a man of uncompromising principles and was as firm in his conviction as he was unstinting in his love for Harlem. Harlem and the world will miss Tatum, who died last Wednesday in a hospital while vacationing in Croatia. He was 76 and lived in Manhattan. According to his daughter, Elinor, Tatum succumbed to multiple organ failure.

In one of his last editorials as publisher emeritus and chairman of the board of this paper, which he owned out- right since 1984, Tatum almost presciently wrote about vengeance and his transition: "It's been a good ride. I've enjoyed it here, drunk or sober, rich or poor, lame or healthy. It's been a nice place to be. So when my buddies, my colleagues, start to think about the vengeance we have not had, let us look at the love we have had, no matter what our circumstances.

"I want to go to heaven when I die," Tatum continued. "Wherever that place is, whatever it is, no matter who is in charge--Christians, Muslims, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists...you know the other names. Call it what you will or what you may. I want to go to heaven when I die."

Whatever his final destination, if there is a communication system available, a news-paper in search of a writer, an editor, a publisher, Tatum will find it and burnish it with the same no-holds-barred zeal that personified his tenure at the New York Amsterdam News. He was a fearless opponent of injustice and those who would dare trample on his civil and human rights. The Amsterdam Newswas both his forum and his weapon, and he wielded it with a passionate resolve for the oppressed.

It was Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm who declared in the 1827 editorial of Freedom's Journal, the nation's first Black newspaper, that "We wish...to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us...we intend to lay our case before the public...we must be firm...."

Tatum both upheld the fighting tradition of the pioneering Black newspaper publishers and maintained a similar, unyielding commitment of firmly speaking truth to power. "Under Mr. Tatum's leadership," said Governor David Paterson, "the News became more than just a forum for chronicling African-American issues. It became a haven for African-American writers and thinkers, many of whom would have found themselves silenced without the opportunities presented to them by the Amsterdam News."

The governor said that everything he has learned about the media, "I learned from Bill Tatum."

The ink in Tatum's blood was genetic. Born in Durham, North Carolina, on January 23, 1933, Tatum was one of 13 children. His father published three small newspapers in North Carolina that provided information to Black farmers. A career in journalism was never an option; it was unavoidable, and by the time he had finished a distinguished stint in the military and earned degrees from Lincoln University and Yale University and a master's degree in urban studies from Occidental College in Los Angeles, editing his own newspaper was a foregone conclusion.