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.
But before this eventuality there were other activist stops along the way, including his leadership of the Cooper Square Community Development Committee. By the late ’50s, he was the executive director of this Lower Eastside housing organization whose objective was to impede Robert Moses’ Slum Clearance Committee and its plan of so-called urban renewal, which was in reality the displacement of the poor and the homeless.
Tatum’s defiance not only brought him into the public spotlight, his determination altered the views of Congressman John Lindsay, who had once supported Moses’ plan, forcing him to reconsider his position and to create an alternate plan that led Cooper Square to become a model urban renewal area.
The community activism only renewed the journalistic itch, and soon Tatum was off to Europe, where he hoped to find less discrimination and racism in his craft.
In Stockholm, Sweden, where he and his family would visit frequently in the coming years, Tatum worked as a reporter and columnist for Stockholm’s TIDNIGEN as well as AKUELT in Copenhagen, Denmark, before returning to the states. In 1971, Tatum’s dream of owning a newspaper became a reality when he and several partners, including Percy Sutton and H. Carl McCall, purchased the Amsterdam News, one of the nation’s largest and oldest continuously Black newspapers for $2.3 million.
“Bill Tatum is one of the smartest men I’ve ever met,” Sutton told a reporter several years ago when asked about Tatum as a businessman. “I never would have gone into business with him if I didn’t respect and admire him.” The partners would subsequently purchase WLIB and WBLS radio stations, which later became part of Sutton’s Inner City Broadcasting Corporation.
Three years before Tatum and his associates bought the Amsterdam News, it had already begun to take a more radical perspective in its coverage, dropping the word “Negro” in preference to “African-American” or “Black.” With Tatum in charge, the paper’s content also underwent a more progressive outlook, and it would be this hard-hitting, take-no- prisoners style that would characterize the paper as he assumed total control in 1984. Tatum wasted no time building on the paper’s vaunted history and prestige. As the paper expanded, he was able to employ a larger staff, more editors and reporters.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Tatum’s ingenuity and vision, especially his ability to make the paper a major business and tribune. The paper “really was heard across the city — and, on many occasions, around the world,” the mayor said in a statement to the press. “He covered issues of concern to African-Americans in ways that other media outlets did not, and he gave many young writers opportunities they might not otherwise have had.”
All of this was done without Tatum sacrificing any of his customary savvy and bravado. On more than one occasion his mettle was tested and he refused to capitulate to either the status quo or the powers that be. When Tawana Brawley claimed she was raped in 1987, Tatum believed her, and his position remained unchanged even when an investigation concluded it was all a hoax. “The white press was bad enough, but Black reporters on white newspapers were even worse, believing that they had to legitimize their presence as reporters on white newspapers by becoming the meanest, toughest, most critical reporters on and about this sordid case that has shaken Black America,” Tatum wrote in an editorial. He never identified the reporters. “I think something terrible happened to Tawana Brawley. I believe her when she said she was raped. But there is no proof one way or the other.”
Even before the Brawley incident, Tatum had stirred controversy when he began running front-page editorials attacking Mayor Ed Koch and accusing him of being a corrupt and ineffective leader who did not take seriously the concerns of the city’s minority residents. From 1986 to 1989, the front page of the Amsterdam News demanded: “Koch Must Resign.” In 1988, without an ounce of equivocation, he asked for Koch’s resignation. “Remember the unheated houses and the high rents and the mayor who bows and scrapes before the rich while shoving the jackboot into the groin of the poor,” Tatum asserted. There was also, some concluded, a chimera of anti-Semitism in the piece, which on the face of it is absolutely absurd when you consider both his wife, Susan, and his daughter are Jews.
If he needed more ammo to offset the charges of anti-Semitism, it occurred through his relationship with the late Abe Hirschfeld, who during his two-week ownership of the New York Post in 1993, proposed to install Tatum as his editor in chief. That move failed to halt a revolt from the staff and the plan fizzled out.
In the mid-’90s, Tatum was slowed by a number of health problems, none more disabling than being confined to a wheelchair following an injury to his spine. Though he may have been limited in his physical movement, nothing could stay his fertile mind and imagination, and he continued to compose editorials that were essential to understanding the issues of the day. No doubt he would have bristled at the recent satirical attempts of his nemesis, the New York Post, and its provocative cartoon.
No longer able to function at full capacity, he relinquished the reins to his daughter in 1997, content to operate as publisher emeritus and chairman of the board.
But a wheelchair could not contain him, and his presence at various social and political functions continued with the unwavering help of his wife and daughter. For Tatum, this was no time to rest on his considerable laurels, to dwell in the past, even if others chose to do so.
Upon hearing of his death, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is slated to deliver the eulogy at the funeral services, said he first met Tatum “when I was a teenager involved in civil rights work in New York and have known him over 30 years. His courage, his tenacity, his sagacity and his advocacy is unparalleled in African-American journalism. We have lost a great advocate, a penetrating writer, an unmatchable institution builder, and for me, a great friend and father figure.”
With stacks of plaques and awards to his credit, he was proud to receive any citation or proclamation or doctor of letters that he graciously accepted from his alma mater, Lincoln University in 2005. Last year, Tatum was the recipient of the New York Association of Black Journalists’ Lifetime Achievement Award for print journalism.
There was a written tribute from the esteemed David Dinkins. “As a journalist, Bill advocated for ‘transparency’ long before it became a buzzword and made its pursuit his personal and professional campaign. He never shied away from the controversial and was ever mindful of incidents and individuals that might threaten or compromise the integrity, the image or the well-being of the African-American community.”
Councilmember Inez Dickens, the majority whip, said that Tatum often referred to her as his daughter. “I loved Bill and will hold the ideals he stood for and taught me in my heart forever. I also send my love and support to Bill’s family. As his daughter, Elinor, continues Bill’s journey, I will stand by her side as her father stood by me.”
As for his fighting spirit, Christine Quinn, the council’s speaker, recalled seeing him in a wheelchair at the front of a march against injustice. “In the near future, I will host a memorial for him,” she promised. “There was only one Bill Tatum,” said attorney Robert Van Lierop, “and that’s a shame because we need more like him now more than ever.”
Rev. Herbert Daughtry, pastor of Brooklyn’s House of the Lord Church, said he really got to know Tatum during a trip to South Africa where they were part of a delegation led by Mayor Dinkins.
“He had that unique ability to walk with kings, while still maintaining a common touch.” Moreover, Daughtry added, Tatum completely won him over at a time when he and the late Sonny Carson were being vilified by the press for their involvement in the Crown Heights upheaval in 1991.”He was unflinching, and stood by us through the entire ordeal.”
Besides his daughter and his wife, Susan, he is survived by a brother, Herbert; and three sisters: Lorraine Graves, Edna Swann and Kali Sichen.