When you have a resourceful corps of colleagues and comrades, you can keep up with current events, stay abreast of breaking news and be in touch with your history and culture. That’s my good fortune, and one of them alerted me the other day of the passing of Mattie Smith Colin, the legendary reporter of the Chicago Defender who joined the ancestors Dec. 6 at 98.
In her long and productive journalistic career (and it was not a good year for Black journalists, with the passing of George Curry and Gwen Ifill most notably), Colin covered many major stories and events but none more memorable than the lynching of Emmett Till and his subsequent funeral. It all began when she was sent to the train station in 1955 to witness the return of Till’s body from Mississippi. His story is universally known today after his savagely mutilated face appeared in the Defender and Jet magazine.
Colin was there and saw Till’s body being unwrapped and heard Mamie Till Bradley’s screams as she viewed her son. “Lord you gave me one son to remedy a condition,” Bradley said after a loud outburst of pain and sorrow, “but who knows but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.” Colin captured this moment in the Defender in September 1955. She was there, too, at Till’s funeral where his mother insisted on an open-casket viewing so the world could see what had been done.
Mattie Smith was born April 6, 1918, on Chicago’s South Side where she was raised. Colin’s father was the owner and operator of two taxi companies. After graduation from the city’s public schools, she attended Roosevelt College and Northwestern University where she majored in journalism.
She was hired at the Defender in 1950, and her editors, including the publisher of the paper, John Sengstacke, knew she was the one to be given the Till assignment. Eugene Scott, an editor of the paper in the 1990s, recalled conversations he had with Sengstacke, stating, “He described Mattie as a stellar reporter and talked about her in the same light as Ethel Payne.” Payne, considered the doyenne of African-American reporters during the day, continued the coverage of the Till case into the trial and later.
Scott said that Sengstacke would “tell me these wonderful stories about Mattie and Ethel, how they’d hold their own against their male counterparts in the newsroom, and would speak of them only in the highest regard.” Scott added, “Mattie was a gifted and highly intelligent writer whose heart was open to the truth. She had empathy and character, and could tell the kinds of stories that nobody else could.”
Colin, said her cousin Anne Fredd, “was the kind of person that understood the importance of being well-informed, so journalism was a natural fit.”
Her long tenure at the Defender, which included a stint as food, fashion and editor at large, not only grounded her in the city’s neighborhoods, it afforded her an opportunity to reach beyond the city’s limits right up to the White House, where she was an invited guest to the inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson. She also served as grand marshal at the annual Bud Billiken Parade, the largest African-American parade in the nation.
At one time she must have worked as a publicist, according to an article published in the Defender by Doris Saunders in 1969. “One good way to start the New Year,” Saunders wrote, “is to join with friends and just relax and chew the fat and enjoy an abundance of good food and drink. Subscribing to this theory this past Sunday was petite publicist Mattie Smith Colin, who invited a score of her feminine counterparts to join her Drexel Avenue home for an afternoon of companionship.” An example of Colin’s style in fashion is her advice on sewing knitted garments, “which are shaped individually on the knitting machine, all clothing takes shape from one or more lengths of material, according to Lane Bryant’s consumer guide,” she wrote.
After leaving the Defender in 2002, Colin worked for the Chicago Park District and the Department of Streets and Sanitation before retiring at 93.
Another close friend and associate was Esther Barnett, who praised Colin, noting, “She had done and seen so much but rarely talked about her own achievements. She was a very modest woman and always more interested in what you were doing rather than what she was up to.”
One of the things she was up to in the mid’70s was covering the boldface names front, sometimes as far away as Atlanta and the wedding of civil rights activist Xernona Brewster Clayton and Paul Brady.
Ethan Michaeli, a former investigative reporter for the Defender, recounted in his book, “The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America,” Colin’s career and contributions. “The features desk was manned by two editors from different generations: Soft-spoken, kind and polite, Mattie Smith Colin cast an elegant figure in the newsroom in her furs and jewels, her articles on fashion, food, literature and culture were crisply written and meticulously self-edited. Proud of having worked for the newspaper for many years, she never bragged about her work as a ‘hard news’ reporter, though she had covered the return of Emmett Till’s body to Chicago, among other stories.”
She was married to Robert Colin Sr., a Chicago police officer, for 42 years. He died in 1992.