Melba Tolliver

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Melba Tolliver got the assignment of the year in 1971

President Nixon's daughter, Trisha, was marrying Eddie Cox, and Tolliver was to go to Washington D.C. to cover the presidential event. Reporting for WABC in New York, at the time it was unusual for a local station to send a reporter out of town on a national story. However, television news was learning that ratings increased with coverage of such spectaculars. WABC, too, had reached number one ratings in the market and had done so by creating news personalities, reporters and anchors that audiences would grow to love and trust. Perhaps it was the beginning of entertaining news. The station took great pains to make sure the staff was ethnically diverse. Tolliver, an African American and Geraldo Rivera, Puerto Rican, were some of the "identifiable ethnics" on staff.

Tolliver had been thinking for some time of changing her hairstyle. She was tired of processing her hair, and using wigs. So she decided to go natural, and made the switch the week of her assignment to Washington D.C. It was a modest afro, carrying little of the bold statement of say an Angela Davis afro.

"It looked wonderful," recalls Tolliver. "People were on game shows with naturals. Cecily Tyson was on with it. Everybody was wearing them." So she expected little opposition.

The day she switched to a natural, she was assigned to cover a dinner in Midtown. Her colleagues were shocked. Some on the crew said to her in noncommittal tones, "Oh, you changed your hair." By the time she got back to the office, everyone on staff knew what she had done. One producer saw her and asked, "What did you do to your hair."

Tolliver replied, "This is what my hair is like. Now I'm not going to straighten it any more."

The news director had heard too, and he was on the phone as soon as she finished the evening news. "I hate your hair," he said. "You've got to change it. And you know what, you no longer look feminine."

Management threatened to keep her off the air if she didn't change her hair back. She went to Washington D.C. for the wedding, covered it the only way she knew how using live shots of herself, and let New York decide what to do with the footage.

When she returned, management was insistent that she had to straighten her hair or she'd have to wear a hat or scarf if she wanted to get back on air. Now the New York Post had gotten wind that something was happening at the station, and people were beginning to wonder why they hadn't seen Tolliver on air. When the Post began calling people at the station, including the news director, the station backed down and put her on the air. But by now word had gotten out what had happened. It was bad publicity for the station. People wrote letters supporting Tolliver's right to wear her hair as she pleased, even if no one liked it.

It was a defining moment in television history as African Americans grappled with how to define themselves. The struggle spilled over into other realms of journalism, but Tolliver insists this was not the defining moment of her career.

Tolliver, who was born in Rome, Ga., and raised in Akron, Ohio, started out as a registered nurse. Later she decided to give up that profession for a job that suited her perky personality. In 1966 she found a position as a clerk for a network news executive with ABC. A year later, when the on-air employees went on strike, her boss asked her if she'd be willing to try anchoring a 5-minute news show called "News With a Women's Touch." Tolliver performed so well, she was asked to continue to fill in for the duration of the week-long strike. Tolliver loved the experienced and thought maybe she would have an opportunity to do it again, but because she had crossed the picket line, she was labeled a scab. The union leader told her she'd never get into the union.

But time proved him wrong. After getting in-house training at ABC and taking a few classes at Columbia University and New York University, she won some confidence. She got her first break with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. WABC the local station asked her to help out with coverage of the funeral that was scheduled at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Through the years of reporting and hosting public affairs shows at WABC, she learned the power of television news and harnessed that power to more accurately portray the varied lives of African Americans.