As Brown University's first black editor, Terry broke the Ivy League color barrier
Journalism lives in Wallace Terry's marrow. As a child his fascination with newspapers took shape in his ambition to publish a neighborhood paper. Gathering stories from his friends and neighbors, he printed the paper on a toy press and passed it out. His interest in the profession never faltered. Even when he pursued other interests, journalism wasn't far behind.
He got his start at his high school newspaper in Indianapolis, one of the rare daily papers in a secondary school. There he set his sights on one of seven editor positions, which went largely to seniors. Terry, one of the few black students who had been chosen to integrate the predominately white school, worked hard his freshman, sophomore and junior years to earn that post. In the summers he took classes at nearby colleges and universities in writing and photography. He won slots in summer journalism programs and at premier journalism schools around the country including Northwestern's Medill and Indiana University in Bloomington.
Yet when he started his senior year and waited for an appointment as one of the editors, he heard nothing. Finally his mother and aunt went to the school to confront the principal. A black person had never been editor before and the school administration didn't know how to proceed. Ultimately, the administration named Terry the Tuesday editor of the Shortridge Echo.
It wasn't until he worked on his college paper, Brown University's Daily Herald, that Terry earned a name for himself. While there he pursued one of the major school desegregation stories of the period. In 1957 in Little Rock, Ark., Gov. Orval Faubus defied a federal court order to allow African American students in Central High School. His defiance led to a showdown with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sent federal troops to the school to ensure the admission of the children.
Terry went after the story like a charging bull. Reporters had been warned they could not get close to Faubus, who was in Providence, R.I. to meet with President Eisenhower about the Central High School crisis. Terry made up his mind to get an interview with the governor. He walked passed the guards to the governor's hotel room and identified himself. Faubus half-heartedly promised him an interview the next day. A wire service photographer was there and snapped a photo as the two shook hands.
The photo was carried around the world and appeared on the front page of the New York Times and in the New York Daily News. One headline read: "Negro reporter gets fair shake from Faubus." The photo caught the attention of Washington Post editor Ben Gilbert, who offered Terry a summer job as a copy boy. Terry, ever the confident reporter, bluffed and told Gilbert that he would not work as a copy boy because he was a reporter and had already worked at the Indianapolis Daily News (although in reality he had been an assistant to the obit writer helping write obits and getting coffee). The Post gave him the summer job as a reporter. That year, he also won the position of editor-in-chief of the Brown Daily Herald, making him the first African American to hold that post.
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