Chapter 7: Boll Weevil
The story was boxed across the top of the front page of the Sunday edition. It was even above the masthead. Of all the stories I had ever written, nothing came close to this, my first story as a reporter at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester.
Not only did the story herald my arrival, but there was also a photograph of me, which was a way of letting readers know that for the first time the newspaper had a reporter who was black.
I'd arrived in town expecting the newspaper to make good on a promise. Back when they were wooing me, I was told that if I accepted the job, they would have an apartment waiting in a luxury building not far from the newspaper. When I got to town and mentioned all of this, I got a blank stare. Nobody knew what I was talking about. Then, Dick Dougherty came up with his idea.
He was the city editor, and on my first day at the D&C, he told me of all the complaints that he was getting from blacks. "They say the housing here is really segregated," he said. "I don't know if that's true or not. You have to find an apartment. We don't need to phony up anything. We can use your experience to tell a true story of what the situation really is."
"Will you do it?" he asked.
Dougherty was a tall, thin guy whose hair was white even though he didn't look to be a day past 35. His style was low key but very persuasive. I had never reported and written a story about race, and what Dougherty was suggesting caught me off-guard. But I was just starting out on a new job; there was no way I was going to say no to my city editor.
Dougherty wanted two reporters on the story, one white and one black. The plan was for each of us to try separately to rent the same apartment. The white reporter was Bill Vogler. He was a veteran on the staff at the D&C and he liked the idea. The two of us got newspapers and circled apartments in my price range. Then we got started.
After we had visited about five or six apartments, Vogler asked me, "Are you sure you're actually going into these places?" He did not understand. I would just reach the door and promptly be told, "The apartment has already been rented." Right after I was told that no apartment was available, Vogler would visit the same place and be invited inside. He'd get a whole spiel on how great the apartment was, why he'd like it and what the neighborhood had to offer.
My experience was so different that at times it would be downright embarrassing. One building had a big sign on the lawn, Apartment for Rent. I was heading up the sidewalk when a window on the second floor opened. A woman leaned out and hollered: "If you're coming for the apartment, forget it. It's already rented."
Once I explained all this to Vogler, we kept going. We visited apartment after apartment. It was always the same: no to me, yes to him. I just kept making notes of everything that happened. At the typewriter, I got my chance to tell the story.
The day after the story was published, blacks began showing up in the newsroom "to meet Earl Caldwell." Some would barge right past the receptionist. These were not ordinary citizens. Some people called these visitors troublemakers. They called themselves activists, which meant they were in the forefront of stoking, shaping and channeling the anger they said was growing in Rochester's two black communities, the Third and Seventh wards. The newspaper itself was a target of their anger. They said they never saw reporters in their neighborhoods "except when there's trouble" and accused the newspaper of not covering the important issues in their communities.
They looked to me to change that. They said that they expected to see me in their communities to tell the stories that were not being told. The irony was that in a sense, my editor and the activists were saying the same thing. "You can find out what the facts are," Dougherty had challenged me. "We expect you to tell the story," the activists said in inviting me to the ghetto. I was being handed what every reporter wants: a big and important story.
The front-page story of my experience in hunting an apartment had given me the kind of notoriety that a reporter new in town could only dream of getting. The reaction was overwhelming. Once the story was published, so many whites called to offer an apartment that I had to write another piece just to tell that story. One very nice woman, also white, did rent me a place not far from the office. But even though I had settled in, black folks still hung a nickname on me.
They called me boll weevil. The name came from the title of a popular song, and when they'd see me, they'd say, with a lot of laughter, "Here comes boll weevil. He's still looking for a home."
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