Hair care pioneer Joan Johnson made ‘Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics’ a feature of black identity Her company sold an uplifting version of black hair care — by any product necessary

When I learned that Joan Johnson had died a few days ago at 89, I felt an instant pang.

Johnson was the co-founder of Johnson Products, which in 1971 became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange. She was from the South Side of Chicago, where I spent half of my childhood. (She was married to my mother-in-law’s first cousin.) And it was her company that, among other staples of black grooming products, gave us Ultra Sheen.

I’m not sure anything gets blacker than this, and if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.

Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train.

Recently, the news has been full of reports of white teachers, counselors and coaches aggressively policing black hair. My thinking is that if you don’t know that Ultra Sheen is still just $1.21 in grocery stores, then you have no business opening your mouth.

Truth be told, I’ve had a hard time finding those small jars of hair grease for several years. Consolidation in the industry and the move of white-owned firms into the black market led to Johnson Products being sold several times, starting in 1993. It was eventually acquired by Procter & Gamble and later sold to a group of black investment firms. When I’d luck out and spot it on the shelves of some beauty supply store, I’d hoard two or three jars out of both nostalgia and need.

It was the product itself, the not-too-heavy blue grease (or green if you needed the extra dry formula) that had one job — to manage (lay down, wave up, detangle and shine) black hair — it always did what it was supposed to do. It became baked into the daily grooming rituals of my childhood in a way that made it a totem for an era. A pre-gentrification, get-your-education, no-frills time when black people needed neatness, at a minimum, at an accessible price point. It was a tool, rather than a status product, which distinguished it from the fancier, more self-important black hair care lines that followed — especially when white companies moved into the lucrative black hair care market they’d long ignored.

In 1971, Joan Johnson’s Johnson Products became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Courtesy of the Johnson family

Long before hair tutorials on YouTube, I raised my daughters using Ultra Sheen and a spray bottle of water to provide the foundation for every hairstyle known to black girlhood. I once finished off my own $200 haircut and color with a palm full of Ultra Sheen my stylist jokingly called “European de frissant.”

George “Pete” Johnson II, my husband’s second cousin, grew up hearing the story of how his father, a production chemist for black-owned soap and cosmetics manufacturer Fuller Products, couldn’t get a business loan. But he got a $250 vacation loan that he and his wife, Joan, used to help start Johnson Products in 1954. They created, packaged and distributed hair care products from their basement before opening a production plant on the South Side in the mid-1960s that employed around 500 people at its height. According to Black Enterprise magazine, the company controlled roughly a third of the black hair care market by the late 1970s.

“My mom was the backbone in all of this,” Pete Johnson said. “She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.”

She was always good with money and initially did all the accounting and acted as the company’s de facto comptroller. She gave to local causes even before they had much to give. She later became a trustee at Spelman College. “My mom really felt the need to empower not only us as a culture, but black women,” Johnson says. We needed an identity “of us being just as elegant, just as gracious and beautiful as anybody else.”

It’s an ethos that showed up in the stylish clothes, hair and makeup she wore every time she walked out of her front door. When you left home, “you better be completely groomed, clean and smelling good,” said Pete Johnson. She always told us to strive for perfection “and it starts with how you look, how you present yourself.”

“My mom was the backbone in all of this. She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.” — Pete Johnson

It was a way she thought black people could change self-perceptions, and white perceptions of the race, that much of the culture has since moved past but was considered gospel in its day.

Johnson also believed that graciousness translated into how you treated people. “I saw that firsthand as a little boy,” said Pete Johnson. “We had a place in Endeavor, Wisconsin [a small town near the Wisconsin Dells] and we’d get some of the Native Americans coming to our house asking for food.” When his two older brothers ran around behind them making mock Indian noises, “My mom snatched them boys up so quick,” Pete Johnson recalled. “She didn’t play that. You had to respect everybody.”

The company’s product line also included other hair care and grooming products. Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train, and a huge swath of black America will remember the line, “makers of Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen Cosmetics,” voiced by Soul Train host Don Cornelius, for the rest of our lives.

In a Facebook post, educator Cassandra Smith of Prince George’s County, Maryland, remembered how the yellow creme satin press specifically enabled her Sunday church press and curls. Karen Parker, a Washington event curator and producer, calls both the blue and green Ultra Sheen part of hair washing day in her Afro-Caribbean childhood, and the product of choice for greasing her grandmother’s scalp.

And of course Afro Sheen made Afros shine.

“I also remember the joy of putting the sheen on your Afro,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is likely the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to have ever voiced that particular recollection. He met Joan and George Johnson when he was president of the Chicago Historical Society, and they talked about the power of those weekly Soul Train plugs. “In a way, the Johnsons captured the tenor of the time and used that desire to express one’s blackness as a key to their marketing strategy,” he said. “Whenever I think about the commercials, I smile and recall a time when we were all discovering our blackness.”

Beginning in the late 1970s, the models on the boxes of Johnson Products’ Gentle Treatment relaxers became their own form of black celebrity. (I once worked with a reporter who’d won the vaunted Johnson Products Gentle Treatment model search.) Before the natural hair care revolution of the last decade helped us move beyond the white gaze, they represented an aspirational version of black respectability that saw black womanhood as beautiful and cultured in a way that corresponded with hair that should always be worn appropriately straight.

Joan Johnson wanted to “lift us up” as a people, Pete Johnson said. The message from white culture, “I believe, back then, was that we were less than, but we weren’t.”

Step one in proving that was looking good. It’s something Joan Johnson believed black people could accomplish, by any product necessary.

Toni Morrison made me stop wanting to be white Slavery took our bodies. Cultural hegemony tries to take our minds — and destroy our hair. Morrison gave it all back to us.

“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit.

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” – Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

I’m here to give thanks. Toni Morrison freed me. She freed me from the burden of wanting to be white. She taught how to put down blue eyes and use my brown ones.

I had promised myself that now that the day had come and Morrison has passed, I would not be afraid. But it is a promise I cannot keep.

Even now, I feel the keyboard rise unevenly against my fingers and my heart feels like a possum trapped in a box. What will people think? They’ll judge me. They’ll pity me. My race card will be snatched. I’ll get canceled. The whole world knows her résumé: Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Princeton professor, speaker of truth. No adjective is too big, and no verb can contain the glory of her oeuvre, the ripple of her effect.

I would no more appreciate Toni Morrison than Harriet Tubman could eulogize the North Star. She, as she says in Song of Solomon, is a woman who could fly. With her words, I can see the mountaintop. She taught me real freedom, freedom of the mind.

Slavery took our bodies. Cultural hegemony tries to take our minds — and destroy our hair. Morrison gave it all back to us — if we have the strength to take it. What did she say in Beloved? They do not love your body. So you have to love it and love it hard.

This is not about being seen — a watered-down approximation of affirmation if ever there was one. We are seen every day and seen wanting, thanks to the economic demands of a scientifically ignorant people who built a sweet land of “liberty” on the backs of other, darker humans. It’s not right to own people. But it seems almost worse to convince yourself and those you enslaved and their descendants that it has something to do with their own inferiority. That’s twisted. Morrison put it back straight.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison photographed in New York City in 1979.

Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

It can be hard to remember to be free — to remember whose best thing I am.

My world sometimes looks like a series of planks I hammer together in front of me, stepping on the last to hammer the next. But it’s mine, free and clear. There can be long breaks between finishing one board and picking up the next, but Morrison understood that. Her books are full of magic, but there are no magical Negroes.

Examining her loss, I feel as if Morrison has always been with me. The Black Book haunted me with nightmares of what they would do to my brown body if they caught me, Song of Solomon strengthened my mind when I thought being brown was wrong, Beloved soothed my soul when being a brown girl felt worthless and then again when it felt like too much.

Her stories are mine, although the names and details were changed. Here is the spot under my chin where I burned my neck trying to look like Laura Ingalls. This is the elderly Italian woman who works at my local grocery — always eager to tell the white woman ahead of me how to braise her beef but anxious and silent when bagging my groceries. Here’s how I wear Hall & Oates T-shirts in order to short-circuit racial profiling.

Lately, I’d been dwelling on omens. Sullen, murderous days slinking one into another, casting shadows of old terrors. Nine in Charleston, 11 in Pittsburgh, 22 in El Paso, so many more in ones and twos. Earthquakes in pairs. Countless aftershocks.

But Morrison taught me to pity those empty bags of death who think automatic rifles can stop us. She showed me that first at Pilate’s stove and then in the clearing behind Sethe’s house.

My wings hold the shape of her words, and so they cannot fail. I know now that as the shadows gather shape in the wagon to take me back to Sweet Home that I will hold my chin high, pick up the hammer, laugh and say,

“Me? Me?”

Art Neville was a recognized genius, but not a well-compensated one A founder of both the Meters and the Neville Brothers, he brought the funk to New Orleans

It’s an all-too-common story: A fabulous black musician redefines a genre of music. He’s adored and emulated by other musicians, including famous white acts. But the financial rewards, for complicated reasons, don’t match up.

This week, we lost a real one: Singer and keyboardist Arthur Neville of New Orleans died Monday at 81. A principal founder of both the Meters and the Neville Brothers, his sound and singular coolness were central to the worlds of jazz, funk and soul music.

“Everyone in the industry digs us. … [But] I wanna go to the bank.”

Neville’s genius is forever attached to the city he loved. He was born on Dec. 17, 1937, and grew up in the Calliope Projects that would later raise another musical giant from the Crescent City in Master P. His career technically began as a 17-year-old in 1954, when he was a member of a school band called the Hawketts that recorded a cover of “Mardi Gras Mambo.” To this day, Neville’s fingerprints are all over Mardi Gras, and it’s impossible to fully embrace Fat Tuesday without his sound.

From there, Neville would help elevate New Orleans funk to an entirely new level. In an eight-year stretch between 1969 and 1977, Neville and the Meters (formerly known as Art Neville & the Neville Sounds) dropped eight albums. Their best known songs were “Cissy Strut,” “Fire on the Bayou” and “Hey Pocky A-Way.” Their 1974 album Rejuvenation was listed at No. 138 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. The Meters toured with the Rolling Stones and won the adoration and respect of Paul McCartney — the band recorded a live album, Uptown Rulers, in 1975 from a performance at a release party for the former Beatle’s Venus and Mars album.

Art Neville’s genius is forever attached to New Orleans, the city he loved.

Photo by Douglas Mason/Getty Images

But the Meters grew frustrated with their lack of mainstream success. And like so many acts before and after them, that frustration (and drug usage) led the group to disband. It didn’t take long, though, for Neville to begin the next chapter of his career. Along with his three brothers, Aaron, Charles and Cyril, and their uncle George “Jolly” Landry, they formed the Neville Brothers in 1977. And like the Meters before them, they were beloved both in New Orleans and across the industry, although the financial reciprocation wasn’t always present.

“Everyone in the industry digs us. Every other band, bands I love, bands I look up to, they looking at us the same way,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “Huey Lewis — those cats was onstage watching us every night. The Stones was watching us. [But] I wanna go to the bank. For once in my life, I’d like to be able to do something for my family.”

Between 1987 and 1990, the Neville Brothers released three albums that would ultimately cement their status as authentic sound leaders of their city and of their time. Uptown (1987) featured the likes of Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and others. Yellow Moon (1989) earned the group its first Grammy, best pop instrumental performance for “Healing Chant.” And the aptly titled Brother’s Keeper became a cultural touchstone for a city that has no shortage of them.

Neither Art nor the Meters or the Neville Brothers found runaway success, but the sound he created for his city won over the world. He’d tour and reunite with the Meters and Neville Brothers throughout his life. Neville even captured another Grammy in 1996 for his contributions to “SRV Shuffle,” found on A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Art Neville of the Funky Meters performs at Tipitina’s in New Orleans on Jan. 23, 2015.

Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images

For as long as he could, Neville placed mind over matter and continued to perform despite mounting health issues. There were complications from back surgery and the effects of a stroke. Neville, though, would come to embody what Bob Marley and The Wailers once dubbed the medicine of music: One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain. The stage was Neville’s sanctuary, where he felt safest and where fans felt most at peace.

“You can bring me there in the ambulance, roll me onto the stage, give me a microphone and mirror where I can see the people,” Neville said in 2013. “Man, look. I’ve been doing this all my life. I enjoy it. Even the bad part of it, the parts I didn’t like … I found out that’s the way things go sometimes. You’ve got to go along with them.”

The music industry didn’t always give him the flowers he deserved. It never does to most. Last year, the Meters received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in Los Angeles, although Neville wasn’t well enough to attend.

Still, he created art that has no expiration date. Neville earned his chops performing at establishments that may never be famous outside of NOLA, like Nite Cap in Uptown or Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street. But that’s the beauty about planting roots even if the world only gets to see what blossoms.

Some simple advice from New Orleans superstar Leah Chase shaped this chef’s career The Queen of Creole Cuisine, who will be buried Monday, ‘always made you feel loved’

Once small nugget of advice from famed chef Leah Chase shaped Damion Banks’ entire career.

“Continue the art of simplicity and you will go farther and farther in the culinary field,” the Queen of Creole Cuisine told Banks.

Since his first encounter with Chase about 15 years ago, Banks has worked to express himself creatively while also striving to keep it simple, just as Chase told him.

Banks was one of many chefs across the country mourning the death of Chase, who died June 1 at age 96 and is scheduled to be buried Monday in New Orleans.

Before Chase became known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, she worked as a waitress in the French Quarter. In 1946, she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., a local musician. His father, Dooky Chase Sr., had opened a bar and sandwich shop in the Treme neighborhood. Eventually, Chase and her husband transformed the location into a dine-in restaurant. Besides serving locals and celebrities, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant often served as a meeting place for politicians and civil rights leaders, and was one of the few places where the races mixed and dined together.

Chase received a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation in 2016. In the past week, mourners took to the streets to celebrate Chase’s life and legacy with a traditional New Orleans second line complete with brass bands and banners to let passersby know whom they were honoring. Many former patrons, including former President Barack Obama, used social media to express their condolences.

The loss was especially tough for chefs who have followed Chase’s career and were inspired by her exceptional culinary skills.

“It’s hard,” said Banks, 46. “It’s not just that she was a local legend that we lost. It’s like family that was lost. She reminded me so much of my grandmother that I actually cried when I heard [the news of her death]. I feel like I lost my grandmother twice.”

Banks never took for granted the occasional moments he shared with Chase over the years. Each time, she offered a few words of advice that Banks added to his daily life as a chef.

Banks began his career with a summer job washing dishes in the kitchen of Austin Leslie, another world-renowned chef of Creole cuisine. Banks’ uncle, who was the sous chef for Leslie at the time, wondered whether Banks should stick to art, rather than food. Instead of being deterred, Banks was determined to prove his uncle wrong.

Before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, Banks appeared several times with Chase at multi-chef events around the city, including a dinner for then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Both of them were also featured in a PBS documentary highlighting five black New Orleans chefs that was originally scheduled to air right before the storm hit.

President George W. Bush (left) holds the hand of Leah Chase (right), the owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, where he and first lady Laura Bush took part in a dinner with Louisiana cultural and community leaders in 2007 in New Orleans.

Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

As busy as Chase’s life remained, she was never too busy. He would re-introduce himself to Chase and each time, she’d already known who he was.

“She was always available to talk,” Banks said. “Even at her restaurant. It always felt great when she remembered me. I know I felt special, but that’s how she made everyone feel. She treated everyone the same. We were all VIPs. No matter who Mrs. Chase talked to, she always made you feel loved.”

In 2011, years after Banks earned his position as executive chef at the now-closed Olivier’s Creole Restaurant in New Orleans, Chase and her family would drop by for dinner. Although Banks had come far in his culinary journey, including cooking for celebrities and international figures, the knowledge that Chase was in his dining room waiting patiently for one of his creations to be served still made him nervous.

Banks still remembers the first time she came to the restaurant and the entree he prepared for her: Roasted duck breast with a raspberry plum coulis, roasted asparagus, and dauphinoise chips.

“I remember she was tasting all the food and sampling everything and I was somewhat scared because this is a local legend,” Banks said. “I was doing Creole food and I wanted it to be impressive to her but I didn’t want to go too much over. But she enjoyed it. She was very impressed with it.”

Damion Banks (left) and Leah Chase (right).

Damion Banks

In one of their last encounters, Banks shared the news that he was starting his own business, Beauchamps Catering. And he knew exactly what he’d envisioned for the new company.

“I keep it simple, but at the same time, I love art,” Banks said. “I keep the art of simplicity, but I like for people to see my food and eat with their eyes. If I explain it, if I write my menu down, everything that you read in the descriptions, you’ll be able to taste everything that I’ve explained to you.”

In that chat, Chase left Banks with one last gem.

“I give a lot of effort because I’m allergic to failure,” Banks said. “I’m destroyed by it, but it’s also growth. Mrs. Chase told me to always work hard. Give all the effort that I could. No matter what I did, if I had that, I’d always be successful. It was the truth.”

That was Leah Chase, practicing the art of simplicity.

Lorraine Branham showed me that a black woman could succeed in journalism A friend and mentor, the longtime newspaper editor and educator died this week at 66

The last time I saw my friend and former newspaper colleague Lorraine Branham was in August 2014 in Boston. We both were attending a reception hosted by the National Association of Black Journalists at Fenway Park. She reintroduced me to her granddaughter Jasmine, 14. Lorraine loved to talk about her granddaughter. But, “I won’t let her call me ‘grandmother,’ ” Lorraine declared. She said it made her feel old. Jasmine shyly returned my hello, and Lorraine directed her to the reception line to find something to eat.

And then we sat and talked.

I thought of Lorraine on the way home from work on Tuesday. I wondered if I would see her at this year’s NABJ Convention in Miami and decided I should thank her for her friendship and mentoring over the years. Later that evening, a co-worker emailed me. “How are you? I’m hearing about Lorraine … I hope you are okay.” It was only then I learned that Branham, 66, dean of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University for more than a decade, had died of cancer that morning.

I am devastated.

I didn’t talk to Lorraine regularly. But it was OK. We usually saw each other at the annual NABJ Convention, a huge family reunion for black journalists, and would resume chatting as if we’d just gotten off the phone the night before: “How are you? … What are you doing now? … Whatever happened to? …”

I first met her when I started a copy editing job with The Evening Sun of Baltimore in 1982 and she was a reporter for the morning paper, The Baltimore Sun. There were 15 or 20 black journalists working for the two papers then, and most of us were still unmarried and childless, with the time to bond as colleagues and friends after work. Several friendships formed then last to this day. Lorraine threw some fun parties at her house — I remember taking my then-boyfriend to her New Year’s Eve bash and one spectacular Halloween party.

S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications dean Lorraine Branham attends the 2016 Mirror Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City on June 9, 2016.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Lorraine left for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1983, but it didn’t end our friendship or her support. She delivered a lot of career advice — mostly unsolicited, always on point. Finally, she declared I had to get out of Baltimore. “They’ll never promote you.” She was right. And, eventually, I left.

Before I was hired by The Evening Sun, I’d worked at a newspaper in Georgia that had such a racist atmosphere that several of my co-workers had planted a KKK newsletter on my computer terminal. I was encouraged to witness her advance in an industry that makes it difficult for black people to be hired and promotes few black women to management. Branham left a high-level position at the Inquirer to become the first female and first African-American executive editor of the Tallahassee Democrat. If she could be promoted, I could. Lorraine was one of the few black journalists who had longevity in the business and made a successful transition to academia, becoming dean of the journalism school at the University of Texas, Austin before moving on to Syracuse.

It’s too late to tell my friend how grateful I am to her. But it’s not too late to salute her legacy: the hundreds of students she inspired at Syracuse and elsewhere; the many, like me, whom she mentored; and the family, friends and colleagues who loved her.

Thank you, Lorraine.

Trailblazing black journalist Les Payne showed no fear in pursuit of the truth He’ll be remembered as an NABJ founder and Pulitzer Prize winner, and a mentor and role model to many

My friend Les Payne is dead.

During his 38-year journalism career, Les had many close encounters with death. He once escaped the Mediterranean island of Corsica just minutes ahead of the thugs whom a drug dealer sent to his hotel to “turn out his lights.”

On another occasion, Les found himself staring down the barrels of guns when a car he was riding in was stopped by soldiers of a rival guerrilla army faction in the newly created African nation of Zimbabwe. Les was held for hours and threatened with execution by an officer who mistook him for a spy.

Then, while in California trying to make contact with the Symbionese Liberation Army, a black revolutionary group that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, Les was confronted by a gun-wielding SLA member who ordered him into a phone booth. Les had only minutes to live, the man said, if he couldn’t get someone on the phone at Newsday, the Long Island, New York, newspaper where he spent his entire career, to prove that he was a journalist.

And there was the late-night run-in that Les had with two of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s secret policemen that produced another life-threatening experience for him.

But when Les Payne died Monday night at age 76, it was a heart attack that quickly snatched the life from his body as he stood on the steps of his home in Harlem — not the wrath of those who hated his fearless brand of journalism.

I can’t think of a better ending for a man who was, arguably, the most consequential American journalist of the past 50 years.

Les didn’t just report the news; he often uncovered the story behind the headlines that many journalists missed. He was a bare-knuckles reporter who braved the dangers of journalism. More often than not he worked alone, far away from stampeding herds of journalists. “Wherever you see groups of journalists milling about, there is no news. All you’ll find in places like that is the stuff that people in power want you to know, not the stuff they’re hiding from you,” he once told me.

In four decades of reporting and editing, Les found a lot of what powerful people were hiding.

In 1970, he went undercover to get an up-close look at the mistreatment of black migrant workers on a potato farm on Long Island. A native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Les was no stranger to that kind of labor. As a child, he picked cotton alongside his grandmother on an Alabama farm where the poorly paid black workers were expected to work from dawn to dusk — or, as the old-timers say, “from can’t see, to can’t see.” Les’ story brought improvements to the conditions under which Long Island’s migrant laborers worked.

When heroin deaths spiked in New York City during the early 1970s, Les and two fellow Newsday reporters tracked the flow of heroin, as he often said, “from the poppy fields of Turkey, through the French connection and into the veins of junkies in Harlem.” The 33-part series won them the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

The following year, Les came together with 43 other black journalists in Washington, D.C., to create the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). They wanted to use their collective muscle to push for the hiring of more black journalists and better coverage of black communities across the nation.

But when Chuck Stone, the group’s first president, called for the drafting of bylaws, Les, who questioned the need for such organizational structure in the fight for black rights, snapped, “We don’t need bylaws. We need to kick some behinds.”

Using his journalistic voice to kick butts was something Les delighted in doing. He did it as an investigative reporter in his coverage of the black liberation movement in Africa. In reporting on the murderous rule of Amin in Uganda, Les called it “a holocaust” — which caused his encounter with Amin’s heavies.

He kicked butt in his coverage of South Africa’s Soweto uprising when he visited funeral homes throughout that black township to prove that the death toll of blacks killed by the gendarmes of that pigmentocracy was substantially higher than what the white apartheid government was telling the world.

Les kicked butt in this country too. His reporting on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. poked holes in the government’s conclusion that James Earl Ray acted alone in taking the life of the civil rights leader. His coverage of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama also pummeled some behinds.

During the 2016 NABJ convention, Les tried to clear from Obama’s road to the White House one of black America’s political toll-takers: “Proving that he is as immune to irony as he is to shame, the Rev. Al Sharpton strutted onto the stage as a panelist for the annual W.E.B. DuBois Lecture. That most vital American scholar of the last century would likely have viewed Sharpton as a noisy answer for which there is no known question.” Ouch!

But Les was no sycophant for any politician. I remember standing with him in Denver’s Mile High Stadium on the night of Aug. 28, 2006, when Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. After allowing himself to smile broadly at the end of Obama’s speech, Les turned to me, and with a tilt of his head and a stare he said: “Just remember, the job of the black journalist is to be a watchdog, not a lap dog.”

I’m proud to have been his friend of 43 years. Les guarded his friends as much as he nurtured his friendships. When Bill O’Reilly linked Randall Pinkston to jihadist terrorists because he worked for Al-Jazeera, Les wrote an open letter to the then-Fox News talk show host.

“Randall Pinkston is too much of a gentleman to answer your on-air slander against him; so I will,” he said. “You have chosen … to question the patriotism of this black journalist born in apartheid Mississippi, who desegregated the local TV station with the assistance of Medgar Evers … I’m sure Randall’s long, patriotic family struggle as African-Americans up from slavery has no meaning whatsoever for you. As the son of Irish immigrants who were extended white privileges, albeit from the dredges, you have ascended the media feeding chain with a sense of fairness as meager as your talents.”

History should not be allowed to forget Les, as it has so many other blacks who championed the race. We owe it to him not only to thank him for his service but also to emulate his determination to be a truth-teller in a profession that more than ever before needs a Les Payne.

Clarence Beavers, last surviving member of the first black paratroop unit, dies at 96 The groundbreaking WWII program helped end segregation in the military

Clarence Hylan Beavers, the last surviving member of a pioneering “test platoon” during World War II who helped end segregation in the military, died Dec. 4 at 96 at his home in Huntington, New York.

Beavers, who originally enlisted at 17 in the New York National Guard’s famous Harlem Hellfighters after working a series of odd jobs during the Great Depression, was later drafted after America’s entry into the war in 1941. He was eventually assigned to a maintenance unit before volunteering for a groundbreaking new program designed to test the feasibility of blacks as airborne soldiers: elite combat troops trained to parachute directly into battle whose courage and tenacious fighting spirit were second to none. Consisting of a group of 17 volunteer soldiers, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, known as the Triple Nickles, formed the core of America’s first black paratroop unit.

“It was hard,” Beavers told me in 2012 about the rigorous training and the racism the test platoon endured while vying to become the Army’s first black paratroopers. “Many white folks at the time, including some who were training us, were betting we wouldn’t make it, but we proved them wrong.”

Beavers, who was born in Harlem, New York, on June 12, 1921, was the 15th of 16 children to parents who fled the South before he was born in order to escape racism. His maternal grandfather was an escaped slave who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. His brother, Leo Beavers, also served in the Army during World War II.

Because of segregation, black soldiers were initially prohibited from serving in combat and often relegated to support units performing menial jobs. Yet, midway through the war, the military reversed itself and made plans to form an all-black, experimental infantry airborne unit. It was while serving as a maintenance supply sergeant that Beavers first learned of the Army’s plan when he came across a recruitment poster and became the Triple Nickles’ first volunteer.

“I was excited about the idea of becoming a paratrooper. It was a chance to prove I could do more than just work in a support role,” Beavers said.

However, black paratroopers at the time were so rare that when he reported for training at the Army’s Parachute School in Fort Benning, Georgia, his commanding officer and the white soldiers stationed there were shocked to see him. It would be nearly a year before there were enough soldiers to form a unit and begin training in December 1943.

As Beavers recalled, conditions were hardly equal between the two groups.

“They made us go through a side door at the mess hall at mealtime, and we had to sit at a separate table and wait for our food to be brought to us. We weren’t allowed to mix with the white soldiers even though we were all there for the same training.” And while white trainees lived in comfortable, well-heated, spacious barracks, Beavers added, “They crammed us all into a drafty little hut.”

Of the original 20 who volunteered, 17 successfully completed their training. Beavers told a Long Island newspaper in 2004 that the Nickles expected to be sent to combat in Europe afterward, but when the war suddenly ended there the unit was shipped to the West Coast on a classified mission.

Although he never did come under direct enemy fire during his service with the 555th, Beavers became a smoke jumper, parachuting into remote, forested areas of the Pacific Northwest to fight wildfires as part of a highly secret mission known as Operation Firefly. The mission’s primary goal, which was kept secret from the public for fear of causing panic, was for the Nickles to work with the U.S. Forest Service to suppress any forest fires caused by large, incendiary balloon bombs launched from Japan against North America, and to recover and destroy any of the bombs they found. Of the estimated 10,000 balloon bombs that were dispatched from Asia, about 1,000 eventually reached the U.S. and Canada. In one instance one of the devices almost caused a major catastrophe when it damaged the Hanford Engineer Works reactor in Washington state, effectively shutting down power to the plant where plutonium was being processed for atomic weapons as part of the infamous Manhattan Project. In Oregon, one balloon bomb caused the only known WWII enemy-inflicted fatalities on mainland North America when it exploded at ground level, killing a minister’s pregnant wife and five children who were picnicking in the forest.

In all, the Triple Nickles — spelled in old English and so nicknamed because of the unit’s numerical designation and because the test platoon’s original volunteers were primarily selected from the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division, derived from the 5-cent coin — participated in more than 36 fire missions involving more than 1,200 individual jumps from C-47 military transport planes. Their only protection from the heavily timbered areas they routinely parachuted into were converted football helmets. Over the course of the five-month-long mission the unit suffered hundreds of casualties, with one fatality when a young paratrooper fell to his death after landing in some trees. Beavers himself suffered a serious back injury during one jump that would end his tenure as a paratrooper and lead to his eventual discharge in 1945. He went on to work for the Veterans Administration and later the Defense Department, eventually retiring in 1978.

After a 1948 executive order from President Harry S. Truman to integrate the military, the 555th was deactivated and became part of the 82nd Airborne Division.

The Nickles received little recognition until 2010, when Beavers and two since-deceased members of the original test platoon were finally acknowledged for their service in a special ceremony at the Pentagon.

“Even though he never did get the chance to fight overseas, Clarence was proud of his time with the Nickles,” said Beavers’ wife of 59 years, Edolene. “He figured through his service, by doing his part, eventually things would change for the better for all black people.”

Simeon Booker’s life and legacy cannot be overstated ‘Every black journalist working today should pause for a moment and thank Simeon Booker’

The life of Simeon Booker was celebrated Monday at Washington National Cathedral, a beautiful memorial service for an extraordinary journalist. Mr. Booker — and I feel compelled to call him mister — was a capital pioneer, admired by everyone who knew that he played a role in helping to better this nation.

In 1952, he became the first black reporter to work at The Washington Post. “He integrated a whole industry,” said Don Graham, former publisher of the Post whose dad, Philip, was the only white newspaper leader in America who would give Mr. Booker a chance. But that was just one milestone. Simeon Booker went on to brilliantly chronicle the civil rights movement as a reporter for Jet and Ebony magazines, covering protests and murders and otherwise bringing bright light to the struggle for freedom and equality. He smoked Kent cigarettes and wore bow ties. He became famous for his reporting on Emmett Till’s 1955 murder and trial, and it was Mr. Booker’s Jet that published the provocative photos of the 14-year-old’s mutilated body in an open casket.

Every black journalist working today should pause for a moment and thank Simeon Booker. Thank him as an exemplar of the brave black journalists who confronted danger and evaded it while unearthing essential stories in the segregated Deep South of the 1950s and ’60s. A bunch of us came to the National Cathedral just to be there for him, to salute what he meant and to hug each other. Jeff Ballou, Bryan Monroe, Mike Fletcher, Wes Lowery, Courtland Milloy, Paul Delaney, Sarah Glover, Betty Anne Williams, Fred Sweets, Bernie Shaw, Reggie Stuart. Just to name a few. We all owe him something.

Congressman John Lewis, who knows too much about danger, said of Mr. Booker at the memorial service: “He never shied away, ran away from a story.” Lewis saw him during the 1961 Freedom Rides. Saw him in Selma, Alabama. Saw him everywhere. “He did the hard, necessary work to get the story,” Lewis said, noting that without Simeon Booker “the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”

Back in Mr. Booker’s heyday, Lewis noted, black reporters could be beaten just for holding a camera and a pen. They sometimes wore disguises, dressed as sharecroppers to blend in. They were intrepid and fearless. Today, we have journalists enraged just because they were trolled on Twitter. Mr. Booker died at age 99, cheered for the magnificent life he led and the example he set. I don’t think he was worried about trolls.

What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

A letter of gratitude to Stuart Scott Scott was beacon of light for the athletes he covered and the North Star for aspiring black sports reporters

“See,” my Uncle John said in the summer of 1998. He pointed toward the television in his Washington, D.C., apartment. “That’s gonna be you one day.” A fluorescent light from his fish tank dimly lit the apartment. My uncle and I were up watching Stuart Scott on SportsCenter. Scott talked about sports the way we talked about sports. Scott wasn’t just relatable. He was us. My uncle said, “I’m gonna be watching you do that.”

I loved the way Uncle John approached life. The way he interacted with people and made them feel comfortable. He never came off lame, or corny. My parents had divorced when I was 2, and John treated me like a son. This was when I had no memory of my biological father and didn’t care to know who he was.


John and I loved sports. He was a Washington fan, and I was a diehard Cowboys fan. The last conversation we ever had was about just that. We both loved Michael Jordan, Shaq and Penny, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds. But SportsCenter was our drug of choice. We loved the infectiousness of Linda Cohn; same for Dan Patrick’s and Kenny Mayne’s dry humor. But our favorite combo was Rich Eisen and Stu Scott.

I played basketball as a kid, and my uncle and I decided early on that going pro wasn’t my calling. I was 9, and I purposely moved in the chair so the barber would take a plug out, forcing him to shave my head. Talk about taking “be like Mike” to the extreme — I also purposely got myself sick hoping to mimic Michael Jordan’s “flu game.” My mom was rightfully pissed. She yelled at me — and said I looked more like a light bulb than Jordan. “She’s right,” Uncle John said with a laugh. “Let’s be more like Stu than Mike. That’s our route.”

Me and my Uncle John (circa Sept. 1998).

Courtesy of Justin Tinsley

Uncle John died of colon cancer on Jan. 2, 1999. We were in what used to be known as MCV Campus Hospital at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. It’s unclear how the room was cleared of everyone except for him and me. John alternated between looking out the window and looking at me. It was as if he had prepared his entire life to deliver his own eulogy. I couldn’t talk, for fear of crying. That winter morning remains the single most important moment of my life. I felt childhood end, and adulthood arrive. John knew death waited around the corner: the cruel reality of dying at the age of 42. He seemed at peace. With life. With death. With everything. But he made me make a promise.

“I’m still going to watch you on SportsCenter one day,” he said. “Make sure you keep your promise.”


July 19, 2017, would have been Stuart Scott’s 52nd birthday. He should be here hosting SportsCenter. He should be here presenting teams with their championship trophies. He should be here making JAY-Z 4:44 references on SportsCenter, because that’s who Stuart Orlando Scott was. In the way that Marvin Gaye’s 1970 What’s Going On changed the direction of Motown, in the way Eddie Murphy altered the scope of comedy, in the way Gwen Ifill brought so much authenticity and excellence to her journalism, Stu was just that for ESPN, and for sports media, period. The way he spoke was the way so many athletes wanted and want to be spoken about: with unparalleled charisma and respect.

More importantly, he should still be here as a daily presence for his two daughters, Taelor and Sydni — although, even in death, he remains just that. He should be here congratulating Leah Still, who received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award a year after Stuart did. It’s been three years since most of us last saw Scott, who was transformed into an icon by his landmark and emotionally charged speech at the 2014 ESPYS, when he was honored for his inspiring fight against cancer.

It’s impossible to forget Stu. He brought swagger and rebelliousness to sports broadcasting — and he had more catchphrases than Ric Flair and The Rock. He came up in the same era as did cultural bibles VIBE and The Source, and in the vein of those magazines, Scott helped inject the culture, the cockiness and confidence we loved and cherished, into mainstream consciousness. It didn’t matter if America wasn’t ready for what he had to say and how he had to say it. His generation and the one following, mine, were ready to be heard. In our own voices. In our own skin. Stu did this on television, where the idea of diversity — not only in skin color, but also in train of thought — is ever more complex and necessary.

Scott died Jan. 4, 2015. The very next day I moved to Los Angeles to start my career with ESPN.

And it is absolutely impossible to forget Scott at the ESPN campuses, where his pictures remain on the walls — and even on the set of Jemele Hill and Michael Smith’s The Six, the 6 p.m. SportsCenter with deep roots in Scott’s meteoric rise and impact on the company. It’s impossible to forget about Scott at ESPN, because no one would dare.


Scott died Jan. 4, 2015. The very next day I moved to Los Angeles to start my career with ESPN. The night before I was to get on the first one-way flight of my life, my mother — the same one who told me I looked like a light bulb with a bald head — sat me down. “You may not realize it for years down the line,” she said at our kitchen table, “but this means something. You’ve looked up to this man your entire life. You’ve talked about ESPN your entire life. … It’s destiny.”

Working at The Undefeated, in the year since its launch, has been the most incredible experience of my life. My first television experience was when I went on SportsCenter to talk with Linda Cohn about O.J. Simpson. This type of stuff just doesn’t happen. These blessings are the gifts I fantasized about when watching Stu was as much a part of my routine as was brushing my teeth. I prayed for this while watching my ceiling fan twirl, while begging God for a chance to do something impactful with my life.

But if there are regrets? There’s the fact that The Undefeated never had the chance to work with Stu. There’s the fact that I never got a chance to buy him a beer, and tell him how his tweets to me after the Super Bowl in 2013 meant more than he could have ever realized. I never got the chance to chop it up with him about sports, music and his journey. Or tell him he was as important in the lives of myself and my Uncle John as Jackie Robinson was to generations before.

Or that when I had no memory of an actual biological father, nor any desire to acknowledge his existence, Scott helped to solidify my most critical bond with an older man. Had it not been for Stu being Stu that day in the summer of 1998 — and my uncle, growing more ill by the hour, pointing at his TV, predicting my life’s course and giving me a North Star — there’s no telling where I’d be right now. Not writing this, for damn sure.