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Churchwell, Robert(1917–) - Journalist, Enters Fisk University, Chronology, Retires from the Nashville Banner

african american tennessee school

In 1950, Robert Churchwell became the first African American journalist on the Nashville Banner , a Southern daily newspaper. A 1949 graduate of Fisk University, he was hired by the paper’s publisher, James Geddes Stahlman. Regarding the job with the Banner , people told him that he would be like Jackie Robinson, the African American, who broke baseball’s color line three years earlier. Because the Banner was considered the organ of the Old South, the antithesis of everything that Churchwell believed, he was not excited about accepting the appointment. For the first five years of Churchwell’s employment as a Banner reporter, the paper’s editor and publisher, who adhered to the South’s code of racial separation, barred him from sitting in the newsroom. Churchwell wrote his news stories at home and carried them to the Banner ’s office every day. During the 1960s, he covered the civil rights movement in Nashville. Because he carried the torch for future African American journalists, Churchwell earned the soubriquet, “the Jackie Robinson of Journalism.”

Born on September 9, 1917 in the West Tennessee town of Clifton, Robert Churchwell was one of Jesse and Johnnie Churchwell’s six children (two girls and four boys). Before moving to Nashville, Tennessee, the family lived in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. After moving to Nashville, to support the family, the father, a strict disciplinarian, worked for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company and as an auto mechanic. Churchwell’s maternal grandparents lived in Nashville, where his maternal grandfather served as a Methodist minister. Adhering to the segregated arrangement of the city and the southern region, the Churchwells reared their children in an all-black neighborhood in southeast Nashville and sustained themselves in that world within a world. Churchwell attended Cameron Junior High School where he played football, and he attended a Baptist and Methodist church in the neighborhood. In 1935, because there was only one high school for African Americans in Nashville, Churchwell attended Pearl Senior High School, where he played center position on the school’s football team. He dropped out of high school for two years, but graduated from Pearl Senior High School in 1940.

A year after Churchwell finished high school, the United States found itself embroiled in World War II. He was drafted in 1942. Called up for a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, he underwent basic training camp in Ft. Belvoir in Virginia and then became a part of an engineering battalion. A non-combat soldier, Churchwell went to England, France, Holland, Germany, Belgium, and the Philippines.

Enters Fisk University

Four months after World War II ended (September 2, 1945), platoon staff sergeant Robert Churchwell was honorably discharged. The following month, with assistance from the G.I. Bill, he entered Fisk University, where he majored in English. During his first semester, the effects of having served in the war’s European and Asian theaters began to manifest themselves. Although he sought medical attention from physicians at Nashville’s Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, he was repeatedly told his problem was unconnected to his military experience. Holding steadfastly to their declaration, VA physicians never changed their medical opinion and never examined Churchwell.

Refusing to give in to his bout with depression, Churchwell stayed at Fisk and completed the requirements for his degree. Attending the university in the 1940s exposed him to many personalities of the Harlem Renaissance, including Arna Bontemps, Aaron Douglas, and Charles S. Johnson, editor of the Urban League’s Opportunity magazine and the first African American president of Fisk University (1946). It was during his college days that his desire to become a writer became clear. By attending summer school at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (or A&I, now Tennessee State University), Churchwell completed his studies at Fisk University in less than four years and earned his B.A. degree in English.


1917 Born in Clifton, Tennessee on September 9

1942 Drafted in the United States Army

1946 Honorably discharged from the United States Army

1949 Graduates from Fisk University with B.A. in English

1950 Accepts position at the Nashville Banner , becoming the first African American journalist to work for a white newspaper in the South

1951 Marries Mary Elizabeth Buckingham of Bell Buckle, Tennessee in June

1955 Given a desk in the Banner ’s newsroom

1974 Receives TEA’s School Bell Award for the Banner for outstanding contributions to the interpretation of issues facing public schools

1981 Retires from the Banner; receives an award from the Nashville Chapter of the NAACP for achievements in print journalism and for contributions to the community

1994 Made a charter member of the National Association of Black Journalists; inducted into the association’s region VI Hall of Fame

1996 Honored with wife as one of five Middle Tennessee families chosen for the Family of the Year

2002 Nashville Public Library honors Churchwell for his work as a reporter for the Nashville Banner ; Churchwell’s lifetime collection of newspapers and personal papers added to Emory University’s Special Collection Department

2003 National Visionary Leadership Project honors Churchwell for his pioneering efforts in journalism

Unemployed and without funds from the G.I. Bill, Churchwell started a news magazine called Yours , with friends Fred Booth and James Nall. He gained some experience as a writer by contributing columns without compensation for the Commentator , a local tabloid-size paper published for the African American community. Although the three men were supposed to be in the business together, Churchwell served as the writer, editor, and advertising manager. However, because of the lack of sales, Yours lasted for only about eight weeks and after that forced its owners into bankruptcy. Again, without a means of financial support, Churchwell sat at home temporarily unemployed.

Retires from the Nashville Banner

Churchwell retired from the Nashville Banner on September 10, 1981. For more than three decades of service, he received a wristwatch, $2,000 and a cake. After retirement, Churchwell worked for Tennessee State University in its Bureau of Public Relations. Because of his experience in the media and his familiarity with TSU’s program, Churchwell was appointed as its interim director in 1982.

Irby Simpkins, the new Banner publisher, offered Churchwell a consultant position in 1987, but Churchwell was not interested. Eight years later, when the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) held its convention in Nashville, Banner officials asked Churchwell to write a history of black journalism. The following year, in 1996, he began writing a monthly op-ed column. The paper had changed, but it only continued to operate another two years.

In 1965, Churchwell became the first African American member of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi (now known as the Society of Professional Journalists), a society in which he served as chapter vice president in 1969. A founding member of the NABJ and the Nashville Press Club, Churchwell was inducted into the NABJ’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

Robert Churchwell paved the way for other young African American reporters to enter newsrooms of Southern newspapers. The recipient of numerous awards and honors for his outstanding service as a reporter, Churchwell knew the tribulation of being the first African American journalist in Nashville struggling to report and reporting the struggles within the confines of the Jim Crow South.

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almost 3 years ago

this guy is gay