Featured photo: A mural on the side of the Winston-Salem Chronicle building that displays a history of the black press in the United States. This was done by Marianne DiNapoli-Mylet as well as seven students in 1998.
This story was originally published by UNC Media Hub. Story by Elizabeth Egan. Art by Emily Pack.
As a senior journalism major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1974, there was one assignment Ernest Pitt could not complete.
As part of the investigative reporting class, he was to write an article and get it published.
For the story Pitt uncovered that Black law students from North Carolina Central University were failing the bar exam at “extraordinarily high rates,” compared with students at predominantly white institutions such as Duke and UNC. Pitt said the evidence suggested a cultural bias in the tests.
He received an A.
But after he contacted the newspapers in the area – including one Black paper – not one would publish the story. Soon after, one of the papers that had turned down his story published a series of articles about the same issue on a national scale.
“I was really pissed,” he said in a recent interview. “So, I said I’m going to start a paper myself and do what I think they ought to be doing. And that’s what I did.”
Thus began the Winston-Salem Chronicle. It has been printing for almost 50 years, won countless awards, became the first Black-owned newspaper to be a part of the N.C. Press Association, and last year landed Pitt a spot in the N.C. Journalism and Media Hall of Fame.
More than its statistics, Pitt built an institution that centered the Black community in the city when “everything was segregated.”
“We became the best African-American paper in the country,” he said.
‘A one-man band‘
Pitt started the Winston-Salem Chronicle in 1974, only months after he graduated from UNC. He had no money and no staff, only his own journalism skills and a pile of determination. He knew the Black community needed to be served by a newspaper.
With the support of a UNC professor, advice from college friends who served as accountants and lawyers, and the support of his wife at the time, he produced the first paper. And he did not stop.
Even with people by his side, Pitt was the whole newsroom. He was the publisher and editor. He wrote story and sold the advertising. He designed the paper and took it to the printer.
“I was everything,” he said. “I was a one-man band for a long time.”
Pitt uses only one word describes to describe how he was able to propel the Chronicle to its later success: “sacrifice.”
The paper was Pitt’s life. He ate what he could, when he could, and slept when he could, which wasn’t often.
“It had been so many days and I was so sleepy and at about three o’clock in the morning when I was coming home after having pasted the paper together, I was driving so slow that pigeons were literally walking across the street in front of me,” he said. “That’s how slow I was because I was so tired.”
Allen Johnson, who served as the executive editor of the Chronicle under Pitt for a little over 6 years,said he deeply respected how Pitt started the Chronicle fresh out of college, not from the city with no money.
“People laughed at him,” Johnson, now editorial page editor of the News & Record and the Winston-Salem Journal, said. “Some people didn’t take him very seriously”
No one thought Pitt would make it, or that the Chronicle would become the staple in the community that it is. Pitt didn’t always think that he would make it, either.
Johnson said Pitt told him a story of the early days when he was fighting to make ends meet and asked the printer to give him a break on the bills. The printer said that he could not finance Pitt’s dream.
Dejected, Pitt wanted to quit. He walked out of the printing office and to a movie theater. But, by the time he left the movies, he decided he would keep going.
“It takes a lot of hard work and courage to do something like that to branch out on your own, especially when nobody believes in you,” Johnson said. “He would tell me the way it was, and what some members of the City Council were saying, saying about the paper and how again, they thought it was not a serious enterprise, and how they proved him all wrong.”
To Jeri Young, who served as the managing editor of the Chronicle under Pitt from 1998 to 2000, he was the most natural journalist she had ever met.
“If there ever was a person who was supposed to run a newspaper it was Ernie,” she said.
Busting down doors
By the time Young entered the paper, it was no longer the one-man band of the beginning. But the mission to provide journalism for the Black community was the same.
Pitt stressed the importance of journalists having relationships with the people they covered.
Johnson said the paper did not believe in sacred cows — anything the journalists felt should be reported on was, which sometimes garnered criticism, both from people outside the Black community and those in it.
“If we felt that some wrong needed to be righted, or some questions needed to be asked, we asked them,” he said.
One such instance in a series of articles the paper wrote about Black churches in Winston-Salem. Johnson said the paper felt the churches, many of which had large congregations, should have been doing more in and for the community. Johnson said many pastors of these churches spoke out against the paper.
However, he said the series also proved to the community that the paper was not biased and would cover the Black community and the city as a whole with integrity.
“The process of doing that is where we earned a lot of respect from the community because they could see that we were not beholden to anyone, that if a story needed covering, we were going to cover it — we weren’t going to favor anybody, whether they were Black or white or whatever, if there was wrongdoing, or if there were questions or issues that needed to be addressed, we were going to do that,” Johnson said.
The Chronicle’s commitment to digging deeper was apparent in the case of Darryl Hunt.
Hunt was a 19-year-old Black man from Winston-Salem who was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for the murder of a white woman who was a copy editor at the Twin City Sentinel, the afternoon paper at the time. Johnson said Hunt was convicted on “flimsy evidence” and that the descriptions from eyewitnesses did not match up with Hunt’s appearance.
He said the Chronicle had some questions about the trial that the Sentinel and Winston-Salem Journal had missed early on, likely due to their proximity to the case
Johnson was offered the first opportunity to interview Hunt, where they spoke for almost three hours in the Forsyth County Jail. His suspicions of the trial turned out to be founded — Hunt was exonerated 19 years later after some investigative reporting by the Journal. When Hunt finally returned home, presented Johnson with a medal for the work the Chronicle did to uncover the truth of the story.
“That’s a very proud moment for us,” Johnson said. “I’d like to think we played a part in him finally being exonerated.”
Many of the institutions in the city did not always appreciate the Chronicle’s work, especially related to the Darryl Hunt case. Johnson said there was a period of time when the district attorney, who also was the prosecuting attorney for that case, refused to speak with the Chronicle.
Pitt’s mission of service to the Black people of Winston-Salem and to the success of the city as a whole was not bound by the confines of the paper.
He served on the board of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, became chair of the Winston-Salem Housing Authority and led workshops on anti-racism, open to all.
The most concrete example of this work was the Piedmont Club, which he and a group of peers started due to the exclusion of Black people from the already existing clubs.
“It was cold discrimination,” he said. “It was right in the middle of segregation, everything was segregated. And so me and some friends, we just decided that we were going to bust down every door.”
‘We were going to achieve’
The Winston-Salem Chronicle is one of many Black newspapers in the United States that emerged in a time when accurate, respectful news coverage of Black communities was sparse — if it existed at all.
Trevy McDonald, a UNC professor who teaches a course about the history of the Black press in the United States, said Black newspapers were originally largely focused on advocating for the abolition of slavery, and later shifted to coverage of Black people and their stories in a time when mainstream newspapers excluded them.
She said the Black press played a large role in covering the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s from the perspective of African-Americans, which is the backdrop onto which the Winston-Salem Chronicle painted itself.
“It was really an interesting time, because it was also around this time in the late 1960s where the newsrooms began to be more integrated, but still a Black Press, you know, served a role because they covered stories and documented history that other publications did not,” she said.
Michael Hewlett, a reporter for The Assembly who previously worked at the Winston-Salem Journal for 21 years, said the history of the Chronicle is similar to that of other Black-owned newspapers.
“The white-owned newspapers did a pretty awful job of covering the Black community community…and so Black people started their own newspapers to counter that coverage,” he said. “The Chronicle was no different.”
He said the Chronicle emerged at a time where the Black community lacked accurate and respectful coverage from the majority white daily newspapers in the area. Today, the population of Winston-Salem is 35.5 % Black, according to data from the U.S. Census.
Hewlett said the Chronicle’s goal of serving its community is felt by those who read it, growing it a dedicated and trusting following.
“People seek the Chronicle out for specific kinds of stories, the community-oriented stories in the Black community,” he said.
Pitt sold the Chronicle in 2017 to The Chronicle Media Group, LLC, which is led by Winston-Salem City Council members James Taylor Jr. and Derwin Montgomery. Today, the paper has nine staff members and continues Pitt’s mission of providing journalism for the Black community.
For Pitt, his years of struggles, lack of sleep and life in a one-room apartment paid off— he was an integral part in busting down the doors for Black people in the city, not with physical actions but with words, paper and ink.
“We were going to achieve,” he said. “We said we are going to achieve, we’re going to make them see and recognize that we are just as good as they are, and in many instances better.”
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