A Letter from The President
Greetings and Happy New Year AABJ family,
I hope you have all had a wonderful and safe holiday season.
This past year was very unpredictable and crazy for all of us. Some of us by now, know someone one adversely affected by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 370,000 people in the United states.
Some of us have also been deeply affected by the pandemic in ways we haven’t expected. We’ve lost loved ones whom we mourn with you. We’ve had to be journalists from home while managing families. We’ve had to find ways to connect with loved ones we were used to seeing every day or at least once a week.
Because of COVID-19, the then-newly elected AABJ board moved many of our events to an online virtual format. But, that didn’t stop the momentum of the new board.
Behind the scenes, we worked tirelessly to ensure members still felt like you had a local NABJ chapter to call home. Whether it was our first virtual event with WSB anchor Jovita Moore or our partnerships with Pope Productions and The Black Man Lab AABJ made sure members had interactive events that helped them grow as journalists and media professionals.
On a national level, the organization participated in NABJ’s first virtual national and joint regional convention, both of which had high attendance.
As we head into 2021 and with the continued uptick in COVID-19 cases, our events for the foreseeable future will continue to be virtual. Our members’ safety is one of our top priorities, and hosting an in-person event compromises that.
Despite the challenges the past year has brought us personally, professional and mentally, AABJ is here to continue working for you. We are working to provide continued virtual programming and essential professional training that will enhance your skills in the new year.
We will continue to keep you informed on the organization’s activities this year through our AABJ Facebook group, exclusively for members, as well as AABJ’s Instagram and Twitter pages. We thank you for your continued support this past year and look forward to working with you all in 2021.
Journalism Veteran and AJC Columnist Gracie Staples Shares Her Story
By Jamila Wood
Few have had the storied career that Gracie Staples has had. The warmingly inviting journalist has covered a myriad of topics, including education, politics, and lifestyles, all while making it a point to highlight issues affecting Black people and fairly represent them in her reporting.
Staples has an expansive resume that includes 23 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a legacy institution from which she is soon retiring.
A first-generation college graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi, Staples’ teachers encouraged her writing and storytelling talent.
“Well when I started college, I had no idea what I might do because I was the first one in my family to attend college,” Staples said. “I had a high school English teacher who told me that I had writing talent. I went to junior college first because I needed to work and stay at home. I met a teacher at Southwest Mississippi junior college, and she was the one who suggested that I take some journalism courses. The rest is history.”
Staples has written for many publications before making AJC her home including The Chicago Tribune, The Seattle Times, The (Toronto) Star, Baltimore Sun, and Kansas City Star. As difficult as it may be for someone with a versatile amount of bylines, Gracie described her career in a few words: exciting, rewarding, fulfilling, and fruitful.
“I think the exciting thing about it [her career] was every day I got to wake up and do the thing that I loved most and get paid for it,” she said. “It was rewarding because I felt like it was my way of making a difference in my little part of the world. I didn’t think it would be that when I started. I thought that it would just be me telling people stories and recording history. But, it turned out to be far more than that. I could see how it could make a difference in people’s lives if I used my talent the right way.”
Gracie recalled many stories she’s written that have made an impact on many lives, including one of her first big stories at the AJC about a young woman living in a hotel with her mom whose dream was to go to West Point.
“People have read my words and not only open their hearts but open their pocketbook,” she said. “When I got [to the AJC], a young woman was living in a hotel with her mother. Her dream was to go to West Point. I went over and I talked to them.
“She needed I think less than one hundred dollars to get there,” Staples said. “I wrote this story about her journey and why she wanted to go to West Point. It was published the next day.”
Staples said her work email was flooded with people who wanted to help her.
“We had to set up a bank account where she could get the money,” she said. “I think she ended up getting more than twenty thousand dollars. On top of that, I think it was [then Atlanta] Mayor Shirley Franklin at the time that reached out to her mom and actually helped her find a home.”
It’s not unusual for Staples’ stories to have a positive or emotional effect on people in the metro Atlanta community. She credits the impact of her approach to writing heartwarming and impactful stories.
“I really go with what’s in my gut. When I am talking to people, I’m just not listening to them and hearing words. I really try as best as I can to experience what they are saying to me,” she said. “When I’m done if it’s something that really strikes me I know that that’s what I call my line. That’s what I’m going to build my story around. That’s the engine. I think the thing that I remember most is the thing that’s going to move people because that’s what moved me.”
Staples tries her best to go against stereotypes among Black people and other minorities in regards to her stories. Staples said a lack of perception in regards to Black people can invalidate a story.
“When I was at the Fortworth Star-Telegram there was a dog on the side of the freeway and people were trying to take care of it,” she said. “They were writing stories about this dog every day. The stories were going on the cover of the metro section. At the same time, there were Asian grocery store owners in Black communities shooting and killing Black customers.
“I was writing the story about why that was happening and the fact that there weren’t many major grocery stores in Black communities. So, they [African Americans] were forced to go patronize these businesses. The stories that I was writing were being buried in the metro section. I was so frustrated and angry. I did not know what to do. Did I say anything? Yes, I did. Did it make a difference? No, it didn’t,” she said.
Aside from her writing style, Staples’ personal childhood stories have connected with readers, gaining her column more attention and in some cases asking her to speak about her life at their churches. One story Staples recalled was how she found comfort in a toy monkey her sister bought her for Christmas one year after her mother passed. Staples was a teenager at the time.
“I was like a lot of kids when you lose a parent. I had my dad but he was not that responsible. I was just so afraid that I would never get another Christmas present as long as I lived,” Staples said. Staples’ sister, who was about six years older than her, assumed the maternal role and raised her siblings along with their paternal grandmother.
“The first Christmas after my mother passed, my sister gave me a [toy] monkey. Way back when these stores used to give you stamps when you bought groceries. You could redeem the stamps for merchandise. My sister took these stamps and she got me this monkey,” Staples said.
“This monkey became my Jehovah Girah. It was sort of like God would provide for me for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t have to worry about anything because He was in my life and He was going to make sure I had everything I needed,” she said. “That’s what He’s done. It was a reminder to me that God would provide. And when I tell you He has done that for me.”
With Staples’ tenure coming to a close, she’s most looking forward to not doing anything for the first two to three months. Among her lists of things to do includes reading and long walks with her husband. Travel plans made will have to be delayed due to the pandemic.
“It’s a little bit of a damper that we are in the middle of a pandemic because I really wanted to take off as soon as I retired and go on a long trip. My husband and I had planned a trip to Rome, Italy, Spain and we were going to go to Paris again,” she said. “But, it looks like that is going to be closer to summer or even the fall next year because of COVID.
“I think I want to take swimming lessons because I was always afraid. When I was a little girl my oldest brother drowned saving one of our cousins. So I have always been afraid of trying to swim. I think I’ve gotten over that finally after like fifty years,” Staples said.
Staples is also considering writing a book at the urging of her family. “I don’t know if I’m going to do that but I might. When I started to talk about my monkey, I almost started to cry again. I think there is something there that I need to say and get it out, ” she said.
Staples ended the interview with some insightful words that have been a part of her career:
“Whatever you do in the newsroom with your life, just be true to yourself. That’s really important. I will say don’t lose the best parts of yourself. There are things that will make you lose sight of what’s important,” she said.
“When I first got into this business, it wasn’t my goal to try to save the world or make any changes because I didn’t believe that I could. But once I figured out that I could really do some good, I didn’t let anything get in the way of that,” Staples said. “Even if a story I told didn’t make a difference in the world as a whole, I was always proud to be able to give someone else a voice. Giving a voice to the voiceless is just as important as doing your part to change your little part of the world.”
Jamila Wood is a student at Clark Atlanta University.
Ida B. Wells’ descendant Tiana Ferrell talks her career, ancestor’s legacy
By Kassidy Jack
Pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells is most known for covering lynchings and as a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.
Wells’ legacy lives on through the many Black journalists she’s inspired, including her great-great-granddaughter Tiana Ferrell.
Ferrell, a writer and playwright, was inspired by Wells to pursue her own voice through writing and journalism. Inspired by her ancestor, Ferrell wrote The Ladies Car which depicts Wells as a young teacher fighting for equality in the segregated South.
AABJ’s television program In Contact interviewed Ferrell for a recent episode. Here is a portion of that interview where Ferrell talks about her career and Wells’ legacy:
Q: You’re a descendant of Ida B. Wells Barnett. Can you talk to us about what impact she has had on you?
Tiana Ferrell: I was always very shy and timid growing up, even till this day. My family kept telling me about this heroin that I was related to. After reading her biography, I just felt this freedom fighter awaken in me. And that shy, little timid girl went away, and I was like, wow, I am destined for greatness.
Q: I know over the last few years you have written several articles for different publications. Please talk about your experiences as a writer?
Tiana Ferrell: Well, I have always been told that I was a phenomenal writer by all of my teachers from high school and college. I actually attended Rust College, formerly called Shaw University, where Ida received her early childhood education. I remember my freshman year at Rust College, my English professor said, “I don’t give 100s because there’s no such thing as a perfect paper.” Well, I got a 100 on one of my writings and she helped me realize that writing was my gift. I was getting offers to write for different publications. I became a journalist, just like Ida. If someone had something to say, I was able to easily express it on paper.
Q: I understand Ida B. Wells was expelled from Rust College. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?
Tiana Ferrell: Oh, yeah. You know, when Ida B. Wells thought that something wasn’t right, she would tell you about it. No questions asked. She didn’t care what the consequences or repercussions were, she was going to let you know. And that was sort of the story of her life where she just got expelled and kicked out of different institutions that she was always working with. And I remember in college, somebody said to me, “Oh, you’re related to Ida B. Wells, she was such a troublemaker.” I said, “If you consider Ida B. Wells a troublemaker, then I too want to make trouble.”
Q: The Ladies Car was the first play that you wrote. Can you share what led you to write the play?
Tiana Ferrell: Absolutely. I was speaking to my best friend, Kim and I told her I wanted to write a play, but I didn’t know what it was going to be about. And then I hear, Ida B. Wells say, “Me.” I just kept thinking about it and decided to base the play on the story of the lady’s car. I started rereading Ida’s diary, and her autobiography, and I kept interviewing my grandmother and just trying to channel Ida. I wanted it to be entertaining and educating, but I also wanted to make Ida human. It was very special for me, debuting The Ladies Car in Ida’s hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi. The natives came to me after the show and said, “Tiana, I did not know about the lady’s car.” It just validated my reason for bringing it to the stage.
Q: With the civil unrest in this country and the deaths of Black people at the hands of officers can you share your thoughts about the protests?
Tiana Ferrell: I think that the protests were at a point where no one was hearing our cry. We were asking for a seat at the table, asking for a conversation and nobody was picking up. So, the protest was a demand. No one was talking about the cause until somebody threw a brick through the window. And this isn’t anything new. We saw this with Rodney King. But this time, it happened at this point in our nation’s history where the administration that we have was pouring fuel and gasoline to the fire of the race relations that we have in this country, in addition to the pandemic that was going on.
Ferrell can be reached on Instagram and Twitter at Tiana Ferrell. She is also available on Facebook. You can keep up with Ferrell and her work at tianaferrell.com.
Kassidy Jack is a writer for The Byline and a student at Clark Atlanta University.
This issue of The Byline was edited by Raisa Habersham and Tiana Faulkner.