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March 23, 2012

Simeon Booker

Roy Meachum

The Washington Post newsroom remained segregated by gender, even after Simeon Booker broke the color barriers; women remained cloistered in a space guarded by a fence.


Simeon came to 1515 L Street NW from working for African-American newspapers, where he earned a Harvard Nieman Fellowship. Four years earlier, when I arrived off the Berlin Airlift, all Washington media, even the "liberal" Washington Post, did not cover the “colored” community. Faces in published photographs were all white; except for criminals suspected of gross disorders. There were no announcements of engagements and weddings for ex-slaves, pre-Civil War free Blacks and their progeny; they did not see their names in The Post.


No less than Eugene Meyer, Phil Graham came to The Post with a very developed conscience; he recruited Simeon out of Harvard’s Nieman program. Determined to bring him aboard with a minimum fuss, the publisher waited until there was an opening on the staff, a few months before I became a copyboy. In January 1953, his was the only black face on the fifth floor.


Simeon Booker did not believe in griping, which must have been an attribute that contributed to his hiring. I didn't realize, at the time, he was restricted to a single water fountain and only one toilet. Knowing the miserable state of racial conditions, I believed another source that Simeon endured harassment and spiteful tricks. During the brief spell we worked together, he seemed remarkably silent, while his eyes darted all over the place. His face was tense. Always. His was a solitary black presence among the desks that lined up row on row; I seldom was asked by the editors to bring anything to Simeon, who spent many an hour isolated from the newsroom’s frantic energy putting the paper out; he was apart.


Yet Executive Editor Russ Wiggins, Managing Editor Al Friendly and City Editor Ben Gilbert were active integrationists; their strong feelings were, however, tempered by the reality of the world and especially the city. Eisenhower’s Washington was very Southern in morals and mores and so were the city’s advertisers. With hefty transfusions from “Butch” Meyer’s bank accounts, The Post barely held its own in the newspaper commercial community, dominated by The Evening Star.


In The Post’s defense, until the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education that “separate” was no substitute for equal, there was reason to believe segregation would continue to drag on as an American fact of life. The court’s 1954 finding was the hardest blow legal separation had yet taken. The Jim Crow system began to fall apart; it took years before the barriers fell out of sight – a few never.


Born in Florida when the color walls stood high, Phil Graham was a genuine hero in the racial wars. He provided muscle to organize the Federal City Club, a color-blind bastion against the segregated Washington business community. Where “good old boys” gathered at martini lunches to cut deals among themselves at the segregated Metropolitan and Cosmos clubs (no coloreds and any Jews allowed), the new organization held forth in the public bar and dining rooms at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, two blocks away from the White House.


Simeon S. Booker, Jr., didn't hang around 1515 L Street NW long; he went on to Jet, the African-American community's most influential magazine. Journalism schools still teach Simeon's account of Emmett Till's brutal treatment and lynching; his communiqués from the Civil Rights wars gathered awards, but not for 1515 L Street NW. Simeon’s comment on the experience: “They tried to integrate me at The Washington Post but it was just too tough.”


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