Editor’s Note: This article is taken from “Hoptown’s Own Ted Talk,” which opinion editor Jennifer P. Brown delivered Thursday at the Hopkinsville-Christian County Public Library. The New Era, the library and the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville and Christian County sponsored the talk to shed light on one of Hopkinsville’s most distinguished native sons.
Years after Ted Poston died in 1974, having achieved more professionally than anyone might have guessed when he was a skinny little kid growing up in Hopkinsville, I learned of him because I began covering stories about his biographer, Kathleen Hauke, a college professor in Atlanta.
So let me tell you about Ted Poston, and why I think his story is so interesting and important.
You’ll hear me go back and forth between calling him by his first name and his last name. He certainly deserves the respect of being called “Mr. Poston.” But if you read a great deal about Ted Poston, as I have, you sort of come to think of him as a friend — even if you never met him. Ted’s got a lot of Hoptown in him.
Years before he became one of the first black reporters on the staff of a mainstream American newspaper, Ted Poston and his childhood friends spent Saturdays in the balcony of the Rex Theater in downtown Hopkinsville. It was in the mid-1910s, and they were not allowed on the ground floor with white patrons.
Poston’s life story — most of which we know from Hauke’s research — is really about his triumph over segregation in Hopkinsville.
Ted’s parents — Ephraim Poston and Mollie Cox — were married Dec. 22, 1887. His father was from Clarksville. His mother was from South Christian. They met at Roger Williams University in Nashville, a teacher’s training school for black students. Today if you are in Nashville and drive on Broadway away from downtown and toward 21st Avenue, you’ll see an historical marker for Roger Williams University on the left just past Vanderbilt.
After they married and settled in Hopkinsville, the Postons lived on Hayes Street. The fact that Ted’s mother and father were college-educated made them rare among local families — black and white.
Ted was born July 4, 1906, the youngest of eight children. He used to joke the entire country celebrated his birthday each year.
At the post
The biography, “Ted Poston: Pioneer American Journalist,” chronicles his success with the New York Post from 1935 to 1972. In that span, he became known as the “Dean of Black Journalists,” covering the major civil rights stories of his generation and earning a job in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration during World War II.
Poston “provided an insider’s view on segregation and the civil rights movement,” Hauke wrote. “His incisive, usually upbeat, sometimes acerbic reports on everyday racism were eye-openers for the paper’s mostly white readership.”
He faced obstacles white reporters never experienced, especially in the South, according to the biography.
Covering the trial of two black teen-agers charged with raping a white woman in Alabama during the 1930s, Poston had to conceal his identity and his purpose.
“I sat up there in the Negro gallery in ragged overalls pretending to be a country boy … and I would make notes under the overcoat on my lap,” he said.
Later, Poston would hide his story on top of a partition separating the black and white restrooms in the courthouse, and a white reporter would secretly pick it up and wire it to New York with his own copy.
When the trial had concluded, Poston was nearly discovered by a group of white youths who confronted him at the train station, Hauke wrote. Poston produced phony credentials identifying himself as a black preacher, a ruse that probably saved his life, he said.
Poston covered other trials during the 1940s and ‘50s, always sitting in sections segregated for blacks. At one trial, when age was beginning to take its toll on his legs, Poston remembered the repeated treks up and down the balcony steps and then outside to a telephone booth where he called in his stories.
Poston’s career also took him to the major civil rights battles, from the bus boycott in Birmingham, Alabama, to the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Often, on his trips back and forth to New York, he stopped to visit with old friends in Hopkinsville. One of his favorite buddies was Allison Williams, a classmate from Attucks High School.
Later, when Kathleen Hauke began researching Ted’s life and moved to Hopkinsville for six months in 1984, Allison Williams became a huge advocate of her work. Williams, whom I believe died in the late 1980s, once told Hauke that he and Poston got along so well because “we both like to drink.” They often swapped stories of romantic escapades, he said. On his last visit to Hopkinsville in 1972, Poston and Williams went fishing at Lake Barkley. Poston had once said that he planned to spend his retirement catching all the catfish in Hopkinsville.
But Poston never moved back to his home, the place he called the “Dark Side of Hopkinsville,” a name that became the title for a series of Poston’s short stories about his childhood antics that Hauke edited.
Poston’s health began to fail, worsened by years of drinking and smoking, and he retired in 1972. He died in his New York home on Jan. 11, 1974.
Looking back on his career, Poston had said that he got his job at the New York Post “through a perfect fluke.”
Walter Lister, the city editor, agreed to pay Poston 30 cents an inch for news copy, if he could dig up an exclusive story for the front page. Poston produced the story when he saw a man being attacked as he tried to serve court papers in Harlem. Before long, Poston was writing so much copy at 30 cents an inch he was making more than the city editor, according to Poston.
Lister, who apparently had never intended to hire Poston full time, finally conceded, saying, “What the hell. I’m going to give you a job.”
Ted’s greatest contribution, according to Hauke, was breaking barriers for future black writers.
“It would have been hard for those standing on his shoulders to measure up to Ted Poston’s legacy,” Hauke wrote. “Who could claim prior experience, as a child, helping his family publish the Contender (in Hopkinsville); writing a column for the Pittsburgh Courier while a dining car waiter; editing the Amsterdam News; starting up the American Newspaper Guild; frolicking in Stalin’s Russia; working on the New Deal WPA, then in the White House? A modern black could not come out of journalism school and duplicate the breadth of training Ted Poston had brought to the Post in 1936. But for the new generation, he laid the groundwork.”
In the top 100
Ted did not win the Pulitzer Prize his editors at the New York Post thought he deserved for coverage of a rape trial that divided a Florida town along racial lines in 1949. But 50 years later, a university has judged Poston’s reporting as one of the top 100 works of American journalism in the 20th century.
When Poston asked for the assignment to cover the trial of three black men charged with raping a young white woman in Lake County, Florida, his editors feared it was too risky for him. A few months before the trial, angry white mobs had menaced black residents in the region, chasing them from their rural homes and into the orange groves of Lake County.
But not even Poston, who had covered civil rights stories across the South for many years, was prepared for what awaited him when he left the Lake County Courthouse after the defendants were found guilty and two of them were sentenced to death. On a 40-mile stretch from Tavares to Orlando, Poston and three companions were terrorized by whites in several cars who joined the chase at strategic points along the highway.
Relating his escape, Poston wrote, “How does it feel to be chased down a lonely moonlit Florida road — in a small car careening from side to side at a 90 (mph) clip — and with sudden death facing you from a possible collision ahead or a bloodthirsty mob behind?”
Poston’s description of his flight from Lake County, along with information he uncovered for stories that seemed to prove the black defendants were falsely accused and beaten by police, ran as part of a series called “Horror in the Sunny South.” Poston’s editors thought it was the best work in the newspaper that year and nominated him for a Pulitzer Prize.
“Horror in the Sunny South” is ranked No. 89 on the best-of-the-century list released in 1999 by a panel of experts for the New York University School of journalism. The list includes some obvious choices.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting of the Watergate break-in for the Washington Post made the list, along with Ernie Pyle’s reporting from trenches of World War II and Edward R. Murrow’s expose of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Poston’s selection might have been a surprise. Although he gained national recognition in newspaper circles during his career at the New York Post, Poston is largely unknown to the general public. But Hauke told me she felt vindicated that his work was finally being recognized.
“I was trying to save him from being lost to history,” she told me.
Several months after Ted’s work made the list of the best journalism in the 20th century, he was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame at UK.
In a telephone interview, his widow, Ersa Poston, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, told me, “Wherever he is, he is enjoying this recognition.”
Poston needs a marker
In his hometown, Poston had gone virtually unrecognized outside of the black community until Hauke edited the collection of his short stories for the “The Dark Side of Hopkinsville” almost 20 years after his death.
Henry Lee Moon, who was the public relations director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the editor of the NAACP journal, The Crisis, was Ted Poston’s friend and the executor of his estate.
When Hauke first began researching Poston’s life, she went to meet Moon and learned his had Ted’s short stories about growing up in Hopkinsville. She asked if she could try to get those published. Moon agreed, and from there Hauke took off.
After “The Dark Side of Hopkinsville,” Hauke wrote the Poston biography and then another book that explores the stories behind his journalism.
One of my favorite Ted stories comes from his 1954 interview with Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge. Ted was telling the governor about his education at the segregated Attucks High School in the 1920s. Talmadge, a staunch opponent of integration, referred to Poston’s experience and said, “… it doesn’t seem to have hurt you none. You seem like a pretty smart boy.” Poston, known for his biting humor, responded, “But governor … I’m inhibited.”
That exchange between Poston and Talmadge is one of the historical anecdotes contained in Hauke’s third Poston book, “A First Draft of History.
When Ted died and his widow brought him home, Louisville Courier-Journal journalist Bill Powell wrote this about the memorial service:
“The skinny kid who didn’t know he was licked from the beginning and went on to win, came home. ... The funeral was in Virginia Street Baptist Church, which Ted joined as a boy ... Ted had told (the Rev. A.R. Lasley) that no matter where he went ... he would never ‘move his letter,’ and he never did.
“It had turned warm, and some of the stained glass windows of the spacious church were open. From the street came the sound of car horns, of trucks roaring and gasping, and voices of people working across the street at a tobacco warehouse ... Occasionally, the sun broke through haze and lighted up the stained glass windows ... symbolic of Ted Poston’s personality — coming through just at the right time.”
Thirty years later, in the summer of 2004, Kathleen Hauke died in Washington, D.C., where she and her husband had retired. Richard Hauke gave me permission to tell a story about his wife that she had kept to herself since her first trip to Hopkinsville in 1984. It turns out that Poston’s grave in Cave Spring Cemetery was for many years marked only with a small chunk of stone or cinder block on which someone had written “Ted.” When Hauke discovered this, she commissioned a proper headstone. It bears his name, the years he was born and died and one word — “Journalist.”
Along with the New Era and the support of several local people, I’m applying this year for a state historical marker for Ted Poston in Hopkinsville. Anyone who is interested in joining the effort can contact me at the paper.
Jennifer P. Brown is the New Era’s opinion editor. Reach her at 270-887-3236 or email@example.com.