And That’s the Way It Was
Long before he narrated our nation’s milestone events as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite was a cub reporter in Houston. In these excerpts from his forthcoming memoir, A Reporter’s Life, the eighty-year-old recalls his early days in the newspaper business—and the dark days of segregation.
Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1916, and his family moved from Kansas City to Houston when he was ten. Here, he recalls his introduction to the racial and cultural mores of his new hometown in the twenties. • I regret that my memory has lost the last name of Louis, for he should be remembered. He was one of the delivery boys at the delivery boys at the Alabama Pharmacy. He was one of the blacks who made deliveries by motorcycle to the more distant addresses. A couple of us white boys rode bicycles to the closer customers.
Louis was probably the oldest of the motorcycle boys—I think he was in his early twenties. He wasn’t very attractive and was totally uneducated. He had a muscular body and a leonine head with rather gross features and a strange fringe of whiskers that ran up along his cheekbones from just under his nose to his ears, an upside-down beard. He claimed that the higher one shaved, the higher hair would grow until eventually it would cover one’s eyes. As a recent initiate to shaving, I was terrified by the prospect, until it seeped through that all the clean-shaven men in the world weren’t growing hair over their eyes. This was an argument, however, that Louis could not grasp.
Louis had a musical talent that would be left undeveloped. He played haunting melodies that he made up on an ocarina, which he called a sweet potato. As we sat on our bench outside the drugstore, I heard for the first time blacks talk of their problems in a white world, a world then of total segregation, light-years away from the civil rights legislation of the sixties.
Already, a few years before, during our first week in Houston, I had discovered racial discrimination. I am sure it existed in Kansas City as well, but there we saw few blacks and they seemed to move more freely in our white society. The discovery, then, came with brutal force.
Dad had been lured to Houston to teach at the dental college and share an office with a wealthy dentist, a leader of the community. I shall call him Dr. Smith because any relative who survives him today surely would be ashamed to be associated with this incident. We had been in Houston only a few days when we were invited to Dr. Smith’s for dinner. He lived in River Oaks, Houston’s first extensive, exclusive residential real estate development. After dinner we retired to the front porch for what to a ten-year-old was a welcome relief—ice cream was ordered from the drugstore for immediate consumption.
It was pleasant out there on Dr. Smith’s wide veranda, rocking gently in the wicker chairs, the air heavy with the aroma of fresh-cut grass and early spring flowers. The Spanish moss that draped the big oaks was still a wonder to a boy from the Middle West. Then the pop-pop of a motorcycle broke the calm of the deserted lane. The black delivery boy shined his flashlight along the curb and toward the sides of the house. Not finding an obvious path to the kitchen door and seeing us on the porch, he came up the walk from the street.
Dr. Smith stopped his monologue about the wonders of Houston for the first time that evening. He stopped rocking, too. With each step the delivery boy took up the walk, he leaned an inch farther forward in his chair. Now the tension was palpable. If this scene were being played in a film drama today, we would go to slow motion at this point. That is the way I remember it.
The delivery boy reaching the first step below the porch—holding out the brown sack and its carton of ice cream. Dr. Smith charging out of his chair. The boy taking one more step before Dr. Smith reaches him, a huge fist extended before him like a battering ram. The fist meets the boy’s face, square at the tip of his nose. The boy goes flying backward to the lawn. The bag tumbles to the steps. And Dr. Smith shouts, “That’ll teach you, nigger, to put your foot on a white man’s front porch!”
Never before or after did I see my father in such a seething rage. As the bloodied delivery boy scrambled to his feet and back to his motorcycle, Dad said, “Helen, Walter, we’re going now,” and he escorted us down the front steps, followed by Dr. Smith’s mystified entreaties.
Dad ignored Dr. Smith’s offer of a ride and would not pause to call a taxi. We walked. And we walked. River Oaks was at the edge of town and sparsely settled then. We were lost along its winding lanes at each turn of which we expected to see lights with the promise of a telephone. But we walked in the dark of this strange town until we came upon a busier street and a passing car that stopped for Dad’s hail.
I did not fully understand then the import of the offense or of Dad’s courageous response to it. Although fully dependent upon Dr. Smith to launch a new practice, he broke off the relationship and struck out on his own.
I couldn’t have had a more searing example of racial injustice than this, my first brush with it. There was another confrontation not many weeks later, when my mother was warned that I should not play with a black boy who lived in a neighbor’s servants’ quarters down the block.
“You might do that up north, but that isn’t the way we do things down here,” she was admonished.
Again my father’s indignation rose: “They turn over their infants to be wet-nursed by a colored woman and their children to be raised by them and then they won’t let the children play together. Some system!”
Mother drove our maid the three long blocks from our house to the streetcar line at day’s end and invited her to share the front seat with her. Calley objected but yielded to Mother’s insistence on what Mother considered this small social nicety.
As they drove up to the corner where other maids were waiting, several of them, with a look of considerable disapproval, flipped their hands over from palm down to palm up. Calley hurried out of the car, her embarrassment muffling her good-bye to Mother.
The next day, upon Mother’s demand, she explained that the hand flipping was the blacks’ way of emphasizing the difference between the races. The back sides of their hands were black, the front sides white. The message was, according to Calley, “You’d better know your place and keep your place.” Calley, they were saying, shouldn’t share the front seat with Mother. The blacks, by the attitudes they had been forced to adopt to survive, helped to perpetuate the very segregation in which they were trapped.
Those who treated the blacks with at least some dignity called them “colored.” That certainly was better than “nigger,” although some Southerners of the period used even that term, so often pejorative, with occasional affection.
I never ceased to be surprised when Southern whites, at their homes or clubs, told ethnic jokes and spoke so derogatorily of blacks while longtime servants, for whom they quite clearly had some affection, were well within earshot. It was as if the black servants were zombies entirely lacking in human feelings. It may be that after a lifetime of being treated that way, the blacks became impervious to the whites’ insensitivity—but I doubt it. The enlightenment of this last half of our century has sharpened white sensibilities, but I am shocked to still witness on occasion this callous behavior.
Whites who are anxious to help eliminate racial bias have had some difficulty keeping up with the nomenclature the blacks themselves prefer. We went from “colored” to “Negro” to “black” and are now advised that the proper designation is “African American.” Even the most sympathetic among us must feel on occasion that the activists who perpetrate these changes do so with a certain pleasure in their power to make whites conform.
The culture shock for us Middle Westerners newly arrived in the South was augmented my first day in the fifth-grade class at Woodrow Wilson elementary school. In Kansas City, aside from my propensity in the first weeks of first grade to slip away and go home, I had a spotless record for conning my teachers into believing that I was a perfect angel.
Thus, when I raised my hand and answered my first question in Houston—something as simple as two times two—I was more than startled to hear Mrs. Jung say, “That is not the answer. What is the answer?”
I was certain I was right. “Four,” I repeated.
“Come stand here in the front of the class until you think of the answer,” Mrs. Jung hissed. There I was, in the best go-to-school clothes my mother could prepare for me, facing snickering classmates I hadn’t even met yet, trying to will away the welling tears.
I dared not even look at Mrs. Jung, although her features in an hour had been fixed in my memory for a lifetime. Medium height, reddish-brown hair worn in a boyish bob, and teeth scarred by drastic periodontal surgery. At last—had I been standing there a week? a month? a lifetime?—the bell rang for recess. And Mrs. Jung said in a tone as unkindly as only she could muster, “Now, then, have you thought of the answer?” When I confessed that I had not, she enlightened me.
“The answer is, ‘Four, ma’am.’”
That night Dad’s indignation, still raw from the events at Dr. Smith’s, burned furiously again. “You may say ‘Yes, Mrs. Jung,’ and ‘No, Mrs. Jung,’ but you won’t say ‘ma’am.’ You go back and tell her that no son of mine will yield to this sectional ignorance.”
That was easy enough for him to say. It was more difficult for me, and I was sent home at recess. Dad complained directly to the school board, and the case was compromised in his favor—but it was fortunate I had only two more months to endure the wrath of Mrs. Jung, who, I can now judge in retrospect, probably thought she was doing her part to maintain a fading Southern gentility.
Or perhaps she just hated Yankees.
If America is a melting pot, so is each section of it, and we Northerners, flooding into Houston in the vanguard of its boom years, were accepted, gracefully by most of the natives, even as we preached some of our own values.
This was my background as, Mrs. Jung and Dr. Smith four years behind me, I sat with Louis and George and Tad outside the drugstore waiting for the next call. It went to Louis, and he rode off with a quart of ice cream for a distant address. It was the last I would see of him.
We didn’t learn that night why he failed to return from that trip. No one from the police morgue took the time to call the drugstore. Only the next day did the police tell the owner of the drugstore that Louis had been shot.
All of us, but particularly George, the other black delivery boy, knew exactly what had happened. George and Louis had talked about the problem and their fears many times. Louis, George was certain, had looked for an alleyway or another path to reach the customer’s back door. Finding none, he took the route he and George knew to be as dangerous as a Comanche trail. As he passed between the houses, the customer’s next-door neighbor killed him with a single shotgun blast.
The neighbor said Louis was a peeping Tom. The police and the newspaper accepted that—I don’t believe the incident was even mentioned in the papers—and the neighbor was never charged. No white was ever indicted for assaulting, or even killing, a black.
It is not impossible, and it is even likely, that if there was something to see in the neighbor’s house, Louis might not have averted his eyes. But that wasn’t why he was there. He was following Dr. Smith’s standards for the black man’s conduct. Trying to avoid a punch in the nose, he lost his life. His executioner was excused by the unconscionable code of racial injustice. I was learning early the ways of the South, although in this particular case they probably were different from those in the North only in their ingenuousness. My lessons on racial discrimination came early and had a lifelong impact, but at the time, of course, they were only incidental to the process of growing up in the South.
While attending the University of Texas, Cronkite got a job covering the Legislature for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain; he eventually dropped out of school to pursue journalism full time. In 1935, during the halcyon days when Houston was a three-newspaper town, the young reporter was recruited by Scripps Howard’s Houston Press, taking home $15 a week.
The year on the Press was a learning time. Perhaps my first lesson came at the end of my first week, when I put in an expense account for a dollar or two. Carefully itemized were several phone calls at a nickel each.
“What are these doing on here?” city editor Roy Roussel demanded as he waved the account under my nose. “Don’t you know how to make a phone call? Harold, show the kid how to make a phone call!”
So Harold took me downstairs to the lobby pay phone and showed me. He had two straight pins inserted into the underside of his coat lapel. He removed them and stuck one pin in one of the pair of twisted wires leading into the phone box and one into the other. Holding them together, he made the connection. The telephone company got wise to this a short time later, and always the spoilsports, put all the wires in impenetrable cables. It must have nearly broken Scripps Howard. I learned, too, the serious lessons of daily journalism. The need for accuracy, for instance. We competed in the afternoon with the Houston Chronicle, and we each published several editions a day. At press time each paper had a copy boy standing by the loading dock of the opposition to grab several copies literally hot, or at least warm, off the press. He then ran the eight blocks to his paper to breathlessly drop copies on the desks of the key editors.
Roy Roussel spread the Chronicle out on his desk and stood over it, flipping the pages, exclaiming when he thought we had bested them, frowning when the shoe was on the other foot—frowning until his heavy, graying brows almost covered his eyes.
Then, if there was hope of catching up in the next edition, he’d get the reporter on the phone or in front of his desk for a hurried conference. The cry from the city desk had a different tenor, though, when Roussel found what he thought might be an error. The call penetrated the clatter of the city room.
The barely-innocent-until-proved-guilty hastened to the dock.
“The Chronicle spells this guy’s name S-m-y-t-h. We’ve got it i-t-h. Which is it?”
Or: “The Chronicle says it was at 1412, we say 1414 Westheimer. Who’s right?”
He was a stickler for that kind of accuracy, but most editors were in those days. They understood a fundamental truth about newspapers and how the public perceived them. One mistake—“y” or “i,” “1412” or “1414”—standing alone didn’t make that much difference perhaps. But for each such mistake there was a given number of readers who recognized the error and whose trust in the paper was diminished thereby. And each of them probably told their friends, and the circle of doubt grew.
Regrettably, there isn’t that sort of accuracy today. There can’t be, and that may be a contributing factor to the distrust in which a portion of our population holds the press. There can’t be because competitive newspapering is dead. Only in a few and diminishing number of American cities are there newspapers going head-to-head, edition by edition. Elsewhere, no matter how devoted to accuracy the editors may be (and most of them are), they have no mechanism with which to monitor the accuracy of their reporters. The Roussels of today don’t have the luxury of spreading the competition out on their desks and checking item by item. Clearly the transitory broadcast competition is a useless resource for fine-tuning a printed report. The result is a generation of reporters who have escaped the discipline of accuracy and have left the rest of us with newspapers just a little less reliable, in this regard at least, than they used to be. There was a frightening day when Roussel called me to his desk and there was no Chronicle spread out in front of him. The matter concerned the previous day’s bank clearing, for which I was responsible.
We carried a little two-line item on the front page of each day’s final edition under a standard head “Bank Clearings.” The item simply said, “Today’s Houston bank clearings were”—for instance—“$3,726,359.27.”
“You had the bank clearings wrong yesterday,” the city editor said. The brows were hanging very low, the strong jaw was clenched.
“You said twenty-seven cents. It was seventeen—seventeen! What happened?”
A ten-cent mistake on a multimillion-dollar number? Surely he was kidding. His countenance warned me that I had that assumption wrong too. I returned to my desk in a blue funk of despondency—afraid that perhaps I was not going to make it in this profession I had chosen.
My mood was not alleviated by the older reporters’ comments:
“Kid, you’re in the soup now.”
“How you going to fix this one, kid?”
“Have you thought about getting out of town?”
The whole thing bore heavily on me as I dropped into the Press Lunch for the end-of-the-day beer. Paul Hochuli, clever writer and local columnist, greeted me.
“Where’s your bodyguard, kid?”
My frustration—and my innocence—burst forth.
“What’s this all about? A ten-cent error on a three-million-dollar number! What’s the big deal?”
Paul and the others around him looked at me in amazement—an amazement that quickly turned to pity.
“Kid, don’t you know why we print those bank clearings? Do you think anybody really cares about bank clearings? Kid, the numbers racket pays off on the last five numbers of that figure. They paid off yesterday on a bad number—and they don’t much like the idea that somebody might be tampering with their numbers.”
The next few weeks were a fear-filled time. I knew what it was like to be a marked man. If there had been a witness-protection program available, I would have applied. Every car that paused alongside my jalopy at a stoplight was filled with hoods casing me for the hit. Kid Cronkite was about to die at an even earlier age than Billy the Kid. . . .
The newspaper competition was hot, heavy, and healthy in Houston, and in our daily effort to beat each other, there were no holds barred. We resorted to all the dirty tricks ever devised in the game.
There was the day that screaming sirens brought Bill Collier, my Chronicle opposition, and me to the open window of the police press room. We watched as two ambulances approaching on different streets met at the corner in a horrendous collision. From the back of one, the gurney, with a patient aboard, flew out and went rolling at considerable speed halfway down the block before upending as it hit the curb. One of the ambulances smashed into a storefront. The other turned over. It was a dandy wreck.
As Collier and I grabbed the phones to our offices, he said, “Hey, don’t say you saw this thing. If you do, you’ll end up in court as a witness the rest of your life.”
The advice seemed well taken, and I took it. My story was strictly a routine third-person report. Collier’s first-person, eyewitness report was spread all over the Chronicle’s front page.
Newspaper competition led to a little practice called picture snatching. The idea was to get a picture of the victim by whatever wiles one could employ. Families were frequently reluctant to loan out photographs of loved ones at their time of bereavement, and perhaps having given a photograph to one paper, they had none to spare or they weren’t inclined to let their last picture out of the house.
In Houston this was a particular problem for us on the Press. The Chronicle was the old-line, conservative paper. We were more flamboyant newcomers and owned by a distant—and Northern—chain.
I was rather honored to get the picture-snatching assignment from time to time. I assumed that this was in recognition of my resourcefulness, but upon later reflection, I’m afraid that the attributes from which my city editor was profiting were youthful innocence, a certain touch of diplomatic blarney and a willingness to engage in larceny in the splendid cause of the people’s right to know.
I was remarkably successful, partly because I reached the home of the victim faster than the opposition man from the Chronicle. This was achieved through breakneck driving that would rival the kind seen in one of—any of—today’s television films.
My success was also achieved, usually, by convincing the grieving that a picture in the Press was just as prestigious as one in the Chronicle or the morning Post.
But sometimes other methods were called for, and it was an imaginative use of these that caused my downfall. A young lady had died in an automobile crash with a prominent married citizen whose wife she did not happen to be. Upon arrival at her modest cottage home in one of the city’s poorest sections, I found no one there. In keeping with the law-abiding nature of the times, the door was unlocked. Through the screen door I could see on the mantel a picture of a young woman. If I left it there, the man from the Chronicle would surely filch it. Defensive journalism was called for. So I filched it, and a delighted city desk made over the home edition to splash it on the front page.
There was just one little hitch. I had gone to the wrong address. The picture was of a next-door neighbor. Surprisingly, I was not arrested nor fired for the incident. I deserved both.