George McElroy made history by believing in the power of journalism

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George McElroy at The Informer in 1993. Credit: Photo by John Makely, Houston Post @Houston Chronicle, used with permission

Among longtime journalists in Houston, there are two main memories of George McElroy. The first is the history he made as a Black journalist, professor, and extraordinary mentor to more than two generations of journalists. The second memory concerns his long participation in the Gridiron Show, the annual comedy and musical performance of the Press Club of Houston. More about that later. 

McElroy was born in Houston in 1922 and raised in the city’s Third Ward. In an oral history by Columbia University in 1971, McElroy said he was “hawking newspapers” by the age of 8 or 9. By age 16, he was a columnist. He tried to get information about his high school basketball team published in The Informer, a historic Black newspaper. The editor told him to write the stories himself and they would be published. Thus began a career in journalism that would span more than seven decades. The list of his accomplishments is long, and the Texas Newspaper Hall of Fame, of which he is a member, notes that he was a “quiet, unassuming and unpretentious” man but who was a “warrior” against racial discrimination.

Among notable facts of his career are these: 

  • Using the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sweatt v. Painter in 1950, McElroy sought admission to the University of Texas at Austin. The Sweatt decision involved admission to the University of Texas Law School and challenged the notorious “separate but equal” doctrine in education from Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The court ruled in favor of the Black student seeking admission, but it was not until four years later, 1954,  that Plessy was overturned in Brown v. Board of Education. Even with the Sweatt decision, McElroy was denied admission. The rejection letter stated, “Since the work you wish to take is offered at the institution that you are now attending, namely, the Texas State University for Negroes, we feel compelled at this time to refuse you admission to the University of Texas.” McElroy had applied because “our meager department can never meet the qualities of yours.” McElroy filed a lawsuit that didn’t get very far, and he graduated in 1956 from TSU. Texas State University for Negroes became Texas Southern University, or TSU, in 1951. In what might be thought of as some degree of Texas justice, more than 60 years after McElroy was denied admission to the University of Texas, one of his daughters, Kathleen McElroy, was named director of the School of Journalism at UT, where she continues today as a tenured professor.  (She continues at UT-Austin after an embarrassing episode on the part of Texas A&M University in which she was hired to lead a revival in the university’s journalism program, only to have officials at the university change the terms of the contract. A settlement from Texas A&M followed quickly.)
  • McElroy began writing sports for The Houston Post in 1954, becoming the first Black on the staff of the paper. A few years later, he became the first Black columnist at a major newspaper in Houston. At the time, the Post was the largest morning newspaper in Texas.
  • He was the first Black with a journalism degree to teach journalism in Houston public schools. He began at Wheatley High School in 1956 and moved to Jack Yates High School in 1957 where he taught until 1969. He was the first Black to earn a master’s degree from the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.
  • He served as chair of journalism at Texas Southern University, retiring in 1989. He also taught at the University of Houston.
  • He served in the Navy from 1940 until 1948, and then was an information specialist at Ellington Air Force Base near Houston from 1950 until 1952. On Dec. 7, 1941, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor. McElroy, a devout Catholic, went ashore early that Sunday morning to attend Mass. The practice at the time was that, after midnight, Catholics had to fast until Holy Communion was given during the Mass. It’s not clear if McElroy had gotten to church, but when the Japanese bombing began just before 8 a.m. local time, he returned to the harbor and was witness to and participant in history.
  • He was a major figure in the development and promotion of the Black press in Houston. He served as writer, editor, and publisher of The Informer, established in 1919 and among the first Black newspapers published west of the Mississippi River. After his retirement, he remained editor emeritus of the paper. 

McElroy’s contributions to journalism are a catalog of the growing importance of Black journalists and the Black press after World War II. He wrote regularly on issues affecting Blacks as well as local news, politics, and sports. He interviewed the top newsmakers of the day, including Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. He contributed regularly to The Defender in Chicago, one of the leading Black newspapers in the United States. The Defender was founded in 1905 and published some of the outstanding writers of the 20th Century, among them Langston Hughes. 

Cast lineup showing George McElroy playing Gov. George Wallace. Courtesy of Houston Press Club

Among his varied topics was researching the Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of primarily Black soldiers beginning in 1866 and assigned to the American frontier. According to the Buffalo Soldiers Museum website, McElroy’s father, Hugh McElroy, was born in Kentucky in 1884 and lied about his age to join the Tenth Regiment in 1898. Hugh McElroy loved being a soldier and became a highly decorated veteran. He served in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, accompanied Gen. John Pershing pursuing Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916, and later fought in France in World War I. 

In 1986, George McElroy published a journal article in Negro History Bulletin that detailed some of the heroics and the discrimination that were part of Buffalo Soldiers’ service in Texas in the 1870s. In 2005, at the last Christmas season he would celebrate, one of his daughters gave him a jacket and cap with Buffalo Soldiers’ insignia. He wore them with pride. 

McElroy was the first Black member of the Houston Press Club and the first Black to serve as president. And it is in the Press Club’s Gridiron show that one of most entertaining stories about McElroy is found. He had been a member for several years, and in 1968, the presidential election and the Vietnam War were natural topics for the show. Lyndon Johnson was running for president, and so was Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, a staunch segregationist who in 1963 stood in the doorway of an auditorium on the University of Alabama campus to block two Black students from entering. No one wanted to play Wallace. 

A star as Gov. George Wallace

McElroy recalled the scene in 2000 when he was honored with the Golden Pen Award by the Black Heritage Society. “I said, ‘Give me the script and I’ll read it,’” he said. “People say I’m crazy, but I proved it that night.” Word of the skit leaked, and apparently threats were made against McElroy. Security was provided, although his family says he was unaware of it until later. 

The Gridiron Show was a part of many city press clubs and typically raised money for journalism scholarships, as was the case in Houston. Politicians were spoofed in skits, and there was music and singing by members. The theme of the Houston Press Club show in April 1968 was the circus. Both The Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle carried stories. The Post reported that the event was in the ballroom of the famed Shamrock Hilton Hotel, for many years a leading venue for top entertainment acts and a gathering place for Hollywood celebrities. The paper reported that among the attendees were local Congressmen George H.W. Bush (elected president in 1988) and Bob Casey, Houston Mayor Louie Welch, and Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes.

The Chronicle reported that the skit, titled “The Greatest Magic Show on Earth,” was the highlight of the show and involved President Lyndon Johnson trying to secure unity in his Democratic Party. Johnson was played by longtime KTRK-TV news anchor Dave Ward. The Chronicle gave this account of the skit:

“George Wallace, a presidential candidate, entered to the tune of ‘Dixie.’ He was played by George McElroy, a Negro newsman who was in clown’s white face. 

“LBJ said to him: ‘I’m trying to get the party united. Let me ask you a few questions.’

“Wallace: ‘All right. I have the answers wrote down on these cards.’ (He drops the cards.)

“LBJ: ‘What do you believe about civil rights?’

“Wallace, consulting his cards: ‘Lemme see. We should go in theah and stop it immediately, using tactical nuclear weapons if necessary.’

“LBJ: ‘What about the war in Vietnam?’

“Wallace: ‘I intend to maintain law and order, and I will use the Alabama State Police and, if necessary, the Ku Klux Klan.’”

A part of the skit involved a Press Club member portraying Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. The skit was as politically incorrect as could be imagined by modern standards, and it could never be presented today without howls of protest and accusations of cultural appropriation. Nonetheless, it represented a different time when journalists, politicians, and the public had a different relationship. It was a time when journalists and politicians could meet for drinks and share confidences and laughter.

Program cover for Houston Press Club’s 1968 Gridiron Show. Courtesy of Houston Press Club

“George had a sense of humor,” said Sonceria (Sonny) Messiah Jiles, CEO and publisher of the Defender Network, a multi-platform Black news media source in Houston. “He would do crazy things. He was a happy person. He came across as straight-laced and serious. But the Gridiron was a place where the group gave him the liberty to take risks and push the envelope. And he pushed the envelope.”

The oral history in 1971 at Columbia was part of the university’s project on Black journalists. McElroy was asked about the increasing interest that metropolitan newspapers were showing in minority communities and whether it would make a difference in the role of Black newspapers.

“No,” he answered. “Because for every one story that’s done by the metropolitan press, I can show you twenty that haven’t been done. Although the metropolitan press is moving in the right direction, it still hasn’t scratched the surface. There are so many things going on in the Black community that the metropolitan editors know nothing of.”

Jiles said the Black press still fills the need of information to the Black community that the mainstream press does not. She affirmed McElroy’s comments, more than 50 years after the oral history was taken. “The Black press is doing many of the same things it did in the 1920s when it was recording and protesting lynchings, and the same thing as in the 1890s when it was fighting Jim Crow laws,” Jiles said. “Today we’re fighting a reversal of progress.”

In March of 1990, The Houston Post published a story on Black Press Week that quoted both McElroy and Jiles. Both commented on the role of the Black press in contrast with mainstream metropolitan newspapers. “If we depended upon the major news media, we’d think that Blacks are few in number, the majority are murderers, or on welfare. That’s not true,” Jiles said. Said McElroy: “We know they can’t run the names of all Black honor roll students, so we bridge that gap because we feel our people need that recognition.”

The Headliners Foundation of Texas each year offers the George McElroy Scholarship to an outstanding student in Texas studying journalism. The foundation notes that McElroy is honored as “an award-winning Texas journalist who broke barriers during his 58-year career as a Black man in a predominantly white industry.”

Fernando Dovalina began at the Houston Chronicle in 1968 when there were three reporters of color on the staff. Dovalina, now retired, rose to become the first Hispanic in editorial management. “George McElroy was a role model for up-and-coming journalists of color in Houston,” Dovalina said. “He struggled in a sad episode in media history when African American journalists couldn’t get a foot in the door. But he persevered and made an impact in the Black press and later at The Houston Post. He showed courage and tenacity. Journalists of color looked up to him, sought his advice and followed in his footsteps. I once sought his counsel, and his words were extremely helpful.”

Several journalists who were mentored by McElroy talked about how he was able to give confidence to young students and beginning reporters. James Campbell, now working in communication in health care, became a reporter and editorial writer for the Houston Chronicle. But he got his start working for the Black newspapers in Houston. “Mr. McElroy was the one who gave me confidence I could work for the Post or the Chronicle,” Campbell said. “I had started writing for the Forward Times, and I was doing stories on the Clarence Brandley case. Brandley was a Black janitor at Conroe High School, and he was accused of killing a volleyball player. I never thought the evidence against him made any sense. It was all circumstantial. He was convicted by an all-white jury, and there was a small-town attitude to the whole process that I wrote about. Mr. McElroy congratulated me on the stories I had written, and I never forgot it.”

George McElroy wearing jacket and cap with Buffalo Soldiers insignia. Photo courtesy of the McElroy family

Clarence Lee Brandley was convicted in 1981 of murdering the white athlete from a visiting high school sports team. Though he claimed innocence, Brandley was the only suspect. He was sentenced to death and spent years on death row. Appellate lawyers and activists took up his case. Among the discoveries was that exculpatory evidence had disappeared. Other details emerged as to how poorly the investigation had been conducted. Charges were dropped and Brandley was freed in 1990. He became a Baptist minister and died in 2018. 

“Mr. McElroy was good at identifying kids who had that passion to go forward and be good journalists,” Campbell said. “He taught lots of students who went on to be good reporters. He encouraged graduate school. He also didn’t mind taking on people in the Black community who weren’t doing the right thing. All the stories weren’t good stories. He exposed some of the issues in the community. And he didn’t mind taking the heat for it. He would say, ‘I’m telling the story because it’s news the community needs to be aware of.’ That’s the authenticity that he was known for. I don’t even want to think about all the barriers he faced in the time he was coming up in journalism. But he never talked about it that much. He never used that as an excuse to not be successful, and he didn’t want us to use it as an excuse, either.”   

In 1965, McElroy published a column in the Texas Catholic Herald about problems in the civil rights movement. In it, he complained about the “confusion and complacency of one of the groups involved–the Negro.” He had done his own survey. “In a 96-hour span, I interviewed 100 Negro citizens.” His point was that too many Blacks on the Gulf Coast were not involved in civil rights activities because of confusion about various leaders and organizations. Because of the confusion, McElroy wrote, Blacks remained ill-informed about specifics of the civil rights movement.  

During his time, McElroy no doubt witnessed and experienced horrendous discrimination. Lynchings were still occurring in the South during his early years. The Texas State Historical Association lists 1942 as the date of the last confirmed lynching in Texas. McElroy would have been 20. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1964, when McElroy was 42. 

McElroy believed we could be better

Serbino Sandifer-Walker, now assistant dean of communication at Texas Southern University, describes her first meeting with McElroy at TSU in vivid detail. “I was a shy 18-year-old coming into my first journalism class,” she said. “You had heard all these things about Mr. McElroy. How he was this great person and that he was the dean of Black journalism. But then you came into class, and he was like your grandpa, someone you’d known all your life. I felt so comfortable immediately, and I was able to gain confidence.

“He wanted all of us to do well. He would work us very hard. He saw the potential in you, and then he would help draw it out. When I finished, I was no longer shy. When I first met him, I was like a little rose when it’s closed, and then the bud gets big and beautiful. That’s how I felt when I graduated. His teaching was remarkable. But the most impressive thing about him was his unwavering humility. And he absolutely remained true to his journalistic roots.”

Sandifer-Walker said McElroy’s teaching had a heavy emphasis on storytelling, which has always been a key to her own teaching. Today her broadcast students are involved in an innovative program in which they report and produce content for KPRC-TV, the Houston NBC affiliate, during Black History Month.

Sandifer-Walker said that McElroy, despite facing difficult discrimination, especially early in his career, never dwelled on it. “He wanted us to stand up for ourselves, and he wanted us to be prepared,” she said. “But to me, Mr. Mac always tried to find something in humanity that was better than what was happening. He wanted to believe that we could be better and that we could teach others to be better. He believed that you could see my heart based on my actions and my words. He wanted students to be authentic.”

David Ellison, a former reporter for the Post and Chronicle now working in the office of Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, met McElroy in 1976. “He was a wealth of knowledge, especially for guys like me who represented the next generation,” Ellison said. “He was a great adviser, and I thought the world of him. He was first in just about everything in Houston.”

George McElroy and former President George H.W. Bush had a decades-long friendship that included frequent exchanges of messages and notes. When McElroy retired from TSU, Bush and his wife Barbara were invited but couldn’t attend. Bush sent a personal message that began with the typical exchange, “To George,” and ended with “By George.” 

McElroy was the father of five daughters. In addition to Kathleen, they are Toni McElroy, Linda McElroy, Madeline Johnson, and Sherridan Schwartz. Madeline had a career in communication, recently retiring after a 45-year career at the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Sherridan is a graduate program coordinator at UT-Austin. Sherridan also followed her father to graduate from TSU and worked there for 13 years, including time as a visiting professor. McElroy was by any measure a doting father who dearly loved his family. While at Ellington Air Force Base in the early 1950s, he met Lucinda Martin who was serving in the Air Force. They were married 45 years. She died in 1995.

McElroy had that prankish, somewhat gallows sense of humor that journalists develop from the time they first sit down to a typewriter or computer. But he had a deep and abiding sense that journalism was about making life better. And even more importantly, he believed in the possibility that journalism could accomplish just that. It’s a lesson many young journalists and students could use today.

McElroy died in 2006, just days after being given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Houston Association of Black Journalists. His obituary reported that he liked to say he was born “with ink in my blood.” At the funeral Mass, personal remarks about McElroy were given by Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and the Rev. Bill Lawson, founder of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and one of the most influential Black pastors in Houston history. McElroy is buried in Houston National Cemetery.

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Tony Pederson is senior national fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics and professor emeritus in journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.