Few men combined journalistic integrity and business acumen as well as Wilbert “Bill” A. Tatum. Tatum was a man of uncompromising principles and was as firm in his conviction as he was unstinting in his love for Harlem. Harlem and the world will miss Tatum, who died last Feb. 25 in a hospital while vacationing in Croatia. He was 76 and lived in Manhattan.
According to his daughter, Elinor, Tatum succumbed to multiple organ failure.
In one of his last editorials as publisher emeritus and chairman of the board of the New York Amsterdam News, which he owned outright since 1984, Tatum almost presciently wrote about vengeance and his transition: “It’s been a good ride. I’ve enjoyed it here, drunk or sober, rich or poor, lame or healthy. It’s been a nice place to be. So when my buddies, my colleagues, start to think about the vengeance we have not had, let us look at the love we have had, no matter what our circumstances.
“I want to go to heaven when I die,” Tatum continued. “Wherever that place is, whatever it is, no matter who is in charge—Christians, Muslims, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists…you know the other names. Call it what you will or what you may. I want to go to heaven when I die.”
Whatever his final destination, if there is a communication system available, a newspaper in search of a writer, an editor, a publisher, Tatum will find it and burnish it with the same no-holds-barred zeal that personified his tenure at the New York Amsterdam News. He was a fearless opponent of injustice and those who would dare trample on his civil and human rights. The Amsterdam News was both his forum and his weapon, and he wielded it with a passionate resolve for the oppressed.
“Under Mr. Tatum’s leadership,” said Governor David Paterson, “the News became more than just a forum for chronicling African-American issues. It became a haven for African-American writers and thinkers, many of whom would have found themselves silenced without the opportunities presented to them by the Amsterdam News.”
The governor said that everything he has learned about the media, “I learned from Bill Tatum.”
The ink in Tatum’s blood was genetic. Born in Durham, North Carolina, on January 23, 1933, Tatum was one of 13 children. His father published three small newspapers in North Carolina that provided information to black farmers. A career in journalism was never an option; it was unavoidable, and by the time he had finished a distinguished stint in the military and earned degrees from Lincoln University and Yale University and a master’s degree in urban studies from Occidental College in Los Angeles, editing his own newspaper was a foregone conclusion.
By the late ’50s, he was the executive director of the Cooper Square Community Development Committee whose objective was to impede Robert Moses’ Slum Clearance Committee and its plan of so-called urban renewal.
Tatum’s defiance not only brought him into the public spotlight, his determination altered the views of Congressman John Lindsay, who had once supported Moses’ plan, forcing him to reconsider his position and to create an alternate plan that led Cooper Square to become a model urban renewal area.
In 1971, Tatum’s dream of owning a newspaper became a reality when he and several partners, including Percy Sutton and H. Carl McCall, purchased the Amsterdam News, one of the nation’s largest and oldest continuously black newspapers for $2.3 million.
“Bill Tatum is one of the smartest men I’ve ever met,” Sutton told a reporter several years ago when asked about Tatum as a businessman. “I never would have gone into business with him if I didn’t respect and admire him.”
With Tatum in charge, the paper’s content also underwent a more progressive outlook, and it would be this hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners style that would characterize the paper as he assumed total control in 1984.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Tatum’s ingenuity and vision, especially his ability to make the paper a major business and tribune. The paper “really was heard across the city—and, on many occasions, around the world,” the mayor said in a statement to the press. “He covered issues of concern to African-Americans in ways that other media outlets did not, and he gave many young writers opportunities they might not otherwise have had.”
Tatum stirred controversy when he began running front-page editorials attacking Mayor Ed Koch and accusing him of being a corrupt and ineffective leader who did not take seriously the concerns of the city’s minority residents. From 1986 to 1989, the front page of the Amsterdam News demanded: “Koch Must Resign.”
In the mid-’90s, Tatum was slowed by a number of health problems, none more disabling than being confined to a wheelchair following an injury to his spine. Though he may have been limited in his physical movement, nothing could stay his fertile mind and imagination, and he continued to compose editorials that were essential to understanding the issues of the day.
No longer able to function at full capacity, he relinquished the reins to his daughter in 1997, content to operate as publisher emeritus and chairman of the board.
Upon hearing of his death, the Rev. Al Sharpton, delivered the eulogy at the funeral services, said he first met Tatum “when I was a teenager involved in civil rights work in New York and have known him over 30 years. His courage, his tenacity, his sagacity and his advocacy is unparalleled in African-American journalism. We have lost a great advocate, a penetrating writer, an unmatchable institution builder, and for me, a great friend and father figure.”
With stacks of plaques and awards to his credit, he was proud to receive any citation or proclamation or doctor of letters that he graciously accepted from his alma mater, Lincoln University in 2005. Last year, Tatum was the recipient of the New York Association of Black Journalists’ Lifetime Achievement Award for print journalism.
There was a written tribute from David Dinkins. “As a journalist, Bill advocated for ‘transparency’ long before it became a buzzword and made its pursuit his personal and professional campaign. He never shied away from the controversial and was ever mindful of incidents and individuals that might threaten or compromise the integrity, the image or the well-being of the African-American community.”
Councilmember Inez Dickens, the majority whip, said that Tatum often referred to her as his daughter. “I loved Bill and will hold the ideals he stood for and taught me in my heart forever.
As for his fighting spirit, Christine Quinn, the council’s speaker, recalled seeing him in a wheelchair at the front of a march against injustice. “In the near future, I will host a memorial for him,” she promised.
Besides his daughter and his wife, Susan, he is survived by a brother, Herbert; and three sisters: Lorraine Graves, Edna Swann and Kali Sichen.
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