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Interview with: George McElroy
Interviews by Veronica Perry
Date: September 14, 1974
Archive Number: OH 113
VP: This is the beginning of an interview with Mr. George McElroy.
VP: First of all Mr. McElroy, would you tell us your background? How did you get into the newspaper business?
GM: I got in the newspaper business by delivering newspapers when I was a kid. It was an avenue of making a few dimes to go to weekend movies and to buy some of the things that I needed. And going around the newspaper office, which, incidentally, was the Informer, I picked up papers and found the machinery kind of fascinating. I found myself spending most of my time around there, even when there weren’t any papers to pick up. Eventually I got bold enough to go inside to watch the operation and just fell in love with it.
VP: What kind of training do you have as a newspaper reporter? Did you go through the regular challenge of getting a degree in journalism?
GM: Yeah, I have two degrees in journalism, a bachelor’s and a master’s.
VP: What school did you receive your training in?
GM: My baccalaureate degree was at Texas Southern and the master’s was at University of Missouri.
VP: What is your definition of the black press?
GM: That’s a—that’s a vague, real vague term—black press, because basically all mediums—all segments—of the press have about the same goal—to inform, to instruct, and to entertain. I think the mission of the black press is no different than any other element of the general press. However, we have, I suppose, a built-in audience readership. But this is not—(inaudible)—than the other ethnic press throughout the world, as a matter of fact.
VP: Do you think the organized challenge of information, such as the newspaper, magazines, radio, and TV have failed to perform adequately with the task of keeping the community informed about people in the black community or news in general about the black community?
GM: Well, I think it definitely has failed. Maybe I shouldn’t say failed. Maybe it never has been the intention of the general media to give in-depth coverage to the black community. If it has tried to give full coverage it’s failed. Generally, I don’t think it cares. It’s just a matter of—(inaudible)—enough to keep things—keep the equilibrium. But—except when there’s exceptional news. Generally, a black has to be real good or real bad to be covered by the general press.
VP: What’s your reaction to the criticism of—that the black press covers the crimes on one hand and the winnings in society on the other, and does this seem conformed by the issues that are facing the community?
GM: That isn’t a hundred percent true because many black newspapers out there—more than half of them don’t cover crime. I’m not saying that this is a general pattern, but we—(inaudible; background noise)—because we don’t cover crimes at all unless it’s an unusual crime or something has an unusual twist. We don’t even send anyone to the police station like we have done a long time ago. As far as society is concerned—so-called society—it don’t bother me a bit. We don’t even have society (inaudible; background noise).
VP: What kind of impact do you think the black press has on the black community? Does it mold and shape the feelings of the people of that community?
GM: It has—I think one of the prime jobs of the black press is not to mold as much as to unmold, because, generally, a black publication comes out one week and the black reader has been exposed to other publications 6 or 7 days a week. So I think these jobs brace us to unmold—to brainwash—for us then to insert what we feel is right. So there’s a two-sided ax there—to take out all this other stuff and to put in that place a subject that’s relevant for blacks.
VP: Is that one reason the Informer is now being printed almost daily instead of just once a week?
GM: Yeah, we find that the challenge is so great—I mean—there’s so many avenues of information pouring into the black community—some of it is good, some of it is bad. So we feel that to get a foothold, so to speak, on the black community, to better inform them, it should come out 4 days a week. By the first of the year we hope to come out 5 days a week and eventually 6 days a week. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to make a Sunday edition, but we’re going to try to give black-oriented news as many times as possible.
VP: I know a lot of blacks read The Informer, but how many whites read black newspapers? Do they—are they really interested enough to see the news from—about black people from the viewpoint of black people?
GM: No, the—they want to know what’s going on. That’s true. And I’ll put it this way—the best way for one to know how fast his car is moving is to look at the speedometer. The best way to know what the temperature is is to look at a thermometer. The best way for the white community to know what the black community is doing is to read black newspapers. So we have about 3000 subscribers that are nonblack subscribers. Now I’m not saying all of them—well, yes, I have to qualify that. They must want to know because they’re buying the papers.
VP: I know that The Informer is one of the oldest and most successful black newspapers. Can you tell us anything about the history of The Informer—how it got started?
GM: Long, long history. The Informer was started in—oh—around 1893 by—(inaudible)—Carter Wesley, for one, and C.N. Love was another. They—Emmet J. Scott—there was a school in the state named after Emmett J. Scott—also (Woodson??). But the Informer, the original history of it is lost and—you know—we get bits of it here and bits of it there. Sometimes someone will pop up and say, “Here’s some data on that.” My grandparents would go and try to reconstruct it. But from 1930 The Informer—The Informer’s original name was The Texas Freeman. And in 1930 it merged with The Houston Informer, which was founded by Chris Richardson Sr. The people owning The Texas Freeman bought control of the stock in The Informer and it became The Houston Informer and Texas Freeman. However, we have dropped the “and Texas Freeman.” It’s part of the legal name, but we dropped it. We just call it The Houston Informer. Now the Wesley’s moved into the picture right around 1930. Carter Wesley and his wife took over and they really made the paper prosper. One time the informer was putting out about—well, it was about 7 newspapers really. And the Houston Informer and the Beaumont (inaudible), Austin, Shreveport, Mobile, Alabama. There was a New Orleans newspaper—I forget the name of it—and The Dallas express. So The Informer, at one time, really was the black newspaper chain.
VP: What do you think the Wesley’s did that made The Informer so successful all of a sudden?
GM: I think at the time they took it over it was the sort of a renaissance of blacks in the South where blacks wanted a newspaper of their own, where blacks wanted to read. See, this was right after The Depression and there was a great yearning for intellectual development, also a yearning for financial development, so it just happened at the right time. Then, in the early 1940’s, up until recently, blacks had more money because of World War II. Blacks made money from working in ship yards and defense plants and we were at just sort of a black renaissance and everything went well.
VP: Do you think The Informer is different from other black newspapers—that it’s lasted so long?
GM: We hope that—because if we felt that it wasn’t different, we wouldn’t be trying to make the move we’re making now. Yes, we are different. Because, where the average black publication comes out once a week or twice a week, we come out four times a week. And there are only a few other newspapers that can say the same thing—The Chicago Daily Defender, The Atlanta Daily World, Columbus Georgia Daily Times, The Brooklyn New York Challenge, and The Houston Daily Informer. There are only five of them.
VP: Well, as editor, how is your approach different from other black editors? Are you the one who makes it different?
GM: Well, all editors are different from their counterparts. There’s personality differences. I don’t know exactly what you’re asking.
VP: You’re saying you hope The Informer is different from other newspapers. What are you doing to make it different?
GM: Oh, I see. Well, one, we want to print the things that are relevant to the black community. That’s one thing that’s different. We play down crime rather than play it up. We have instituted some features that we feel are relevant. Like, instead of having one editorial page we have two editorial pages with editorials and commentaries by learned people. We started a family living section with helpful hints on how to stretch the family dollar. We’ve picked up some features like The World of Money for those in the community who feel like they want to invest, but protect their investments. We try to feel that this paper is part of a university for as the service is concerned rather than just a run-of-the-mill type paper.
VP: Did you alone control what goes into the newspaper?
GM: No, no. The publisher is the one with control. Not the—James C. Watson is the publisher. However, he says, “Okay, we’ll deal. Do it your way, except on that. I want to do it my way.” But I’d say about 93 percent of the time what you see is mine.
VP: Is this the same Dr. Watson who’s at the Southeast Medical Clinic in Sunnyside?
VP: Well, does you paper support or endorse political candidacy?
GM: Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. It seems to be a trend that people—politicians are always wanting someone to endorse them, but I think maybe this time we’re going to—we may take a different approach to it. Some races we did endorse, some we did not. Those where we did not the paper came out just before elections. We had quite a number of visitors wanting to know why did we—we didn’t endorse either one in that particular area. So, I don’t know. I doubt seriously that we will do any endorsements, generally.
VP: Would you like to say who some of the persons are that you have endorsed before?
GM: Oh, the paper itself?
GM: Oh, I suppose almost anyone from Abraham Lincoln on down. No, we don’t have any ties with Democrats nor Republicans or third-party people—no allegiance to any factors. We’re just independent. If we feel that an office seeker has a good track record, as far as we’re concerned, as far as the black community, as far as the inner city—we would endorse him even if he were a member of some offshoot party. But we take each person—each office seeker—put him under the microscope so that—(inaudible; background noise). If he was good, okay. We’ll tell him he’s good. If he was not good, though—(inaudible; background noise).
VP: Are the candidates you endorse usually always black, or do you endorse Chicano candidates and the white candidates as well?
GM: We endorsed Castillo over Jim (Buoy??), so—and it’s—well—you know—(Buoy??) is black and Castillo is Chicano, but we felt that he was the better of the two and we went along with him. There was a rumble and grumble in the black community. “Why did you endorse a brown over a black?” And, again, we had to explain we want the best person in there.
VP: What about your staff members? Do you have certain qualifications set up for your staff members? If you’re just a person with a desire to write can you get a break at The Informer?
GM: No, I wish it were that way, but it just—we try to find people who qualify because the reader—our subscribers pay 50 cents a week for editions delivered to their homes and if we give them less than what they’re paying for we cheat them. So we try to uphold standards of good journalism and get the best people we can afford.
VP: Are all of your staff members black or do you have whites and brown staff as well?
GM: Don’t have any browns, but I have some whites. And that’s because there are many jobs around a newspaper plant that—open jobs, so to speak. Matter of fact, news doesn’t know who or what family, it’s just news. It’s a UPI machine in there. It’s just grinding out news.
VP: Is that what’s making that noise?
GM: Yeah. The—it doesn’t make any difference who pulls the tapes and separates the tapes. So for (inaudible)—you can get anyone to do that. It doesn’t maul the news. It doesn’t give the news any glitter or glamour, so we find a person that’s—regardless of race, color, creed. We are equal opportunity employers. We try to get the best.
VP: Some of the criticisms that are made of the white man’s papers—covering things in black communities—they’re not aware of what’s going on and they may interpret it differently from offenses to black reporters. Do you think there’s much credence to that idea?
GM: They underlying element is what bewilders the nonblack reporter. He only sees what he sees and he does not have the sixth sense, maybe, to look behind and see what’s caused some of these things, or maybe he just doesn’t care. But that’s one of the things. They just report and say the thing happened and that’s the end of it. But they don’t try to find out what made it happen—you know—the cause of—that precipitate these things. And many of them just don’t know how to interview people. But I won’t—how to interview people. Blacks are different in many respects just like browns or different or Indians are different. You’ve got to know the technique and glean from them the majority of what you—(inaudible; background noise).
VP: What about—you sort of have a dual role. You’ve worked at The Houston Post—you know—which is one of the big white dailies and you also edit your own black newspaper. Is your job at The Post restricted in any way as to what you write on or what you do?
GM: Well, for The Post I just do (part-time work??). I’m not really a full-fledged employee. But I can write on anything I choose. But—and I’ve been tempted to get away from black personalities, but I feel that why should I when the other people have the media? Folks have known them for hundreds and hundreds of years, and why should I turn away from my black when we’re just beginning to get into the problem as to pick up somebody else. So that’s why I’ve been sticking with black.
VP: How do you select the people you write on?
GM: Oh, several things. Some people will call and tell me about certain people. I get letters, quite a number of letters, I guess anywhere from 18-25 letters a week from people giving tips on different things. Some PR people will tell me that, “Hey, my company has a black doing this.” An unusual situation or sometimes just picking up stuff from the news. I can see a little more than what is brought to the surface. Matter of fact, the other day, there was a story in the daily paper about a black man who was promoted to Admiral in the navy. It stated that he was the second black Admiral in the navy. It said that he was stationed one time in Texas. Well, I got to checking and it didn’t take any time at all for me to call the navy regional information office in Dallas to find out the man had been stationed at Prairie View for three years as an instructor. So I set up an interview by telephone with the man and I’m going to do a feature on him. But it’s just something that the regular press had just passed over as just general news with no depth at all into it.
VP: What are the chances for your instruction as well? What do you think the chances are for blacks trained as journalists being hired by the white dailies in any reasonable capacity now?
GM: Oh, the chances are super. Matter of fact, I picked up a magazine this morning. And there’s a feature story in it. The magazine is Black Enterprise, and it has some pictures of some blacks with big city dailies and The New York Times, The Atlanta Constitution, The Atlanta Journal—wherever they found—whenever these people find good blacks they’ll put them to work. There’s quite a bit of tokenism at some of these newspapers. They just want one or two—normally two, so at lunch they can sit together. But it’s getting better. We’ve come a long ways, but we’ve got a long ways to go. I’m not going to say that the general media is wide open. It has some barbs yet we have to pull off the line. Now, electronic media is different because the government tells them, “You must hire minority people.” But there’s no control over printed media like that.
VP: Well, what are the roles of these like? Do they usually get the job covering the news in the black community?
GM: No, even in Houston the reporters—the black reporters I know that work for The Post are trying to go after general assignments. No, I don’t know one that’s covering the black community. I think if we did have one covering the black community we’d have more black news in there, but they cover the regular assignments—the federal court, city hall—things like that.
VP: What about the black students that did train in your journalism class? What do they feel about these roles? Do they want to cover the news in the black communities and take it from there or are they interested more in covering just daily news?
GM: Well, they—if they wanted to sell the news to the black community they would, obviously, come to a black newspaper for employment, and most of the time employment with nonblack publications. So, I guess, if they—maybe there’s a desire inside, but—(inaudible: background noise)—be hired by metropolitan newspapers—(inaudible; background noise).
VP: Do give them any special advice as to who to go to work for or where to work according to what they want to do?
GM: No. I tell them to try to find a job. After being in college 4-5 years, the main thing is—the profitable thing is finding employment, and work diligently on that job and then look around for something that really attracts you. Then—you know—try to move in that direction. I think that all reporters should generalize first before they try to specialize.
VP: Is there any corroboration between the white and black press? For instance, maybe the editors have meetings or talk about the way they do things, things like that?
GM: Well, we belong to organizations and discussions, general discussions, but I think how they cover the news and how we cover the news parallels. So these organizations—The Texas Gulf Coast Publishers, The Texas Publishers Association, American Newspaper Publishers—we belong to those organizations. And it’s just run-of-the-mill organizations that have conventions, have workshops, but it’s—I wouldn’t say—one could learn a heck of a lot from attending one of these conventions, but on the other hand, there are always some things that you could pick up that you probably wouldn’t know of. So it’s a fifty-fifty-type thing. You may have coffee with a guy that can turn you on with some advertising. So I guess there are roses and thorns all intertwined there. The organization itself—I don’t like it personally because I don’t have time for all that stuff that they do. But they’re good organizations.
VP: Earlier you were saying that the—a lot of the history of The Informer had been lost. Do you have the back issues of The Informer—you know—all the way back to the beginning?
GM: No, because flood, fires, some of the fires burned by—ignited by clansmen, things like that. The newspaper office and plant have been destroyed about 3 times. And each time there’s a loss that cannot be replaced. Since about 1939 or 1932—I don’t know which—we have been microfilming our work—piece of cake. About 1942 on up to now—(inaudible; background noise).
VP: Do you—can you remember any of the specific instances when the newspaper plant was destroyed?
GM: No, it was way back in the ‘20s and again in the 30’s. I think the last time was in ’39—in ’39—or it might have been just before World War II, but I wasn’t around for that. Talking to Mrs. Wesley, who died last September—about a year ago—she—her—(inaudible; background noise)—Mrs. Wesley got sick and passed away before we had an opportunity to, with an electronic device, to record some of the things that she remembered.
VP: Are there any other aspects of The Informer, or you as an editor of a black newspaper—any comments for black today? Any perspectives on anything that’s going on in the black community?
GM: The black community has given us support and we really appreciate it. However, we need, from time to time, more criticism from the black community—good or bad constructively—constructive criticism—so we will know that we’ve done what they want us to do. The disappointment I feel has been the reluctance of the establishment to accept a black daily as a daily. You know—a long time ago you said they only advertise the daily newspapers. (inaudible; background noise) And you go back to these same people and they say, “Well yeah, that’s right, you are dailies, but—?” I don’t think that the pride that—there’s very little pride exhibited by the nonblack community that used to have the first black daily paper west of the Mississippi River. There was no other city this side of Atlanta until we came along. Many of the black publishers have been in contact with us. I know the Dejoies in New Orleans publishing The Louisiana Weekly are deeply interested in what we’re doing. The Sengstackes up in Chicago—The Chicago Daily Defender—he calls about every two weeks asking how we’re getting along. Dr. Lydia or Amelia (Devore??). She has a newspaper in Brooklyn and she calls wanting to know how we’re doing—you know—“What can we do to help.” So that’s good. It shows that the blacks are really accepting. The big stores—the food stores especially—it hurts me to see blacks in Wine Garden by the hundreds. We go to Wine Garden each week to send out a small token add. That’s all it is. Many stores won’t even advertise at all. I wish I could just print the names of these stores as bad vendors. Those who refuse to do so. We have some discretion. We enticed the boycott against (inaudible; background noise), but God knows some of these stores should be boycotted. In fact, (inaudible; background noise)—they just—blacks just—packets of those things. When we go to them for adds, “We’ve already done it in the folks with the Chronicle.” I just hope that the advertising community accepts us as a bona fide newspaper. Maybe they’ll accept us.
VP: Who do you think the leaders are in the black community?
GM: Oh, that’s a hard question to answer because we don’t have one leader, as such. (inaudible; background noise)—doesn’t have one person that the black community can rally behind. (inaudible; background noise)—out there. When I say leadership, it’s left us. We don’t have one.
VP: What do you think of the suit that was brought against Thomas Wright recently by Houston Police?
GM: That was sad. I hate to read or hear of or know of it—a libel suit. I just hope that they can kind of get together on that. I hate to see them go to court because that’s a—I think that’s a half million dollar suit. It would really hurt Forward Times if the court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor. I just hope that it can be resolved out of court in some kind of way. They settled another suit that Forward Times had for a quarter of a million dollars. It involved (Rav??) Cooper—a story he wrote about 2 years ago. But I just hope these things can be resolved.
VP: Do you remember what the suit involving (Rav??) Cooper was about? What was the story involving?
GM: Some man. I didn’t read the story. Some man claimed that he was libel. Rav wrote some stuff which was not true—partly true. That’s about all I know about it.
VP: Have you or your paper ever been involved in a libel suit?
GM: No, thank God, we haven’t.
VP: Do you think that may be one of the ways that the black media can be brought to task for making criticisms that are sometimes very valuable in the white community. That that’s something that perhaps we need to fear?
GM: No, if you object, you don’t have to. You don’t have anything to fear. As long as you go right down the middle, as long as you report back to me. We’ve written articles—I’ve personally written articles—an ex-chief of police told me several times, “One of these days you’re going to slip.” And my answer always was, “Well, when I slip I’ll just fall.” But I’ve criticized him very, very bitterly and he went out of office waiting for me to make that slip. It just—sloppy journalism causes you to get in those types of situations. It’s unfortunate. It could be pressure of deadlines, it could be fatigue, but there’s no excuse for a libel. If you’re just really telling it like it is and if you tell it like it is and prove that you’ve told it like it was, well, there’s no problem.
VP: By the ex-police chief you mean Chief Short?
GM: Chief Short, yes.
VP: He was somewhat taken aback by the criticisms that you made of him?
GM: Oh, I suppose the entire black community—he knew what the attitude was about him by the black communities, but it didn’t bother him. He was just waiting for someone to make a slip. That’s one of the ways of doing things. Now, all newspapers make errors. We had an error a couple of weeks ago stating the cost of a renovation of the courtroom of Judge Jefferson, a black judge. And he brought it to our attention and we immediately checked it out and found out that what he was saying was in fact correct and we were in error. So we ran a story on the front page stating openly that we had made a mistake in the paper.
VP: From the reporters point of view do you think there’s been any changes in the police department since Chief Lynn took over?
GM: Well, yes. The attitude is different, but there’s this restriction now on the material going to the media. It’s not the chief’s fault and it’s not the mayor’s fault. I think the attorney general, John Hill should give some type of clear definition of what the laws are, but some things we don’t have access to anymore.
VP: Did this create a problem in reporting the news?
GM: Not to us, because we don’t usually—crime news. We can fill up all four editions with news if we just stayed at the police station 8 hours, but there’s so many other things going on in the black community other than blacks going to jail.
VP: The positive aspects?
GM: Right. So, we’d rather spend most our time at schools and try not to spend too much time in the churches because that old time religion has gotten us—according to some young blacks—in the bind we are today. But we’d rather keep away from police news.
VP: Well Mr. McElroy, if there aren’t any other comments you’d like to make, I’d certainly like to thank you for doing this interview with me and taking some time out of your busy schedule—(speaking at same time)
GM: Oh, I don’t mind it at all. I would be very, very angry if you had not asked me. The project that you’re involved in is going to mean something to us in the years ahead, so I’m glad to make, I hope, a contribution. What you’re project is should have been done 100 years ago. Let’s hope that you and your co-workers can put together this historical gift that has been so badly needed. I want to thank you for undertaking such a gigantic mission.
VP: Thank you.
(End of tape)