Obituary: Vernon Jarrett, 85, former columnist, NU professor

Diana Scholl

Vernon Jarrett, the Chicago Tribune’s first black syndicated op-ed columnist and one-time visiting professor of history at Northwestern, died of cancer on Sunday. He was 85.

“He was one of those towering figures,” said Medill School of Journalism Assistant Prof. Charles Whitaker, “There’s hardly a black journalist in Chicago — actually in the country — who hasn’t somehow been instructed by him, either directly or indirectly.”

Jarrett, a history scholar who believed all journalists should be knowledgeable about history, served as a visiting professor of history at NU in the early 1970s.

According to Whitaker, Jarrett was hired as a result of the “May 3-4 agreement” in 1968, when 110, of the then 120, black NU students occupied the Bursar’s Office and presented administrators with a list of their demands. One of the terms of the historic agreement was that NU administrators hire more black professors.

Jarrett began his career in journalism in 1946 as a reporter for the famous black newspaper The Chicago Defender, where he covered a race riot his first day on the job. Throughout his six-decade long career, Jarrett never shied from racial issues.

“Vernon Jarrett will be remembered as a black journalist who always kept race on the front-burner,” said Alysia Tate, editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter, an investigative monthly that focuses on issues of race and poverty. “He understood racism and wanted us all to be honest about it.”

Jarrett was one of the first prominent black journalists in the United States, paving the way for those who followed him. Jarrett established a presence in print, radio and television journalism.

In 1948 Jarrett co-founded “Negro Newsfront,” the first U.S. daily radio newscast created by and for blacks. He was also a show host and commentator for ABC’s WLS-TV in Chicago.

Jarrett became the first black syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune in 1970. He became a regular columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1983, and worked as a member of the newspaper’s editorial board until he permanently retired in 1995.

“He was always someone you could count on for a historical perspective,” said Michelle Stevens, the op-ed editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, who worked with Jarrett.

In 1975 Jarrett was one of 44 founding members of the National Association of Black Journalists and eventually became the organization’s second president in 1977. Just two years ago, Jarrett founded a Chicago chapter of the organization.

“The fact that the organization has grown from 44 members to thousands today is a result of the great work he was a part of,” said Shayla Reaves, president of NU’s NUBJ and a Medill sophomore.

Jarrett always was passionate about enlightening young people, according to Ebony magazine managing editor Lynn Norment, who cites Jarrett as a mentor.

Jarrett knew he was a role model to younger journalists and blacks and took this responsibility seriously, Norment said. While confined to his hospital bed, Jarrett voted in this year’s primary elections.

“He wanted to show people, ‘If I can vote from a hospital bed, you can vote!'” said Norment.

Survivors include wife Frenetta Jarrett and son Tommy Jarrett.