TV screen

by FURNELL CHATMAN Retired Reporter/Anchor

New——Different——Engaging——Emotional. Those are some of the key factors that usually determine what or who gets on TV. In my case, there was an over-abundance of them all. The “N-word” was the very first word yelled at me when I arrived for work as the first African-American hired by any TV news outlet in New Orleans. Until that day in 1967, the only people of color working in the city’s TV newsrooms were janitors. The disdainful greeting I received on my first day on the job was the disheartening culmination of a journey laced with repeated rejections from local media executives. All would say, “I think you have potential, but the city just isn’t ready for a black man on local TV news.”

Furnell Chatman- TV anchor
At the time the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum, but most local TV executives felt they would jeopardize their audience ratings by putting an African-American on TV. I was attending Xavier University in the work-study program under the tutelage of the university’s director of public relations, Paul Keith. He insisted the time was right to integrate the TV media in the south, and he encouraged me to go back again and again to seek employment in local TV news. I did. One news executive finally told me: “Let’s be honest, you just don’t look black enough. You’re not what we’re looking for.”

I was crushed. Even so that statement made me even more determined to somehow get into one of the local newsrooms. Paul Keith suggested I seek auditions at black radio stations to get some experience reading the news “on air”. But again came disappointment. I was actually told: “You just don’t sound black enough.”

Alec Gifford- News director

Eventually I got a very surprising call. It was from WVUE news director Alec Gifford. He told me: “I’m hiring you to work as a news desk monitor but only on weekends.” I was thrilled. Upon arriving at the studio for my first day of work all the doors were locked. I couldn’t get in. From the glass front door I could see employees walking by, but they all ignored me. With no access out front, I wandered into an alley and found a buzzer bell for deliveries. I leaned on it and kept it buzzing for several minutes until the door was flung open. “Ni_g_r, why are you laying on that damn bell.”

That produced a pause——silence. Four white men were standing in the doorway staring me down. I stared back. The silence seemed like an eternity but lasted less than a minute as I pondered my options. I decided to unleash a loud string of prurient references about their maternal ancestry. They did not respond, so I stepped forward through the doorway as they moved aside and I entered the building. I felt terrific. But once inside, I was lost. I had no idea how to find the newsroom. I found myself in a maze of electronic equipment as I seemingly wandered in circles. Even so, I kept my chin up and shoulders back with a broad smile on my face like I owned the place. Once I found the newsroom, I called Alec Gifford and told him what happened. He simply said “Don’t worry about it, just do your job.”

Furnell Chatman
My job was to monitor police, fire, and emergency radio frequencies and scour the wire services for stories WVUE might consider covering. The rest of my first weekend was uneventful, but then came Monday. Those who gave me my initial “greeting” had complained to management. That meant trouble for Alec Gifford. The head of the New Orleans Urban League—-Clarence Barney——asked me to stop by his office and I did. He said Gifford told him the station manager and news director jobs were both in jeopardy because my hiring could affect TV ratings. Lower ratings would mean less revenue for the parent company Screen Gems. He said he told Gifford hiring a minority in the fall of 1967 was certainly the right thing to do. Barney also cautioned me that a lot more was at stake than I realized at the time.

That very evening I received a call from civil rights activist Reverend Avery Alexander. He verbally chastised me for how I handled my first day on the job saying “Dr. (Martin Luther) King would never have done what you did”. He told me local civil rights activists all knew I had been hired, that it was time to integrate the local media, and that everyone expected me to succeed. Less than 15 minutes later came another phone call. This time it was one of the city’s preeminent black attorneys Revius Ortique, who would later become the first African-American elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court. He emphasized there was tremendous support for me in the community, and assured me that he would be eager to give me advice or legal help if needed.

Furnell Chatman
After those wake-up calls, I finally fathomed how much was really at stake. I was eager to learn as much as I could as fast as I could, and Gifford sensed my urgency. I would re-write copy and have it reviewed by staffers. One of them would always hand it back to me graded never higher than 69 1/2——70 was passing. But I pressed on and made progress. Bob Krieger, one of the best local TV news writers New Orleans has ever had, was most helpful in honing my writing skills. By the spring of 1968, New Orleans got its first African-American hired as a reporter-trainee. It was not me. It was Bill Rouselle who was hired by WDSU news director Ed Planer. More than forty years later I learned that Planner and Gifford had a running bet on who would be first to convince TV corporate executives to hire an African- American to do local news. Planer claimed I was only a part-timer and not on the air, while Rouselle was hired as a reporter-trainee on a full-time basis. Only weeks before his death, Gifford told me about their bet that was apparently never resolved.

Gifford says he went to his boss WVUE general manager Doug Ellison and made a desperate plea to hire me full-time. But management felt the novelty was now gone and there was no urgency to hire an African-American. Gifford was not deterred. He stuck by me saying you will be hired soon. And I was. It took just a few weeks before I was hired full-time. But even after that, I was not seen on the air. Instead of doing TV news stories, I was shipped out to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.

I was one of 20 individuals selected from across the country to participate in an intense TV news training program for minorities sponsored by the Ford Foundation. I got first-hand exposure to the rigors of every facet of the TV broadcasting business. One day I was a reporter. The next day I was a photographer, then a director, an anchor, and a producer. It was tough but insightful. At the end of the program I was offered reporter jobs in New York, Chicago, and Washington. But I chose to return to New Orleans.

Furnell ChatmanGifford, of course, was very pleased with my decision. He took me out to dinner one evening saying he and Ellison had a lot riding on my success.
He also warned me that the road ahead would be difficult in many ways. My first assignment was to accompany an- other reporter just to observe how the system worked. I went to City Hall with Reporter Ross Yockey for a news conference by Mayor Vic Schiro. After- wards, Yockey introduced me to Schiro, who refused to shake my extended hand. He just turned around and walked away. While accompanying other reporters on stories, the cameramen all seemed to be impressed by my newly acquired technical knowledge and my appreciation for what they do. Yet they seemed very reluctant to become friendly.

Furnell ChatmanRonald Montelepre, one of New Orleans’ finest news photographers at that time, invited me out for lunch one day. But when we arrived and sat at a table we were told my order must be a take-out. I could not eat in- side. This came as no surprise to me. But before I could utter a single word, Ronald popped out of his chair and made a loud, boisterous exit yelling that this is not right and that he would never patronize that restaurant again. He demanded to see the manager, but was told he was not available. Once we exited, Ronald offered me his apologies. Over time he seemed to be impressed by my knowledge of film editing, and we later became the best of friends. When Gifford heard about that lunch incident, he urged me to bring a bag lunch from home each day to help minimize trouble.

Channel 12 anchorsThe indignities of racial prejudice seemed to surface on a daily basis wherever by assignment took me. Special considerations were imposed on all of my assignments. There were some areas of southeast Louisiana where I would never be assigned. Gifford felt my mere presence would actually become the story and get in the way of the assignment I was sent to cover. In the first story I did on air, I was never seen. I was just a voice. That continued for weeks. I was often forced to re-record my voice track over and over and over again be- cause of “alleged technical problems”. It was tortuous. Later viewers got to see only my hand holding the microphone. Then the back of my head was shown. Each day I would ask Gifford if I could appear on camera——“do a standup” in TV jargon. The answer was always not yet. It reached a point where I would just look his way, and he would simply shake his head from side to side. Gifford insisted that TV viewers must first get to know me and my on-air credibility before my face could be revealed on TV. Everybody in the African-American community knew Furnell Chatman was a black man, but seemingly an invisible black man.

The words of encouragement from people on the streets were amazing. “Hang in there man.” “You gonna get on.” “I’m watching for ya!” After nearly six months, Gifford finally gave me the green light to do a standup and appear on camera full-face. The TV station’s switchboard lit up with calls of compliments, not just for me but for the courage Gifford and his bosses had shown. When I went home that evening, I got a neighborhood hero’s welcome—-applause and lots of hugs and handshakes. It was all organized by my mother. Someone even pulled out a grill to cook hot dogs and hamburgers for everyone on my block. It was one of the proudest days of my life.

Furnell Chatman anchor photoDuring the ensuing years, there were some very hilarious moments. On some assignments, individuals would rush to the photographer to start explaining their story to him only to be told “I’m not the reporter, he is”. Racial prejudices seemed to bubble to the surface on virtually every assignment. On occasion it was quite ugly. There were also the horrors never to be forgotten. I witnessed first-hand several women jumping from a 15th floor window during the Rault Center fire. I took gunfire as gunman Mark Essex roamed the rooftop of the Howard Johnson Hotel triggering the deaths of several New Orleans police officers.

Eventually I was given my own news program “The News at Noon with Furnell Chatman”. It was the first time a black man anchored a newscast in the state of Louisiana. It afforded me the opportunity to explore minority community concerns and interview stars and celebrities like Olympic track legend Jesse Owens. But even in the studio, one camera-operator would occasionally step from behind the camera, put his thumbs in his ears and wiggle his fingers at me. I learned the value of focus and concentration the hard way. Nevertheless, I felt I had finally become a full-fledged member of the Channel 12 news team headed by Alec Gifford and sports director Buddy Diliberto.

Furnell Chatman reading the newsFurnell Chatman interviewing a guest on news

By then, many TV stations all across the country were seeking to add minorities to their TV news staffs. It was a phenomenon that was sweeping the country. Even so, Bill Rouselle soon left WDSU to take a job at City Hall and eventually launched his own public relations firm. Michael Dejoie, the son of one of the owners of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, was later hired by WWL, but he too left the news business after brief stints in New Orleans, Washington D.C. and Chicago.

                                      Bill Rouselle                                      Michael Dejoie

Furnell Chatman – WVUE-TV                   Bill Rouselle – WDSU-TV                             Michael Dejoie – WWL-TV

I continued at WVUE for five years before being recruited by NBC. Overall, I spent more than 40 years in broadcast news, most of it based in Los Angeles, covering earthquakes, brush fires, riots, the Rodney King beating case, and the O.J. Simpson trial. However, no story was as gut- wrenching as the ten days I spent covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. TV pictures simply could not do justice to the human suffering I witnessed in my hometown. I saw bodies floating in shallow water along city streets. I saw police and firefighters break down in tears. I saw distraught mothers begging first responders to “just take my kids away.” But what got on TV did help unmask the city’s dire poverty.

More than 50 years later, African-Americans now flourish in the Greater New Orleans TV news market in virtually every position from station general manager to news director to news anchor. As a retiree, I now watch the local news with great pride and indelible memories as well as the hope that someday black ownership of a TV station in the Crescent City will become a reality. Those early years of integrating TV news produced deep scars that had to be worn with pride and professionalism to help open doors for other minorities in local TV news especially in the deep south. In the Big Easy, it began rough and ugly but eventually blossomed into a rainbow of “color TV”.

Furnell ChatnmanFurnell Chatman is the recipient of numerous local Press Club awards, Golden Mikes, Emmys, and a lifetime achievement award from “Minorities in Broadcasting”. Chatman and Rouselle currently reside in the City of New Orleans. Michael Dejoie died in January of 2022 while living in the Crescent City.

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