Richard Prince’s “Journal-isms” – “Editor of Afro Papers Had Son Passing for White”

Maynard Institute

May 28, 2004
from “Journal-isms” By RICHARD PRINCE

A light-skinned longtime editor of the Afro-American newspapers had a son who decided to pass for white — and both father and son appeared this week on CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning.”

Ralph Matthews, 76, whose father was also an Afro editor, said he was “bemused” by his son’s action. The younger Matthews, 37-year-old screenwriter David, “says it was not until college that he finally realized what a rich heritage he was giving up,” according to the piece by CBS correspondent Erin Moriarty. The story was keyed to the new book, “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” by New York University professor Brooke Kroeger.

David Matthews’ mother was Israeli. His elementary school in Baltimore, he said, was 20 to 30 percent white, and “I just noticed that they got more attention. Teachers assumed that they somehow had more on the ball.” As he walked every day to school in a primarily white neighborhood, “I knew all I needed to know about where I wanted to be as I watched the property values — the Volvos as opposed to burned-out, you know, Cadillacs.”

“When people would ask you what your dad did, what would you say?” asked Moriority.

“I would say he was a journalist,” David Matthews replied.

“David, whose father was a newspaper editor, would just avoid mentioning which newspaper,” Moriarty told viewers.

Ralph Matthews told Journal-isms he started at the Afro as a cub reporter in 1950, working for the Afro newspapers on and off until 1986, when he had been managing editor for 10 years.

According to “The Baltimore Afro-American: 1892-1950” by Hayward Farrar, Matthews Sr. was the Afro’s answer to H.L. Mencken, who was writing for the Baltimore Sun. He “became a power in the Afro, serving as the theatrical editor, city editor, managing editor, and editor of the Washington Afro-American. A witty and acerbic man, Matthews had one or two columns in the Afro-American from the 1920s onward. In them he lampooned sacred cows in the black community, such as the black church and its ministers, black politicians, black society and the institutions of marriage and family.”

David Matthews was “raised entirely by his father after his mother returned to Israel,” the piece said. Asked what he thought of his son’s “passing,” Ralph Matthews said on the show,”I call it doing what you have to do.”

Moriarty told Journal-isms she had plenty of positive reaction to her piece. Viewers said they talked about it at work on Monday “and were talking about it for the rest of the day.”
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Upcoming events:  Oct. 19: East Hampton Library. Oct. 22: Author’s Talk & Tea: Woodlawn Conservancy. Oct. 26: Talk Back at the Black Box Theater  for Nancy Smithner’s “Hear Them Roar: The Fight for Women’s Rights.” Nov. 5: Holiday Book Signing at the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, NY. Nov. 6: Brentwood Public Library Nov. 7: NYU Center for the Humanities. Nov. 10: Gotham Center for NYC History/CUNY Graduate Center Nov. 16: Book & Bottle: Suffolk County Historical Society & Museum. Nov. 17-18 Researching New York Conference, Albany. Nov. 20: Brookhaven League of Women Voters. March 10: Keynote, Joint Journalism & Communications Historians Conference, New York City.

Parting shots of: the book launch events of Sept. 1 in East HamptonSept. 11 in NYC and Sept. 14 in Cambridge Mass. I’ve got comment and a video (expected soon) of the Sept. 28 event with Angela P. Dodson at the NY Society Library I spoke at the NY Genealogical & Biographical Society Fall Luncheon on Oct. 10 to an audience in which men were very well represented. Oct. 14, I presented on a panel at the AJHA Convention, Little Rock, Ark., on ‘When the Women of Suffrage Got Its Makeover On.” More to come on that.