Gregory Stanford: Profile of Success

By Patricia Obletz

Of all the subjects Milwaukee’s award-winning journalist, Gregory Stanford, covered, from the Civil Rights Movement to education, housing, welfare, and much more, he neither spoke about nor wrote about his childhood struggle in a racist society. It’s fitting then that his first beat for the old Milwaukee Journal in 1970 was the Civil Rights Movement as it played out in city streets.

After 36 years, Greg Stanford retired from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel December 2007 to work on his books, one science fiction, the other on journalism. You may already know that he taught journalism, including a course on race and journalism at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; organized and ran a writing workshop for middle school students; member, Advisory Board of Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University; former president for the Wisconsin Black Media Association, a chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.

What you may not know is that Greg grew up on the south-east side of Washington, DC, in a neighborhood named for a Civil War fort, Ft. Stanton. His was a safe childhood in an isolated, small, solidly black community surrounded by woods and a huge playground. He, his siblings and friends played when and where they wanted, when they were free. They had cookouts in the woods and, in the old fort, which actually was a cave, they found shells shot from Civil War guns. Their informal troupe also collected bottles, which they hiked to a distant store, earning enough to buy hot dogs, buns and cupcakes. Back in the woods, they’d build a fire and cook their feast.

Greg also devoted time to his first love: reading and writing. One of his favorite things was the four-mile round-trip hike to the library, giving him time alone to think about things and, while cutting through the woods, to pretend he was Robin Hood, among other heroes.

Greg’s generosity of spirit radiates in the warmth of his compassion, wit, and brilliance, his ready laughter. Greg said, “My parents sacrificed themselves to send their kids to parochial school. They knew that education was the best way to prosper in life. My parents were part of an amazing generation of black people, who worked hard and went without to improve the lot of their children.

Taking the best interests of children to heart

“My mother, Juanita, had a full-time job plus five kids — I’m number two. She worked hard all day and then came home and cooked for all of us.

“My teachers were nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School; they were my first experience with white people. They were kind and encouraging. You could tell they had our best interests at heart. They had the ability to connect with the students and make sure they understand their schoolwork, which is the essence of what teaching is all about.

“The church basement school was so small that teachers taught two grades at a time. Despite this inferior structure, we still got a good education.

“Before sending my kids to school, I thoroughly investigated them. I was skeptical about the ability of the teaching standards to ferret out good teachers. I tend to blame the system, not the teachers in the system. A lot of bad teachers are just burnt out due to the system.

“As a reporter, after Milwaukee public schools reinstated the algebra requirement, I talked to the principal at North Division High School. He said that, of five algebra teachers, four had students whose grades and attendance rates were getting worse and worse. But the fifth teacher’s student scores and attendance rates were getting better and better. The principal said he asked the first four, how come? They said she was ‘faking the grades.’

“I visited these teachers, saying nothing about my talk with the principal. When I asked how the algebra thing was coming, the four whose kids weren’t doing well were older, white teachers, who said that the kids don’t have time to do algebra, they don’t get it, so they don’t do well, and get dispirited. The teacher whose students were improving was black and much younger than the others, in her 20s; she wasn’t charismatic. But she was dedicated. Initially, she was very disappointed with her students’ work and began searching for better methods of teaching. She found a computer program that helped her students learn more easily, but she was still looking for other effective tactics.

“To be a good teacher, you’ve got to want to teach, you have to care about making sure that your students learn, and earn their way into the next grade. But education colleges have come under criticism for not addressing the problems in urban schools. They need to rectify this issue.

“I’m not sure that caring about your students can be taught.

“Unlike a lot of kids today, I had good role models, a good grounding at home and at school. My mother came from a middle class background in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father was a bricklayer, which was a money-maker in those days. Her mother took care of us in addition to venturing into other lines of work, including owning and operating a variety store. They owned their own house and lived across the street from the richest black man in America, A. G. Gaston, who made his money in insurance.

“In contrast, my father Amos grew up dirt poor with 10 siblings in little more than a shack. He used to say that I owed my life to the fact he couldn’t afford shoes one year. So he had to skip school that year. He met my mother in the class he had to make up.

Think things through before leaping.

“The thing about my father is that he was extremely bright and ambitious, an A student and class valedictorian. He forced me to be logical by demanding logical reasons for everything I did, which made me think things through before leaping. He would have made an excellent lawyer.

“My parents moved to Washington, DC, to escape the repression and the lack of decent-paying jobs for black people in Birmingham. While in DC, my father decided to take a few night courses.

“He became a police officer for awhile, a cab driver for a long while, and during my childhood, he started his own business, which didn’t start making it until after I left home. By the time he retired, he owned several apartment buildings.

“I wouldn’t have minded growing up pampered, but growing up poor didn’t hurt me. Although, in retrospect, I grew up thinking we were really poor because my mother was used to having more stuff.

“My mother was a clerk for the Pentagon. She was a victim of discrimination, I think. White folks in her position seemed to move up faster than she did.

“I was about six when I became aware of color-consciousness. I remember running home from school, climbing onto my mother’s lap, crying. I kept saying that all the important people seemed to be white. And all the unimportant people seemed to be black. My skin was dark, which is probably why I was crying.

“She said that what’s inside is what counts, but I couldn’t believe her: In 1952, everybody on TV was white, except Amos and Andy.

“In my heart back then, I still thought I’d be more deserving if my skin were lighter. I was just reflecting back what the world was telling me: if you’re dark-skinned, you’re no good.

“Color discrimination wasn’t just white and black. There was differentiation of skin color within the black race. Light skin seemed to be prized and dark skin was something to be ashamed of. I didn’t really believe that I was inferior. I just knew that the white world believed I was inferior.

“The Black Consciousness movement was a reaction to that thinking in the 1960s. But in the 1950s, the middle class in the black race still tended to be lighter-skinned, which was true for my mother. And my father was dark, and poor.

“A whole lot of people had that moment of trauma that I had at age six. My parents loved and respected me, making me feel good about myself. And my teachers inspired and encouraged me. I’m not all that rare in having such people. Protecting children from the sting of racism was the rule among grownups when I was growing up. “Racism is a national sickness, which affects all Americans one way or another. Every American has to wrestle with its effects if he or she wants to overcome them. My encounter with racism was by no means unique.

“It’s said that black people don’t do well on tests, but I’m one of those who does better on tests than in class. Maybe I see things more clearly when they’re written down — my dad did drill me in logic, which also helped me duke it out intellectually with anybody of any skin color.

Antidote to Discrimination

“The world today is different, but I think the message still exists that darker skinned people are inferior to lighter skinned people. The antidote to this struggle is for parents to raise their kids to be strong by encouraging them and making sure they get good educations instead of prison terms.

“I think today’s generation has it tougher than my generation had. It’s more violent, which is a result of, to put it simply, racism. The increased presence of guns also adds to the violence, I believe. The rise of the prison system on a number of levels has taken the place of a good education.

“We need more black voices to tell the true story of America, including the people who have different views of current events. That’s why the Wisconsin Black Media Association established the Gregory Stanford Scholarship Fund. The high school winner of the annual essay contest receives $500. Unfortunately, it’s just $500 for the first year. The hope is to increase that amount.

“I got into journalism because my teachers gave me good feedback on my writing, but I wasn’t sure about this path — I scored in the 99th percentile in math. However, my senior year math teacher turned me off that course. I went to St. John’s High School in northwest Washington, DC, an hour and a half ride each way on the bus. Whereas my grade school was all black, my high school was almost all white.

“My guidance counselor said that the only Catholic college with an accredited journalism school was Marquette University. Once I came to Milwaukee in 1964, it became home.

“There’s a sense that black people do worse in Milwaukee than elsewhere. I was the first one to report on this. About half of the black kids drop out of high school here. Many of them get into trouble and are troubled.

“Most black kids early on have to grapple with racism; they have to face the white assumption of superiority over African Americans. I still have to remind myself sometimes that I deserve the same respect a similarly situated white person would get.

“People of every skin color end up wrestling with an inferiority complex when someone or some thing degrades them. Young children don’t discriminate on bases of race or wealth. Life is scary for everybody. Those people who can afford it, mostly white, get psychotherapy to help them overcome fear by addressing it.

“Whites with a superiority complex also have a problem, since, in my estimation, feelings of inferiority drive the need to feel superior.

“Black people still get the message from the media that white is superior. Coping in a racist society that denies its racism is difficult to overcome. Things are better today, but America still has deep pockets of cultural insensitivity. To dismiss real pain and cause for fear is harmful, not just to African Americans, but to everyone.”

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Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on April 09, 2019

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