by Betty Pleasant
(NNPA)—Whenever pioneering, barrier-breaking newspaper women come to mind, White people recall the almost mythical Nellie Bly, but Black people think of Libby Clark. While Bly was noted for flamboyantly blazing a trail for women in a man’s profession, Clark is noted for having pushed, punched and plowed a path for Black women in a field that wasn’t all that accessible to Black men.
Funeral services for Libby Clark, the Grande Dame of the Black press, were held Jan. 30 in the Chapel of Roses at the Simpson Funeral Home in Inglewood. Clark, believed to have been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, died in her sleep on Jan. 23. She was 94 years old.
Clark did not start out in the Black press. After studying journalism at Columbia University in New York (where she was one of four Black students), and the Mulvey Institute of Journalism (where she was the only Black student), Clark became, in 1942, the first Black woman on the staff of the Chester Times, the daily newspaper of her hometown, Chester, Pa.
After working three years at the Chester Times, Clark accepted a job as a general assignment reporter for the West Coast edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, the legendary publication that kept African-Americans throughout the country informed of the issues and events that matter to them.
Clark moved to Los Angeles in 1945 and joined the West Coast Pittsburgh Courier staff in its Central Avenue office, from whence Little Libby (she was only four feet, 10 inches tall and weighed 95 pounds) covered the West and the world and gained a national reputation as the chronicler of the important events in the lives of the nation’s Black population.
In 1949, Clark set her sights on returning to “mainstream journalism” and applied for a reporting job with the Los Angeles Times. “I went there five times trying to get a job, and they laughed at me; they treated me like a joke,” Clark said. “Finally, The Times’ food editor told me to stop trying to work for the Times because they were never going to hire me regardless of my qualifications or experience. I was devastated.”
If the L.A. Times treated her badly, the Greater Los Angeles Press Club treated her worse. The Times let her in the door; the Press Club would not. Clark explained that a fellow journalist, who was White, invited her to accompany him to a event the Press Club was holding. They wouldn’t let her in. She said she wasn’t trying to join the organization, just attend the event to which she had been invited. But no. She couldn’t come in because she was Black and no Blacks were allowed in the Los Angeles Press Club’s First Street premises for any reason, except maybe to clean it up.
After being thoroughly humiliated by The Times and the Press Club, Clark became the first African-American licensed in the state of California to own a public relations firm. It was called “Libby Clark Associates,” a PR business she operated for the next 50 years. As a PR person, Clark worked hard to make somebodies out of heretofore Black nobodies: A.C. Bilbrew, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dorothy Height and Vada Somerville, Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, Rep. Augustus Hawkins and Daisy Lampkin, one of the founders of the NAACP, to name a few.
Almost 60 years ago, Clark founded “Femme,” a magazine devoted to Black women and their families, and 30 years later she began publishing the valuable “Plum Book,” which was a listing of key individuals, organizations and institutions in the Black community—a guide so Black people could find each other, as it were. She was the author/editor of the “Black Family Reunion Cookbook,” which remained on the nation’s bestseller list for several months in 1991. It was commissioned by the National Council of Negro Women, through which more than 250,000 copies were sold.
Clark did all of these things while still churning out newspaper copy as a food editor, feature writer and syndicated columnist with works appearing in 150 newspapers around country, including the Los Angeles Sentinel, from which she retired less than 10 years ago.
Clark, whose husband, contractor James T. Allen, died in 1970 remained unattached for lo these 42 years while continuing to gain the admiration of her peers and her public. She has received numerous awards, citations and commendations for her work, including the NNPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award on her 85th birthday.
Several years ago, Clark told me that she was not altogether pleased with Black journalism as it is plied today, but she solemnly pronounced that, “the Black press comes closer to telling it like it really is than anything else.”
In addition to her husband, Clark’s two sons preceded her in death. Clark is survived by her sisters Geraldine Turner of Los Angeles and Florence Cassell of Chester, Pa. Her body is being sent back to Chester, the place where it all began.
(Special from the Los Angeles Wave)