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Simeon Booker, ‘dean of black journalists,’ succumbs at 99

12/15/2017, 7:02 a.m.
Simeon S. Booker Jr. never lived in Richmond during his nearly 100 years on Earth. Still, at the height of ...

During his tenure, Mr. Booker covered 10 U.S. presidents, scores of members of Congress and nearly every higher education executive in Washington. He wrote about historically black colleges and universities long before they were more than back page mentions in local daily papers.

He witnessed and wrote about a plethora of historic events, including the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in the 1950s launched by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, the 1963 March on Washington and the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. He chronicled the work of civil rights activists including Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer and Dorothy Height.

“You want to talk about icons, Simeon was a real-live, legitimate one, an unflappable journalist, an example for all of us back in the day and a lesson I wish those in today’s new media were guided by,” said Paul Delaney, a veteran New York Times reporter and editor. “He was a hard-nosed, hard-edged, take-no-prisoners type of guy.”

Dorothy Gilliam, a JET reporter in Chicago when Mr. Booker was hired, stayed in touch with him when she moved to The Washington Post as its first black female reporter. She said Mr. Booker deserved the recognition he received. She characterized him simply as “amazing.”

Mr. Booker got his start at the Baltimore Afro-American and the Cleveland Call and Post during the 1940s. He later was the first African-American hired full time at The Washington Post from 1951 to 1953 before joining Johnson Publications Inc. in Chicago, the parent company of JET and Ebony.

DeWayne Wickham, dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University, said Mr. Booker would be remembered as one of life’s bridge builders.

“He was the bridge over which so many of us traveled to get into mainstream media,” said Mr. Wickham, a journalist who eventually became a columnist for USA Today. “Although he worked in D.C. (the nation’s capitol), he gave legitimacy to journalism wherever journalism was done.”

The author of three books, Mr. Booker won numerous awards and honors throughout his career. He was the first African-American journalist to win the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award, was the winner of the Newspaper Guild Award and a Wilkie Award and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

In 2013, he was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists’ Hall of Fame, and was honored in January 2015 with the Martin Luther King Jr. Lifetime of Service Award at Virginia Union University.

As the Richmond Free Press Personality following his 2015 award from VUU, Mr. Booker was asked about his legacy. He responded: “I’m the son of a Baptist minister who always tried to report the truth and advance the cause of my people.”

Funeral arrangements were incomplete at Free Press publication deadline.

Survivors include his wife, Carol McCabe Booker; two sons, Simeon Booker III and Theodore Booker; a daughter, Theresa Booker; and several grandchildren. His son, Abdul Wali Muhammad, also known as James Booker, the former editor-in-chief of The Final Call, died in 1991.