Black and White and Read All Over: An Interview with Wanda Smalls Lloyd

It was always one of my favorite jokes as a kid: What’s black and white and red all over? A newspaper.

I cracked up at the wordplay, a grammar nerd from the womb. But I also loved how it alluded to the universality of newspapers. Back then the daily paper—thrown with a thwack by a kid on a BMX bike at dawn—was the source of the world beyond our block, connecting us to everyone and everywhere else. I remember learning to read by sounding out Charlie Brown’s thought bubbles and wondering who in the world thought Andy Capp was the least bit entertaining. 

Of course, all that’s different now. We could kvetch all day about the dissolution of print journalism and news’ subsequent reorganization into a Frankensteinian mashup of entertainment, punditry, and propaganda—but who has time for that? The most important thing is to keep reading and supporting the outlets still doing the work—and to keep believing in what connects us.  

A few weeks ago, the freelance gods bestowed on me a fascinating gig, helping out with a project that is analyzing how people get their news now, particularly people of color. That same week, at the shivah of my wonderful friend and mentor Ed Feiler, I chatted with a woman who lived down the street in Habersham Woods, a historically Jewish neighborhood on the southside. I thought she might serve as a good source for the project I was working on, since her most recent position had been as the chair of Savannah State University’s Journalism and Mass Communications department. 

Turns out, what Wanda Smalls Lloyd knows about news could fill reams and reams, if that’s the way volumes of information are still measured. 

A Spelman grad and retired journalist whose career arc began in the pre-computer days when print presses were arranged with individual letters, she logged hours at the copy desks of The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and other big city dailies, then rose to senior editor in the early years of USA Today. She eventually became the first African American executive editor—the top position on the masthead—at The Montgomery Advertiser before settling back down in her childhood home of Savannah. Her many recognitions include the Ida B. Wells Award and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Hall of Fame, and oh, by the way, she’s a four-time juror of the Pulitzer Prize. 

Her low-key demeanor belies her as a treasured repository of knowledge, not only as a witness and actor in the transformation of media in America and as a working mother when women in managerial positions were rare, but of a time in Savannah long past but still deeply felt. The first chapters of her recent memoir, Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism, offers a first-person account of segregation on the streets we still walk today, and how a young Black woman gained the courage and confidence to cross barriers and crash glass ceilings. 

Coming Full Circle was published last year but is finally getting the launch it deserves this Saturday evening, November 13 at the Jepson Center for the Arts, where Wanda will be in conversation with another journalistic beacon, former Savannah Morning News editor and SCAD professor Rexanna Lester

“We’ve been friends for 30 years; she always likes to tell people how we met at the White House,” says Rexanna, who indeed hit it off with Wanda at an editor’s conference in D.C. during the Clinton years.

The pair bonded over Savannah, work, motherhood, and a mutual penchant for shopping at Globe Shoe Company, though Rexanna understood that as a white woman, her path had not included her friend’s struggles.

“We had so much in common, yet our experiences were so different,” she says of Wanda’s stories of cast-off textbooks in school and fear of speaking up in the newsroom. “It really opened my eyes how there was just not a level playing ground.”

Coming Full Circle is an engaging read, starting at segregation and continuing full-throttle through the Civil Rights Era, HBCU life, and the transition of old school newsrooms into corporate media empires, all told through the lens of an assiduous journalist who always gets her facts straight. It is a personal account that reflects the universal desire to find out what is beyond our block and reach back to help others across the threshold. 

When I asked if I might ask its author a few questions, she invited me over to the lovely mid-century home shares with her husband, Willie Lloyd, and their adorable mini-pinscher, Bella. In addition to reading her book at top speed, in preparation I also listened to the podcast she hosts with novelist Tina McElroy Ansa, her former Spelman roommate and hilarious BFF—it’s called 2 Old Chicks Who Know A Lot of Sh*t and it is a delight, an education, a whole mood and a prayer. 

Following is a woefully short version of our conversation that barely covers what Wanda Smalls Lloyd has seen and done; I highly recommend showing up to the Jepson this Saturday at 6pm to buy her book and learn more. 

What was it like as a young person growing up in Savannah under Jim Crow?

First of all, let me tell you that we didn't use the term “Jim Crow” when I was in school. I didn't know that term. I didn't really focus on the fact that I had grown up in Jim Crow until I started telling stories to my students at Savannah State, about how we couldn't do this, and we couldn’t go there. They asked me “why?” and I said because of Jim Crow, and it hit me, I never had really talked about it in terms of that.

We sat at the back of the bus, though I don’t think my parents let me get on the bus until after we were able to sit anywhere. Actually, we owned the funeral home, so we had cars. Not all Black people had cars, but we did, it was part of the business. 

We had separate churches. We had separate social kinds of things, like all the Black sororities and fraternities, and all these other Black organizations that would invite my parents to different dances and parties, the Mules and the Moles and the Charms...they’re all still around today. 

We shopped on West Broad Street, which is now Martin Luther King Boulevard. The businesses [we went to] were Black owned, and many of them were Jewish owned. There was a store called Yachum & Yachum, where the Jewish people allowed us to try on clothes, though a few years before me we couldn’t in some other stores. 

Some of us worked at the Jewish businesses. We weren’t allowed to work in stores behind the counter, but that changed when I was a young person. During the boycott [led by NAACP leader W.W. Law in 1960-62], one of the things we wanted to see was people behind the counters instead of sweeping the floor or running the elevators. I remember Globe Shoes had an elevator operator. 

Globe Shoes! Can you believe it’s still here?

I have been shopping there since I was a little girl! The owner—oh gosh, I can’t recall his name at the moment—always remembered me, and every time I’d come in as an adult with friends, he’d say, “I've been fitting her feet since she started wearing shoes!” They really had that little machine you’d stick your feet in that we found out later was giving everyone x-ray radiation [laughs].

Where were the places you could not go?

I was afraid to go to Daffin Park. When I was in high school, maybe in ‘65, my friends and I decided to go—it was after the Civil Rights Act, so it was legal, we were allowed. But when we got there I was spat at by a group of white boys, and it was traumatizing. I did not return there until 2013, and it was very emotional for me. 

We also did not go to Tybee. We were told by our parents, “do not ever go.” They really didn't tell us why. I mean, it was illegal for one. But I think it was notorious that if Black people went to Tybee, they would get arrested. Of course, there was one night we got rebellious, which is in the book. 

I did not go back to Tybee until 1997. It was the day after my mother’s funeral, and I wanted to see the ocean. My first thought would have been to go to Hilton Head, but I didn't want to take the time it took to drive there and back, and Tybee was only thirty minutes away. And there was my grandmother's voice in my head, “you know, colored can go there now.” Yes, she said “colored,” you have to remember her era. 

Sometimes there were places that I would bring up, restaurants, and such, and she would say, “they let colored in there now.” Not that we went—even though things were integrated, it took a while for Black people to actually go. There's still certain places in Savannah Black people don’t go. 

You mentioned your mother. Let's talk about Gloria—in your book, you describe how she singularly influenced the creation of Black dolls for the mainstream market. 

Yes, it wasn’t just black baby dolls, it was also G.I. Joe-type action figures, too. She was a buyer with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which supplied the PXs at all the bases. My mom had the second largest toy budget in the world—only Sears had more money to spend. She saw a niche for the Black children of American soldiers, and when you walk into Mattel and Hasbro and you’ve got that much money, you can pretty much have what you want. 

She was a force. As my friend Tina once said, “Your mother is the only Black woman I ever saw carrying a briefcase.”

Now my daughter, Shelby, is a buyer. She spent all her summers as a child here in Savannah with my mother, and saw that her grandmother had this wonderful career. She told me in middle school she wanted to be a buyer, and she’s been a buyer at Belk and Payless, now she’s with an e-commerce company called Shine On.  

She had quite a mentor! How important was mentorship to you in your newspaper career? 

Well, since you read my book, you know I didn’t have mentors. And that’s what drives me now. Looking back I know that I missed out, though I think I did OK. But there were some stumbles along the way. 

When I was at Beach High School, my journalism teacher had never worked in a newsroom. She was teaching it out of a book. But she recognized my talent and encouraged me, put me in a journalism program at Savannah State one summer run by the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, which I found out later was the same organization that gave me my internship in Providence, Rhode Island. 

So I had instruction. But the only mentor you could say I had was my mother once I got midway through my career, because she had worked in business and understood corporate dynamics. 

Once I started working, I began mentoring in the cities I lived in, speaking at high schools and college classes. I started acquiring what I called “my children”—my daughter doesn’t mind, we’ve ended up with a large, large family in that regard. Many of them became journalists, though some went on to other careers, one is an author who has a writing group, another owns a PR firm in Atlanta—they’re helping me now! 

OK, this is a weird question, but how did you come to live in this neighborhood? 

That's a good question [laughs]. Before my grandmother died in 71, she’d always say to me, “let's go see the [holiday] decorations that the white folks have.” We’d drive up and down Victory Drive to look at them, and sometimes we’d wander up over here. Of course, there were no decorations here. I didn't know it was a Jewish neighborhood, but I really liked the mid-century houses.

We moved back to Savannah in 2013, and my husband kept saying, “I want a one level house because we're gonna get old in it.”  Our real estate agent kept taking us to Southbridge, to Pooler, where I was not going to live. Back when I was young, that’s where the Klan was known in this area, and that was another place I was scared to go, and I just refused to have that as an address.   

And so we drove through this area and found this house, though our real estate agent didn't think to show it to us. She was Black; I'm not saying she was trying to keep us out. I'm sure she just didn't focus on it, like this Jewish neighborhood for her Black customers? But we looked at it and fell in love—though I hated the fact that I had a pool. I've never been a swimmer. I never learned to swim. I still don't know how to swim. I can float a little bit, paddle around, but I'm not a swimmer. That's a whole other Jim Crow story. 

But Willie, he wore me down. He was still walking at the time, but he said, “I don't want to climb steps anymore.” Thank God, because things happen and now we have the perfect house. In fact, there's a bedroom that had a bathroom that was already handicap accessible.

May I ask what his condition is?

He did two tours in Vietnam. He was exposed to Agent Orange big time as a supply officer in the Navy. All the supplies would come in on the big ships, and the sailors would wait at the mouth of the river. The Air Force would come in and spray Agent Orange everywhere, which would immediately denude the foliage. It would also kill the Viet Cong who were hiding in the jungle waiting to shoot the boats as they came in. They didn't know at the time but that stuff stayed in the air a very long time and is still affecting all of the Vietnam veterans. It's broken down his bones and his muscles. He was 6’5”, he played football in the Navy, he played baseball and golf. He’s had six knee replacements, and after the sixth, he fell, broke his leg, and was never able to walk again.

I know that neutrality has been an important part of your career, but what role has faith played in your life?

I left it out of the book, but I do go to church every Sunday, except now it’s on YouTube—I’ll get back in person soon. I pray before every meal, I pray every day for my family. I have faith that I’ll make the right decision, or if I don’t, that it’ll turn out OK. I have faith in myself and in humankind. Well, sometimes I’m disappointed in the humankind part, but I have faith in people.

I also believe in other things, like science and facts, because I have an education. 

These days, copy desks—where reporters’ stories get edited and laid out on the page—have mostly disappeared; most papers are lucky to even have a proofreader. How has it been to watch the newsroom change?

In Montgomery, we had a very vibrant copy desk, and it got smaller and smaller because corporate figured out that they could take the design aspect of newspapers and put it in a central studio in Nashville or Phoenix and take those positions out of the newsroom. So what you have is people editing copy and designing pages that do not know the community. Now, if you’re a reporter, it’s essentially up to you to edit your own stuff. 

I lament the fact that local news is difficult to find. Even in a local paper, there’s so much non-local stuff in there. Not that we don’t want to know what is going on all over the world, but we want to know what’s going on in our neighborhoods. Local elections are an important example. That’s what I miss most about daily journalism—election night. Well, that, and football championship nights in Alabama because we were always winning! I don’t know anything about sports, but I loved the adrenaline of it, giving the community the best content we could. And we did that by knowing the people who lived there.

Do you see a journalistic model like that for the future?

The models that are working are the Washington Post, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, but who’s got those resources? Who’s got Jeff Bezos? I don’t like that news ends up being owned by the rich guys.

What I do like is the new concept of non-profits doing community news, though I don’t know that it can give that daily dose. I really miss that. 

The most important thing is that news is accessible—I don’t necessarily mean financially, but mentally and culturally. I don’t have any problem with pushing news through social media—if the younger generation is getting information through TikTok and Snapchat, then let’s be there. I am really encouraged that news organizations are reaching people where they are. 

Thank you for reading ~ JLL

Coming Full Circle: Wanda Smalls Lloyd in Conversation with Rexanna Lester

When: 6pm, Saturday, Nov. 13

Where: Jepson Center for the Arts, Telfair Square

Cost: FREE

Share

Savannah Sideways is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.