Rochelle Riley Biography
Found Life Unimaginable without Books, Led Teen Discussion, Backed Cosby, Selected writings
One of the top young African-American journalists in the United States, Rochelle Riley received several awards for her nationally syndicated columns in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Originating at the Detroit Free Press and, prior to that, the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, those columns found audiences beyond those cities because of Riley's down-to-earth observations about parenting, friendship, and family history. She also wrote about political and social issues, however, and did not hesitate to ruffle reader feathers by taking controversial stands.
Rochelle Riley was born around 1959 in Tarboro, North Carolina, a community she sketched in detail in her columns and returned to often as an adult. Her childhood home was destroyed by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. She was unsentimental about growing up black in a Southern town that had changed slowly and begrudgingly during the civil rights movement. "No one understands what it's like to grow up in the South, unless you grew up in the South," Riley wrote in a Detroit Free Press column defending the long silence of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond's half-black daughter. "I did, in a post-civil-rights-era North Carolina town where white men still called black men boy, and black women carried the burden of healing those wounds."
Found Life Unimaginable
Her life also served as a case study in how to overcome the barriers that come with that kind of background, however. Her schooling began at home at age three, when her mother gave grammar lessons to her and her three-year-old friends in the family living room. "I can't imagine my life without books, such has been their impact," Riley wrote in the Courier-Journal. Riley attended St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and played in her high school band. She was raised at least partly by a grandfather who drove a cab and cleaned a lawyer's office after hours, and his wife, Riley's grandmother Moant.
At the University of North Carolina, Riley liked to tell friends that she majored in journalism and white people. "One was an educational tool, the other a social tool; greater veterans than I have written about the toil of keeping a foot in each world," she wrote in the Detroit Free Press. Her first jobs in journalism were reporter posts at the Washington Post and Dallas Times-Herald. She moved on to the Dallas Morning News, where she rose to the positions of senior writer and metropolitan editor.
Riley became deputy managing editor of the Courier-Journal in Louisville in September of 1992, turning down the chance to work for one of her mentors, Detroit newspaper executive Robert McGruder, in order to become the Louisville paper's first African-American news executive. The following year, she produced a videotape dealing with the attitudes of black managers in the journalism business toward their black employees. It was the first step in a long involvement with issues pertaining to young journalists. McGruder (writing in the Detroit Free Press) later called her a "surrogate mom to hundreds of high school and college students, particularly future journalists, around the country."
Led Teen Discussion
In 1996 Riley was promoted to the position of associate editor and columnist at the Courier-Journal. She continued her mentoring role as the organizer of a weekly roundtable discussion with Louisville-area teens, which provided material for a teen page Riley edited and for a teen-oriented column, one of three columns Riley wrote each week. Among the most moving of Riley's columns was a personal account of her return to hurricane-devastated Tarboro after her grandfather's death. Her columns were picked up for distribution by the Gannett syndicate, and some of them were collected into a book, From the Heart.
Riley also worked on more extended feature articles at the Courier-Journal, the best-known of which was a three-part portrait of former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, a Louisville native, that appeared in December of 1996. Riley's writings about Ali were credited with stimulating an $80 million fundraising effort aimed at building a Louisville museum devoted to the boxer's career. Often, Riley's columns made a direct difference in the community; one portrait of a struggling community center serving a pair of poor neighborhoods inspired donations of a new computer lab and a thousand books for its library.
In October of 2000, Riley joined the Detroit Free Press as a three-day-a-week columnist. She continued to find a national audience, now syndicated by the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. Riley, a single mother of one, now found her daughter old enough to provide a constant source of column material as she began, for example, to hang back a few steps from her mother during a mall shopping trip. Parenting formed a common theme in Riley's Detroit columns, including those published in Life Lessons, her second book. A section of that book also dealt with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Some of Riley's parenting columns sounded a theme also argued by comedian Bill Cosby, who took black parents to task in a series of speeches for what he saw as a lack of involvement in the education and moral upbringing of their children. Riley emerged as a strong defender of Cosby's often controversial positions. "Like Cosby, I'm sick of people not holding up their ends," she wrote in the Detroit Free Press. "Am I my brother's keeper? Of course I am, unless my brother is selling drugs or doing drive-bys. Then I want my brother in jail. Am I my sister's keeper? Not when she continues to have babies she can't financially or emotionally afford to raise."
Riley couldn't be classified as a conservative, however. She was frequently critical of President George W. Bush during the 2004 election campaign, and she rejected the anti-affirmative action initiatives spear-headed in Michigan and elsewhere by African-American California businessman Ward Connerly. "I wish the America he sees was the America that exists," wrote Riley in her column. "But that is not our America, the glorious, messy, free, convoluted, racist, tolerant, intolerant America that evolves every day. In our America, past discrimination created our present, and present discrimination hurts our future."
As of late 2004, Riley's future in journalism looked bright. She was a frequent guest on National Public Radio, and she had won several professional awards, including a National Journalism Award for Distinguished Service to Literacy from the Scripps Howard Foundation, honoring her adult literacy campaign Metro Detroit Reads. That effort led to the recruitment of more than 1,000 literacy tutors and to $35,000 in contributions. Scripps Howard judges, according to a press release that appeared on PRNewswire, said that Riley "stirred people up and got them moving." That seemed to be a recurring motif in her distinguished career.
From the Heart, 1998.
Life Lessons, 2004.
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), November 25, 1999, p. C1; February 3, 2000, p. C1; April 11, 2000, p. D1.
Detroit Free Press, October 7, 2000, p. 1; April 15, 2002; October 9, 2002; April 5, 2004; June 1, 2004; January 16, 2005.
Editor & Publisher, August 28, 1993, p. 28; December 18, 1999, p. 33.
Houston Chronicle, November 8, 2002, p. 2.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 29, 2003, p. K2685.
PRNewswire, March 12, 2004.
"Coming Home: Muhammad Ali," Courier-Journal (Louisville), www.courier-journal.com/ali/coming_home_story1.html (January 27, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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