|This Is My Country, This Is My Fight, Too: Justine Tyrrell Priestley ’43|
Justine Tyrrell Priestley knows what it’s like to be an outsider. As the first white reporter at the Harlem weekly, Amsterdam News, Priestley felt the sting of exclusion that the paper’s black staff members experience because of their skin color. “I was in the reverse position,” Priestley said recently in a phone interview from her Martha’s Vineyard home overlooking Nantucket Sound. “Because I was white, I was judged before anything else. I didn’t belong, and there’s nothing worse than not belonging.”
A mother of four boys, Priestley easily could have holed up in her family’s Upper East Side Manhattan apartment and shut out the social upheavals of the 1960s. Instead, she worked to help black students attend college. Later, during an effort to aid a Little Rock, Arkansas, newspaper publisher, Priestley met James L. Hicks, the Amsterdam News’s editor. She complained to him that the paper presented all whites as racists. “Your paper is just as biased as you’re complaining white people are,” Priestley told Hicks, who suggested she write some pieces expressing her views. To Hicks’s surprise, Priestley did, starting a column called “White on White,” which appeared under the pen name Gertrude Wilson.
Priestley’s columns attracted immediate attention. Some whites sent her hate mail, and a few blacks told her she didn’t belong at the paper. But many were receptive. Priestley says that baseball great Jackie Robinson wrote her a note praising a column. Poet Langston Hughes saluted her, she recalls, for a piece in which she opined, “If I was black I would probably have wanted to be a black Muslim.”
After a few years Priestley began to write news articles and features for the News. She reported on the March on Washington in 1963 and rode on Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a policeman broke her glasses with a swipe of his club. Over the years she became friendly with major civil rights figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. She spent the night after Malcolm X’s assassination with his widow, Betty Shabazz. Then, after a decade at the paper, Priestley retired, weary of constantly having to prove herself. And, despite her work, she felt that her colleagues would never fully accept her.
Thirty years later, Priestley, whose emphysema requires her to rely on an oxygen tank, has poured her columns, experiences, and thoughts into an unpublished memoir, You Can’t Get There From Here. “A lot of people both black and white thought I didn’t have a right to be doing this kind of thing,” Priestley says. “So I explained in a column one time: This is my country, and this is my fight, too. If any of my fellow citizens is kept from going to a restaurant, from voting, from going to school, they’re not getting their rights. That takes away from everyone’s freedoms.”