Before she became an acclaimed journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault was the subject of a major news story. In 1961 she was one of the first two African-American students to enroll at the University of Georgia, an event that received national media coverage. It also helped shape Hunter-Gault’s journalistic style. Throughout more than forty years in the news business, Hunter-Gault has become known for exploring issues and events by reporting their impact on individuals, and often has served as a voice for those who might otherwise be overlooked. “The most dynamic reporting,” she explained in a 1995 Chicago Tribune profile, “is reporting that presents people in their humanness.” She began her career as a print reporter in 1963 at the New Yorker and later worked at the New York Times, where she established a Harlem bureau. “What I was intimately interested in,” she said, “was also something that wasn’t being covered anywhere, for the most part. And that was the black community.” From there she transitioned to television. In 1978 Hunter-Gault became a correspondent for The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, later known as The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Since leaving the NewsHour, she has worked as a correspondent for NPR and CNN.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault was born on February 27, 1942, in Due West, South Carolina. When her father, a chaplain in the United States military, was stationed overseas, Hunter-Gault and her mother often lived with her maternal grandmother, who read three newspapers a day and to whom Hunter-Gault attributes her interest in journalism. The budding reporter was also a fan of glamorous comic-strip journalist Brenda Starr. “I think I always had a vision of what I wanted to do,” said Hunter-Gault in an interview with members of the Washington Press Club.
In earning a BA in journalism from the University of Georgia in 1963, Hunter-Gault became the first African-American woman to graduate from the school. She then joined the staff of the New Yorker as an editorial assistant, but was quickly promoted to reporting and writing for “Talk of the Town.” It was there that she began covering historically significant events and movements by showing their impact on the lives of ordinary people. One example was a New Yorker article, entitled “The Corner,” in which she wrote about Black Nationalism by chronicling a typical day at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, a well-known gathering place in Harlem. After winning a Russell Sage Fellowship, which funds study of social science techniques for use in journalism, she enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis. She left before earning a graduate degree when a news producer at WRC-TV in Washington, DC, offered her an on-air job. A year later, in 1968, Hunter-Gault returned to print, at the New York Times. She made a small but important impact on the paper when she convinced management to alter Times style by substituting the word “black” for “Negro.”
In 1978, Hunter-Gault joined The MacNeil/Lehrer Report as a correspondent and later was named chief national correspondent. During her long tenure with the program, she interviewed such newsmakers as Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela and had a strong behind-the-scenes influence by developing most of her own story ideas, including reports on the armed conflict in Grenada in the eighties, and “Apartheid’s People,” her award-winning series on South Africa. In addition, Hunter-Gault was the head correspondent for Learning in Africa, a PBS special series produced by MacNeil/Lehrer. In many of her segments, Hunter-Gault maintained her focus on everyday lives.
Hunter-Gault expanded her duties at PBS in 1992 by anchoring Rights and Wrongs, a newsmagazine focusing on human rights. After leaving The NewsHour, she became chief correspondent in Africa for NPR and later served as Johannesburg correspondent and bureau chief for CNN. She returned to NPR in 2005.
Hunter-Gault relates her continuing enthusiasm for journalism to the habits of a woman she met in Kyoto, Japan. In the woman’s home were stacks of bowls containing a large variety of beans for her son’s lunch. The woman told Hunter-Gault that in Japan, it would be disgraceful to serve the same lunch on many occasions, because there were so many different options. “Well, I feel the same way about stories,” Hunter-Gault said. “There is such an infinite variety, how could you ever get bored?” Hunter-Gault’s many industry honors include two Emmy awards and a Peabody, all for her five-part 1985 NewsHour series on apartheid in South Africa.
" – (An abstract of a 1995 Times Magazine
article by Hunter-Gault about the intersection of her life with Hamilton Holmes, who along with Hunter-Gault integrated the University of Georgia, a school so dedicated to segregation that it took a ruling by the Supreme Court to secure their admission. Note: there is a fee to view the entire article.)
Other Hunter-Gault articles for the New York Times
from 1968–78 are available for a fee here.