PORTRAIT OF A TRUMPET (for Justice): The Warring Soul of Raymond H. (“Ray”) Boone, Sr. (1938-2014)

by William “Duke” Smither

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“Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” (Frederick Douglass – Writer, Statesman & Social Reformer)



‘Cool,’ Personified

Perhaps, not since the compelling penmanship and clarion calls for justice by crusading journalists, Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895) and Charlotte Forten (1837-1914), has there been such a consistently fearless, meticulously bold and brutally honest warrior for human rights and equality, in my opinion, than Raymond H. (“Ray”) Boone, Sr. (1938-2014). He was founder and editor of the Richmond Free Press, as well as former editor of the Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, until his death from pancreatic cancer, on June 3, 2014. He was 76. And, like the “trumpet” for justice he was, in the sunset of his astounding life journey, he was still speaking “truth to power,” while standing strong against institutional racism, economic inequality and cultural ignorance.

Yet, I simply thought of him as a friend and mentor, from the time I first joined the Richmond AFRO as a “cub reporter,” during my freshman year (1968-1969) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), as a student, college newspaper (“The Postscript”) sports reporter and aspiring journalist. So, I’ll admit to being a little biased in how I felt about this intellectual giant.

When I first walked into his office to apply for a job, I noticed he was cut from a different cloth. He was cool—like Miles Davis, custom-trumpet/ bebop-jazz “cool.” Forever dapper, he always seemed to be “dressed to the nines,” accentuated with that awesome looking, vintage-leather, satchel briefcase he carried. He maintained an arsenal of disarming, knowing-smiles that made you come clean with him, no matter your political persuasion or how wacko your set of beliefs happened to be. He was gifted with street smarts, respectful to all and intellectually savvy, to boot. His private conversations were sprinkled with philosophical brainteasers, like some seasoned college professor confidentially sharing the “secrets” of life, steeped in situational ethics and the human condition of disenfranchised souls. He could be tactfully humorous then flip the switch to coldheartedly professional, at the bat of an eye. As my eyes scanned his office, that first day, it seemed curiously cluttered for such an engaging and inspiring mind. At least, those were my thoughts, my first casual impressions of this genuine warrior for justice, further bolstering the street creds and professional reputation that preceded him.

Richmond Free Press

Ray Boone, Sr.

Later, I would learn to appreciate the “clutter” I saw. It was actually a highly organized, categorized system, for Mr. Boone, in retrieving various on-going writing projects and storylines, editorial follow-ups and management minutiae, as well as a huge collection of media resources and “gatekeepers” (i.e., folk who controlled access to other vital news story contacts, etc.) that would have filled more rotary-index files than us average mortals could lug in a rolling suitcase. Growing up in the Jim Crow South had prepared me for lots of challenges and personalities, but I wasn’t prepared for this ‘Mr. Boone.’ I was in awe of his professional presence, but even more respectful of how the black community viewed him. Yet, three kids and six grandkids later, I’m still grateful for his impact on other life experiences that followed. When new challenges seemed complicated or overwhelming, I most always thought of the day I first met the dapper, cool-headed and spunky Ray Boone.

Turbulent Times

That year, 1968, was confusing as heck, considering the transformative social and political turbulence it ushered in; yet, there were many humbling and inspiring moments. The topsy-turvy turmoil included such notable events as (1) The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., igniting race riots across America, (2) the start of the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam, (3) the assassination of presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy, (4) an escalation of anti-war protests and campus building “occupations” around the world, (5) violent police responses to political protest at the Chicago Democratic convention and (7) Apollo 7’s launching and historical 11-day journey. Various military experiences and civilian observations, from working the streets as a trainee reporter during America’s turbulence of 1968, only strengthened my resolve to work for a black newspaper, like the crusading Chicago Defender and the Pittsburg Courier, the kind I grew up reading in the Jim-Crow South.

At the Richmond AFRO, I wrote mostly Sports & Human Interest/ Feature stories. The newspaper was located, on the 1st floor of a corner office building within Richmond’s historically black, Jackson Ward Business District, once dubbed the “Black Wall Street of America,” after the Civil War. Housing the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Richmond AFRO, it also witnessed a parade of milestones in black history.

At VCU, being married and a U.S. Navy, Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran, made me one of several non-traditional students on campus. Many of us hung out together, refusing to participate in what we thought were silly hijinks for gullible freshmen and took collective umbrage at the idea of VCU being called “Viet Cong University,” crude slurs sometimes heard from a few local “hippies” and “peaceniks.” However, the majority of VCU’s student population were earnest, hard-working students who toiled hard and long to pay for their own education. For me, that included janitorial jobs, retail sales and taking in local, telephoned post-game sports reports, at night, for the next-morning edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The GI Bill made things easier.  But, it was my heart that led me across town to join the Richmond AFRO, as well as more challenging, baptism-by-fire writing assignments.

From my first day with Ray Boone, his distinctive disliking for the cross-town, archconservative Richmond Times-Dispatch and, now-defunct, Richmond News Leader newspaper rivals stood out right away. He would never refer to them by name. But, soon after his twice mentioning “THAT newspaper,” instead, I realized he had an acute loathing for them and anyone remotely connected to the “Byrd Organization” (Political ‘machine’ led by Harry F. Byrd, Sr.) or anyone having anything to do with Virginia’s formalized policy of “Massive Resistance” (against racial desegregation of public schools).

I was relatively new to Virginia, but having grown up in Kentucky, experiencing some racially hostile years of school desegregation, in the classroom, as well as in high school track and football, I completely understood Mr. Boone’s occasionally intense sentiments. We simply connected, from jump. I reasoned that I was finally in “heaven,” on the first rung of a career ladder I had hoped for, long before my stint in the U.S. Navy. The way I saw it, I would have been glad to have paid Mr. Boone for the experiences I would have with the AFRO. But, I wouldn’t dare mention it, although he probably surmised as much. Right away, after reading some of my writing samples, he offered me the job.  Imagine!  Me? A walk-in applicant from “THAT (other) newspaper,” the cross-town rival he despised so much, to put it mildly.

Yet, it wasn’t long before I knew I “belonged” at the AFRO, given my life-long dreams of becoming a reporter for the New York Amsterdam Newspaper, in Harlem, NY, mostly because it was one of the few black daily newspapers, at the time.  It was a dream cultivated and nourished as a child, growing up in the South, on the cusp of Old Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, devouring many black newspaper publications– like candy and food for the soul.  My being voted in as my high school’s Sports Editor, the first of African-American descent, gave me hope. But, knowing that my all-time sports writing hero—Sam Lacy (the 1st black member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, and current member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, writer’s/ broadcaster’s wing)– was on the AFRO’s home office staff (in Baltimore) merely reinforced my feelings of being in the right place, at the right time, within my own life journey. If there was such a thing as ‘Cloud Nine,’ it had to be my being hired at the AFRO as a college freshman, I thought.

Painful Crossroads

Sadly, there’s often a flip-side to many of “the roads not taken” in life; and, mine came early. Just before the start of my sophomore year, the sobering vicissitudes of life, coupled with our expecting our first child, slowly peeled me away from the fleeting realities of my dream. As a result, I switched to VCU’s evening college studies and, later, changed my major to Business Administration & Management. My always-supportive wife protested that I should remain in school, full-time, and that she could continue helping the family until I graduated. I felt differently. Subsequent years of doggedly pursuing an ‘evening college’ degree (and simultaneous independent studies in African-American and Ancient African History), while working full-time jobs, were difficult, but rewarding. Yet, the impact of Mr. Boone’s imprint on my life journey was pervasive. His insightful writings, journalistic leadership and patient coaching forever shaped my appreciation for the unique mission of the crusading black press, as well as my personal resolve, in combating racism and cultural ignorance, wherever possible.

On occasion, I would dash off a “Letter to the Editor,” to Mr. Boone, related to the African-American experience with race and racism, as well as certain links to our West African cultural heritage. He must have been proud of one of the letters, concerning the transplantation and survival of Ancient African cultures in the Western Hemisphere, because the same letter was published by the AFRO on at least three other occasions, during different Black History Months. And, whenever I ran into him on the streets, at festivals, etc., with a special twinkle of the eye and one raised eyebrow, he would often playfully ask, “When are you going to send me something that I can print, again?”

I’ll never be able to explain how grateful I was for those “requests.” I felt they were his way of saying he understood why I left the industry but I should continue to write, anyway. At least, that was my take. And, I did, during two other careers, within various internal, corporate newsletters, brochures, training manuals and investigative report writing and, now, freelance and playwriting activities in retirement. Even now, I can see his knowing-smile and hear his tactful challenge suggesting, “Words are like weapons in the hands of a skilled warrior; so use them well, use them wisely.” Even today, this very moment, I still hear other words of wisdom he shared, as I struggled to meet the various deadlines and expectations he set. He was firm. But, I remain forever grateful for his indelible imprint on my life journey, despite my painful exit from pursuing a career in journalism.

Recently, I completed another play, a faith-based play with thematic scenarios relating to racism and cultural ignorance. The play’s summary said that it’s a one-act “…light comedy, concerning the Christmas season-related, questioning-potpourri surrounding different beliefs within America’s multicultural society, coupled with the racial friction and cultural clash it sometimes brings.” Even while writing character sketches for this fictional play, I was motivated to name the play’s fictional school after him. It’s called the “Raymond H. Boone, Sr., Middle School. Perhaps, someday, a somewhat fictional-to-factual nomination for a new local school, named after him, will be a more proper tribute to this “trumpet for justice” and the powerful legacy of this highly skilled journalist.

The Measure of a Man—or, “Bulldog”?

Over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was quoted as saying, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

In my opinion, Ray Boone’s life journey is chock full of examples for where he stood, during challenges and controversies—many times in the Richmond community, alone. Even in death, the Richmond Free Press (Vol. 23, #24, dated June 12-14, 2014, p. A-1) claimed, “Ray Boone scores again… Black vendors gain entry to training camp.” It was referring to an announcement by Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, three days following Mr. Boone’s death, that two popular black-owned vendors (the Croaker’s Spot and Big Herm’s Kitchen) would be selling food and soft drinks inside the Washington Redskin’s football training camp this summer.

Immediately, two things leaped off the front page for me: (1) consistent with Mr. Boone’s policy, the paper did not use the nickname, “Redskins,” for the team, a controversial policy many fans (including me) had mixed emotions about, or flatly disagreed with, and (2) Ray Boone was still “speaking,” perhaps even “smiling” after his funeral, from his open criticisms and stands he took (like last summer, concerning the “…racist and discriminatory deal brokered by the mayor and supported by Bon Secours Health Systems of Virginia that denied local vendors last summer from selling concessions inside the camp that bears the team’s racist nickname.”)

Over the years, I can recall many issues that Ray Boone, at the AFRO and the Richmond Free Press, tackled alone. But, perhaps, none stand out for me more than the ongoing, decade-long rift between Mr. Boone and the first African-American Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, Leroy R. Hassell, Sr., whom Ray Boone accused of deliberately striking the Free Press from the access list for his own formal installation ceremony, in 2002. What I recall mostly was Mr. Boone’s running a special “Question of the Week,” every week for two years or more, in the lower left corner of the Free Press Editorial page asking, “When would Hassell “stop embarrassing himself and the Commonwealth by allowing sexist references to remain on the Supreme Court website?” Eventually, it worked and the offensive references were removed. But, I was not surprised. Once he got a hold of a news storyline that made him fly his crusader “colors,” Ray Boone was a tenacious, no-nonsense “Bulldog” of a writer, in my opinion.

May God bless the continuing legacy of this skilled craftsman, Raymond H. Boone, Sr. — a true “trumpet for justice,” and still, even in death, my hero, my friend and mentor. And, may God always watch over his family, including the Richmond Free Press organization.

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About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.