Herbert H. Denton
The banking gig was boring, frankly. Even for a guy who had been at the top of his prep school class, had just graduated with honors from Harvard, and was being paid pretty well.
Come on down to Washington, his friend said over the phone. Take this short-term job (and a pretty big pay cut, too).
‘Well, I’ll have to think about it,’ Herb Denton replied. A heartbeat later: ‘OK, I’ve thought about it.’ A week after that, down there he was.
A few months passed, and he was in the newsroom of The Washington Post. Another few, and he was in Vietnam, on the battlefield with the 1st Air Cavalry Division of the United States Army. He earned a Bronze Star in combat.
It would be a couple of years before he would return to that newsroom, and spend the next decade there. Then he left, on assignment again and again, to crisscross the nation, and to cover war in the Middle East.
Ultimately, he landed a more serene and settled posting, in Toronto. It was a quieter place where he could continue to ponder the conundrums of race, inequality and responsibility; of friendship and of family; of writing and life.
He was still a young man on the spring day in 1989 when he took his final breath, having said bedside goodbyes to his mother, his sister, his brother and a handful of colleagues and close friends.
His obituary inside the local news section of the newspaper in his adopted hometown on May 1, 1989 carried no byline.
Donald E. Graham, the publisher of The Post, had been at Harvard with Herb, and in the same Army platoon.
He appreciated what that fellow former foot soldier had brought into the newsroom. Herb “understood complicated situations more clearly than the rest of us,” Graham told the obituary writer. “He had extraordinary judgment about people’s abilities....He was a great reporter and editor.”
Post Managing Editor Leonard Downie Jr. also was grateful. “Losing him is particularly difficult for all of us who have worked so closely together since the 1960s under Ben Bradlee to make the newspaper what it is today,” said Downie, a key Watergate newsroom veteran. “He was an integral part of that team. He pushed himself and all the rest of us to do better and was one of the fierce guardians of this newspaper’s ideals—and we’re going to miss that terribly.”
Growing Up in Arkansas
Herb Denton the journalist was inseparable from Herb Denton the man. Indeed, he was in many ways just a full-size version of the little “Herbert Junior,” as some called him, who’d grown up during the twilight years of Jim Crow Arkansas.
The apartheid of Little Rock was milder than towns in Alabama, Georgia and lynch-mad Mississippi, Herb wrote for Outlook, the Sunday opinion section of The Post where personalized journalism lived. But here there were the familiar separate drinking fountains—some labeled “White” and “Colored”’ some just painted white and brown—separate parks, segregated movie theaters, no restaurants on Main Street where a black could eat, and, most definitely, no memberships in the downtown private clubs. The slogan on Arkansas auto tags read: “Land of opportunity.” We appended a kicker: ‘The first opportunity you get, get out.’”
Herb could argue you down, and he’d come by it honestly. Lucille Denton had told Downie that Herbert Junior, her son, had honed that skill in “precocious debate with his formidable father,” Downie said at the memorial service for Herb in Washington.
Herbert The Elder was a living legend among local black folks, a no-nonsense public school system educator. He was a man who so insisted on rigorous standards, Herb himself wrote, that he once flunked one of his younger sisters in a biology class, a tale that became a part of Little Rock lore.
The apple landed close to the tree. As early as first grade, Herbert Junior was “a stubborn perfectionist,” childhood classmate Carmelita Smith recalled at Herb’s funeral in Little Rock.
Opportunity to get out of Little Rock came knocking for Herbert Junior after desegregation battles closed the local public schools, and he found himself one summer in a special high schools program at Howard University in Washington.
He managed to gain admission and full financial support at Windsor Mountain School in Lenox, Mass. His dad initially scoffed at the idea, but then acceded to the son’s wishes.
Herb left Little Rock, but Little Rock was never to leave him. Visiting home after being away a couple decades, he chronicled what he found:
The blacks of Little Rock—a city that has become a national symbol of racial battles for others but which is hometown to me—are caught these days between many different worlds, feeling the tug of the past and uncertain of where they should be going from here.It is difficult to predict, of course, which road this new generation will take when they are in charge, this generation which has grown up living in both worlds. Some of them have already discovered the pain of the balancing act.
That generation had created a place very different from the city of his youth. Denton called it “The new world of Little Rock.” And he concluded: It will be for the new kids on the streets where I grew up to figure out what to do with it.
Paving the Way
Herb had returned to the newsroom of The Washington Post at a pivotal time for black people in the nation’s capital, and for black journalists at the newspaper.
The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968 ignited flames of anger along three of the city’s neighborhood main streets. There was looting and there were arrests. Ten people died. The National Guard patrolled the city, and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover suggested that rioters caught in the act should be shot.
The chief executive of the capital city, however, was as much an icon in black Washington as Herbert H. Denton Sr. was in black Little Rock. His name was Walter E. Washington, and he flatly rejected Hoover’s advice. That decision became a part of D.C. lore.
The fires then and earlier baptized The Washington Post and its media brethren to the need for diversity. A national commission on civil disorders judged the press too white to accurately report the news of the long hot summers of the time.
Newsrooms rushed to color up, integrating their ranks—mostly on the bottom. At The Post, some of the more militant of the new recruits felt frustrated in their opportunities to do better. They filed formal complaints with local and national anti-discrimination agencies. Herb Denton declined to sign on.
“The mythology that many black journalists created in the Sixties had it that only black reporters could really understand and have access to the ghetto,” he explained in a 1981 opinion article in The Post.
“But that notion long ago went the way of the dashiki for all but a lingering fringe of blacks in this business. Today the reason for having black writers...is simply because they’re first rate journalists, regardless of who they cover.”
This was nothing new. At Windsor Mountain and at Harvard, he had shown himself to be not a joiner to the activist fold. But he did not see himself as a turncoat, either.
His parents’ generation had sent their best and brightest into battle warning that they had to be twice as good as their white counterparts to even be considered.
(You’d need to be an all-star just to get a seat on the bench, was how it was metaphorically described by one talented black college quarterback of that day who later found fame in national politics—Jesse L. Jackson.)
Herb challenged himself and his charges to strive for excellence. Mistakes could not be tolerated. Today’s best always could be—must be—better tomorrow. “Racism could never be an excuse,” Post colleague Ken Ringle recalled at the memorial service.
Once empowered, Herb was not afraid to hire or promote on potential, risking some of his own newsroom capital on the outcome. He’d salvage a career from someone else’s occupational scrap heap. He knew that demonstrated success often was as much a byproduct of opportunity given as of talent ignored, so he gave out chances, including some he fought to procure.
Making His Mark
Herb Denton was put in charge of the coverage of local news in the District of Columbia in 1976. Washington, DC was a complicated place, and black Washington, even more so.
It was Up North and Down South at the same time. It was white, and black, and many shades of brown. It was rich and it was poor. It could be cosmopolitan, sophisticated and subtle. It could be crude and simple; and it could be mean.
Knowledge had always been one of Herb’s strengths. As a journalist, he owned one job-related essential: a proverbial bullshit detector, factory-installed. But there was more.
Journalist Hendrik Hertzberg, who met Herb at Harvard and lured him to Washington, said his one-time roommate had an indefatigable “independence of mind.” It always was apparent that Herb “was utterly and absolutely his own man,” Hertzberg said at the memorial service in Washington.
Oliver “Skip” Grant, an administrator and athletics director at Washington’s prestigious St. Albans School who’d known Herb for nearly two decades, said he had a “brilliant and incisive mind” and was a “storehouse of knowledge” who “never got carried away with his own importance.”
Leon Dash, like Herb, a local reporter and foreign correspondent at The Post, concurred that this intellectual armament served Herb well in verbal battles inside and outside of the newsroom. But, Dash said, it also fueled another salient trait—“an insatiable curiosity about human behavior.”
Editor Herb Denton immersed himself and his news colleagues in the social and economic tapestry of the District of Columbia.
Three books became unofficial required reading: “Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men;” “Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital;” and “Captive Capital: Colonial Life in Modern Washington.”
Reporters were pressed to learn DC neighborhoods by name, nickname and history, not just by their quadrant in the capitol-centric street grid devised by Benjamin Bannekar more than a century earlier.
Book smarts seasoned street smarts, with a dash of follow-me leadership. If reporters were intimidated by or even scared of certain neighborhoods, Herb would go there with them. If they didn’t quite understand the often two-edged (or two-faced) parlor chatter of proper black Washington, Herb would translate. After hours, he whispered the protocols and the secrets of newsroom management to those who might succeed him.
The journalism that came forth was a cornucopia of chronicles of how Washingtonians—especially black Washingtonians—lived life.
There were high school graduates unable to read the signs on the front of the bus; families skimping here and stretching there to make it on free school meals by day and food stamps at night; heroin junkies injected with their daily fix in neighborhood oil joints while police looked another way.
Some sophisticated tan ladies regularly lunched in downtown department stores where they once were forbidden to shop, and a black downtown lawyer became the first of his race to be Secretary of the Army.
A long-time black realtor’s daughter was on the brink of becoming the first of her gender (and her color) to lead the region’s chamber of commerce. The daughter of Dr. Charles Drew, the legendary black physician of blood plasma fame, was elected to the D.C. council.
And a street corner activist and rural Mississippi transplant, still rough at the edges of social graces, was ascending in D.C. politics, soon to be regaled by some and vilified by others as Mayor for Life, Marion Barry Jr.
If the local news coverage Herb Denton orchestrated afflicted comforts, so be it. When one stately black resident complained at a town hall meeting that The Post was part of a major conspiracy to scourge emerging black empowerment, Herb offered this rebuttal: “You don’t understand: Even if there is a conspiracy here, we’re not organized enough to carry it out,” Ringle remembered.
Years later, when the newsroom of The Washington Post would become nationally known as one of the most diverse of all, numerous rank and file positions as well as many in the upper echelons were held by beneficiaries of the Denton touch.
Building A Legacy
Herb bought a home just around the bend from Tally’s corner, in D.C.’s historic Shaw neighborhood, which was then beginning to gentrify. The house was a stone’s throw from a marvelous playfield, and that proximity symbolically betrayed one of Herb’s not so secret passions.
He never had children of his own, Juan Williams noted at the memorial service, but he was a godfather—official and unofficial—to those of nearly everyone he knew who did have kids. He was an early morning outdoor playmate, an occasional prankster and Santa Claus whenever possible.
When Herb travelled, his kids could expect to receive “postcards from around the world,” Williams said, and he would return from journeys with “two shopping bags filled with the most delicious toys—toys from afar.”
Given at one point to a paternal mode, he once admonished Williams, “You don’t have any patience for children, and until you learn that, you won’t be a good man,” Williams recalled.
It was one of two memorable and characteristic rebukes to someone who considered Herb a father of sorts. The other: “You son of a bitch. I can’t believe someone is 25 years old and doesn’t know how to drive,” he told the young Williams.
Herb himself hadn’t acquired that skill until a much later age, and was so notoriously inept at it that even a small crosstown trip with him at the wheel qualified his passenger for hazardous duty pay, Post photographer Fred Sweets remarked, to a church full of chuckles at the memorial service.
The insight that had shaped Herb Denton’s perspective on Washington life accompanied him to Beirut. There, his courage, commitment and friendship earned deep respect and appreciation from colleagues. They showered the foreign desk of The Post with condolences for his mother when he died.
In a memoir about life in the war-torn city, Herb marveled at the resilience of those in such constant danger. He had dubbed many of the esoteric survival skills, tactics and outright hustles of those in the nation’s capital as “The D.C. Way.” Looking back in reflection, he labeled what he had found on this sojourn ‘The Lebanese National Way:”
Rest In Peace
The billboard paragraph in that May 1, 1989 obituary of Herbert Howard Denton Jr. summarized and punctuated a short but very full and impactful life—nurtured in Little Rock, felt in many parts of the world, and especially heartfelt and committed to memory in Washington, D.C.:
The headline on the Juan Williams column that day offered a simple Amen:
Herb Denton, R.I.P.