Lynn Henning Responds to Criticism of Not Mentioning Black Writers in Detroit News Anniversary Story

September 10, 2023, 10:12 PM

The author is a retired Detroit News sports writer who contributes regularly to The News. This is in response to a column written in Deadline Detroit by Darren Nichols titled: "Detroit News' Anniversary Story On Sports Department Failed To Mention Contributions Of Black Writers."

By Lynn Henning

Darren Nichols asks a proper question, but it's one I'd definitely consider in the context of the assignment requested of me, by Kelley Root, after the idea was advanced by Nolan Finley at a 150th Anniversary ideas-meeting:

(l-r) Lynn Henning and Darren Nichols

The focus was obviously more on "ancient" Detroit News sports-writing history, given the 150-year span, with a primary assigned focus on sports columnists.

Therefore, earlier decades, rather than contemporary writers and staffers, was implied to be the natural area of concentration.

And that meant the gang was probably going to be pretty White, not that I was considering race, or gender, or anything other than something of a timeline that was needed in that context to begin with H.G. Salsinger.

The earlier decades and generations were logically in need of more illumination. The contemporary cast -- today's staff, as well as staffers from the past 20 years or more -- were largely known. I was obliged, in my view, to do more of an archaeological dig, and not incidentally, to do it in the span of 850 words or so, max.

I knew two things about this (it wasn't a big-deal assignment in my view, nor did I approach it with any such sense of scholarship):

  • Whoever wasn't going to be mentioned would be irked or hurt or insulted or whatever.

  • Whoever was mentioned was not going to be sufficiently discussed or feted or explained -- in that person's view.

But I did the assignment, accordingly, with another criterion deciding jump-balls on who would be loosely recorded in a simple listing of News sports writers:

They needed pretty much to be News careerists -- guys who were anchored there and who weren't on hand for a few years between stops. They also needed to work in sports nearly exclusively during their News stints.

Thus, Luther Keith (I understand Darren mentioned him) wasn't included for the simple reason Luther began in sports but moved to higher-level editor's jobs and positions. Justice Hill was there for a while then departed for another position. John Jackson, also, left after a short stay for the Sun-Times. Elton Alexander was another.

Jay Mariotti, obviously not Black, was of the same strain and was not mentioned in my rough list of long-timers. Nor did I mention George Cantor, who for a couple of years was in sports as a columnist between other column stints at the News. So, race was hardly a consideration or an element in drawing lines here.

Bryan Burwell (who, interestingly, replaced me as columnist when I left for my magazine sabbatical) was there between New York and St. Louis, and was by no means a long-term fixture.

Rob Parker had been in New York and Cincinnati and the Free Press and later departed the News.

Terry Foster, in retrospect, I could have mentioned, but Terry's identity has been tied more to his radio gig at WXYT. He was down to a once-a-week contribution for his waning years at the News. I simply didn't think of him -- I probably should have -- but, again, Terry in the eyes of most of the audience would be associated as a radio celebrity. I think his radio presence subconsciously is why I didn't consciously think of Terry until Darren's protest was made known to me.

A similar situation occurred with women: Cyndi Meagher was a pioneer and was mentioned. Bev Eckman was more of an assistant sports editor. Alex Ben Block, based on my criteria, shouldn't have been included but was because he was there with Meagher during a brief '70s foray into the News bringing in new blood. It was only as a '70s (older history, preceding Joe Falls' arrival) historical artifact that Ben Block was brought up. That was one who could have been excised, for sure.

Angelique Chengelis is, of course, on the current staff. I dealt with the current staff -- again, this was a HISTORICAL review -- simply by saying Bob Wojnowski quarterbacks the current crew. I felt that was adequate when their work is visible each day.

The real storytelling to this assignment, in my view, was to talk about long-term icons: Salsinger, Doc Greene, Waldmeir, and the ensuing drama that occurred when Joe Falls joined Jerry Green as a co-columnist.

I mentioned Shelby Strother in that he likely would have had a long tenure as a true News celebrity but was short-circuited by death at 44 from cancer.

I could easily have done a second column on: How The All-White Detroit News Sports Department Finally Made Way for Brilliant Black Talent.

But that would have been a separate column, for sure, requiring ample space and a definitive assignment. 

It still should be written -- that period of inclusivity -- now that we're discussing it. But that wasn't the assignment. I tried, as best I could, to make it more historically revealing, hence the focus on predecessors from decades ago.

So, there you have it. I'm hardly oblivious to all-White institutions, past or present. I believe Darren Nichols knows me well enough to appreciate that aspect of my life and convictions.

I needn't provide a resume here, but I'm not sure how many people, journalists or non-journalists, have toured the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, or how many have walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or how many have driven to the home of Medgar Evers so that I might experience the horror of that June night in 1963, or how many have toured the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, or have walked the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (where the brutality of America's lynchings is sacredly mourned), but I've done all of the above.

So, as you might know from knowing me, Civil Rights has been a visceral cause since I was a young kid -- truly.

It makes all the more unfortunate any shortcoming I might have shown in that compendium of News columnists (and writers).

So, there's the short explanation.

I'm sorry that Darren felt racial insensitivity or disrespect from that column. I had a different perspective, based on the nature of the assignment. I continue to believe a separate story outlining how an earlier all-White bastion became integrated and more reflective of our society and aspirations finally arrived, imperfectly and incompletely, but with hopes of bringing equality to a newspaper's overall endeavors.

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