Noteworthy Firsts: Lenoir Chambers

At the University Day celebration on October 11, 2016, Chancellor Carol Folt announced a new program to name scholarships after notable “firsts” in UNC history. In recognition of the individuals recognized as pioneers at UNC, the University Archives is publishing blog posts with more information about each of the twenty-one “firsts.” This post is part of that series.

Lenoir Chambers was one of the first three Carolina alumni, along with W. Horace Carter and Vermont C. Royster, to receive the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

He graduated from Virginia’s Woodberry Forest School in 1910 and received an A.B. degree from The University of North Carolina in 1914. He then studied at the Columbia University School of Journalism from 1916 to 1917. After working on the Washington staff of the New Republic, he served overseas during World War I as a first lieutenant of infantry with the 52nd Infantry, Sixth Division. After the war, Chambers directed UNC’s news bureau until 1921, when he joined the Greensboro Daily News.

Chambers was married to Roberta Burwell Strudwick in 1928. They had a daughter, Elizabeth Lacy, in addition to a son from Ms. Chambers’ first marriage, Robert Strudwick Glenn.

In 1929, Chambers became associate editor of the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk under editor Louis I. Jaffe. Chambers became editor of the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch in 1944 and editor of the Virginian-Pilot in 1950, after Jaffe’s death. He was also the author of the biography Stonewall Jackson (1959) and Salt Water and Printer’s Ink (1967), a history of newspapers in the Norfolk, VA area.

Chambers was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his series of 12 editorials on the school integration problem in Virginia. He was very opposed to segregation, much to the surprise of those who knew him as a North Carolinian and the biographer of a Confederate general. His series in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot began with “The Year Virginia Closed the Schools,” published January 1, 1959.

Lenoir Chambers in 1914. [From the Yackety Yack yearbook, 1914].

The story is this: in 1958, Virginia closed the doors of a Warren County high school in Front Royal and two schools in Charlottesville. Perhaps most personally to Chambers, six schools in Norfolk were closed. The reason? To avoid desegregating them. With this action, Chambers wrote, the state denied nearly 13,000 children “the kind of education which the people of Virginia had in mind when they wrote… their Constitution.” This first editorial ended with a call to action:

The question Virginians must ask themselves on this New Year’s Day is what they can, and will, do in 1959 to recover from the tragedy of 1958.

The final editorial of the series was “The Year Virginia Opened the Schools,” published on the final day of 1959. Thoughtful and sober, it too ends with a challenge:

But the old years of impracticality, unconstitutionalism, and futility are on the way out. If Virginia can produce more willingness to face the facts and fresh qualities of initiative and leadership in dealing with them, the year the state opened the schools can lead to a new year of hope.

Between the poles defined by those two editorials, much changed in Virginia. Resistance to desegregation crumbled in the face of public school teachers, angry parents, and complaints by business owners. Eventually peaceful desegregation, on a limited scale, took place.

Chambers retired in 1961 and afterward continued to write and lecture and to serve on many civic and historical boards, including the Society of Newspaper Editors, the Virginia Historical Society, and the National Conference of Editorial Writers. He passed away in 1970, but Robert Mason’s letter nominating him for the Pulitzer is an admirable tribute to his spirit.

He never wavered. He wasted no time on the fiction of what might have been or might be. When some of his colleagues of the Virginia press at last joined him in his view, he welcomed them warmly, and he did not chide them for the lateness of their education.

It is not too much to say, I am persuaded, that Lenoir Chambers has done more, and under conditions more vexing and longer sustained, to give logic and direction to Virginia, and to the whole South, in the school problem than any other editor.

Many of Chambers’ papers are preserved in the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library.

Sources and Further Reading:

Lenoir Chambers Papers (#3827), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Lenoir Chambers Wins the Pulitzer Prize!The Virginian-Pilot May 2, 2013

Salt Water and Printers Ink. Lenoir Chambers. The University Of North Carolina, 2011.

Stonewall Jackson. Lenoir Chambers. Broadfoot Pub. Co., 1988.

Yackety Yack, 1914

 

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