Holmes County, Mississippi
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Biography of

Hazel Brannon-Smith

Many thanks to Marjorie Norris

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Hazel Brannon~Smith Biography The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, Hazel Brannon~Smith, owner editor of four weekly newspapers in rural Mississippi, has been exposing political and social injustice in her home state for more than a quarter of a century. The 1964 Pulitzer award, presented to her as racist boycotts threatened her newspapers with extinction, cited the "whole volume of her work..., including attacks on corruption." Mrs. Smith, who prefers to be known as a newspaper woman who reports the facts honestly, has minimized her editorial influence, describing herself as "just a little editor in a little spot" and pointing out, "A lot of other little editors in a lot of little spots is what helps make this country. It's either going to help protect that freedom that we have or else it's going to let that freedom slip away by default." Of antebellum Southern ancestry, Hazel Freeman Brannon~Smith, the daughter of Dock Boad Brannon, an electrical contractor, and Georgia (Freeman) Brannon, was born in Gadsden, the seat of Etowah County, Alabama. The Negro nurse who raised her was, she recalled in an interview with senior editor T. George Harris of Look (November 11, 1965), "treated as a member of the family." An exceptionally bright child, she graduated from the local high school in 1930, when she was sixteen. Too young to enroll in college, she began writing personal items at five cents an inch for the Etowah Observer, a small~town weekly newspaper. The editor, impressed with her talent, quickly promoted her to front~page reporting. She also sold advertising space on a 10 percent commission and she earned so much in commissions that the paper put her on a regular weekly salary as an economy measure. While on the staff of the Observer, Miss Brannon, as she was known before her marriage, developed an overwhelming desire to "write" her own newspaper. With that goal in mind, she enrolled at the University of Alabama as journalism major in 1932. At the university she was managing editor of the campus newspaper and beauty queen of her social sorority, Delta Zeta. Upon taking her B.A. degree, in 1935, Miss Brannon, with borrowed money, acquired the failing Durant News, a weekly serving Holmes County, Mississippi. The paper called the "Durant Excuse" by disgruntled subscribers, had exhausted three editors in the thirteen months prior to the purchase. Realizing that her small weekly could not begin to compete with the larger daily newspapers in the coverage of state and national news, Miss Brannon made the Durant News a truly local newspaper, printing news of particular interest to the citizens of Holmes County~~births, deaths, marriages, graduations, family reunions, arrests. As circulation more than doubled, to 1,400 readers, advertising revenues increased, and within four years the young editor completely paid for her paper. In her editorial column, "Through Hazel Eyes," Miss Brannon attacked social injustices and promoted unpopular causes. At the request of local public health officials, for instance, she supported a proposed venereal disease treatment clinic, provoking considerable local criticism. Many of her shocked readers insisted venereal disease was not an appropriate subject for public discussion, particularly by a well bred Southern lady. In other columns, she assailed slot machine operators, bootleggers, gamblers, smalltime hoods, and corrupt local politicians. In 1943 Miss Brannon purchased a second newspaper, the Lexington Advertiser, an independent weekly published in the Holmes County seat. Characteristically, she took a personal interest in the political, economic, and social development of Lexington. From 1940 to 1948 she served as secretary of the Holmes County Democratic Executive Committee, and in 1940 and 1944 she was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. When a lingerie manufacturer expressed a willingness to locate a new mill in the Lexington area, Miss Brannon visited the company's headquarters in the North and questioned the executives. Convinced that the proposed plant would bring needed benefits to Holmes County, she persuaded her readers to support a bond issue for construction of the plant. Her business sense and instinctive ability as a reporter rejuvenated the Advertiser, which paid for itself within three years. With her profits she purchased two more Mississippi weeklies, the Banner County Outlook in Flora, in 1955, and the Northside Reporter in Jackson, in 1956. In the meantime she had found in Walter Dyer Smith not only a husband but a helper in the running of her little journalistic empire. The most influential enterprise in that empire remained the Advertiser, serving a rural population dominated numerically by poor blacks but socially, economically, and politically by white truck farmers, small businessmen, and an occasional cotton planter. "Without her and her paper," one black resident confided to T. George Harris of Look, "a Negro's life in Homes County wouldn't be worth a plugged nickel." In 1953 Sheriff Richard Byrd of Holmes County shot a young black man in the leg. After talking to several eyewitnesses, Mrs. Smith became convinced the shooting had been unprovoked. Attempting to provide a balanced account, she sought comment from the sheriff but was told by his office that he was "out of town." She printed a story based solely on the testimony of witnesses and, the following week, a scathing front page editorial condemning Sheriff Byrd: "The laws of America are for everyone~~rich and poor, strong and weak, black and white. The vast majority of Holmes County people are not rednecks who look with favor on the abuse of people because their skins are black. Byrd has violated every concept of justice, decency, and right. He is not fit to occupy office." When Sheriff Byrd filed a $57,500 libel suit against Mrs. Smith and the Advertiser, an all male, all white jury convicted her of libel and ordered her to pay $10,000 in damages. The Mississippi Supreme Court, citing the Constitutional guarantee of press freedom, reversed the libel award in a decision stating that her criticism of the sheriff was justifiable and "substantially true." Speaking at a dinner in honour of Mrs. Smith several years later, Dr. Arenia C. Mallory, president of all Negro Saints Junior College, remembered her editorial courage: "This story reduced her from a woman of almost wealth to a woman who has had to struggle like the rest of us. She defended a little boy who couldn't defend himself." Mrs. Smith's four papers, reasonably successfully until she became an editorial partisan of the civil rights movement, steadily lost money. Advertising fell off substantially as intimidated businessmen succumbed to pressure from white Citizens' Councils in Homes County towns. "Ours is the only paper in the county," she told Mary Hornaday in an interview for the Christian Science Monitor (October 17, 1964), "and I just cannot permit Citizens' Councils to tell me how to run my newspaper." Public service announcements filled the empty advertising space in the Lexington Advertiser. An opposition paper was founded in 1959 to cut into Mrs. Smith's readership, but by mortgaging her business and personal property, paring her staff from fifteen to five, and borrowing money she continued to publish. One hundred thousand dollars in debt, Mrs. Smith went on extended speaking tours, earning from $300 to $1,000 per speech. The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review established the Hazel Brannon~Smith Fund to insure the survival of the Lexington Advertiser, and black subscribers to the newspaper presented Mrs. Smith with $2,852 collected in support of her editorial policies. Despite constant public harassment, economic boycotts, threats, acts of vandalism, and even a cross burning on the lawn of the Smith home in Lexington, Mrs. Smith refused to desert the zealous civil rights workers who poured into the South in the early 1960's. In her "Through Hazel Eyes" column she noted that "these young people wouldn't be here if we had not largely ignored our responsibilities to our Negro citizens." A week after the disappearance and suspected murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi in the summer of 1964, she appeared with civil rights leaders of both races in a panel discussion before a national meeting of the American Newspaper Women's Club in Washington, D.C. On that occasion, describing the climate in which the three youths died, she said, "You don't have to have a sheet to belong to the Klan. It's as much a state of mind as anything else." In retaliation, her editorial offices were firebombed while she was attending the Democratic National Convention in 1964 as a commentator for NBC~TV News. In spite of the damage to the equipment and files, Mrs. Smith believed the bombing was potentially beneficial to her community. Eventually, she felt, there would be a backlash against such violence. "The pendulum is beginning to swing...,"she said. "One of these days, a Southerner...will realize the Negro is a man like himself with the same desires, the same tastes...We have to live together; we must get along together. We must have respect for each other and each other's rights." For her editorial courage and honesty in the face of racist attacks and harassment, Mrs. Smith in 1964 was named Mississippi Woman of the Year by newspaper, radio, and television executives in her home state and Woman of Conscience by the National Council of Women of the United States. In New York City to accept her award from the National Council of Women, she told a news conference at the Overseas Press Club on October 14, 1964 that her opponents were "scared to call me an integrationist to my face; they say it to my advertisers." About herself she said, "Since I was a little girl, I have been very independent. I reserve the right to to do my own thinking, to act as a human being...I just can't keep quiet." Although she has never considered herself to be a "crusading editor", Mrs. Smith told George Moneyhun of the Christian Science Monitor (July 6, 1966), "You finally come to a point when you must decide whether you're for law and order or against it, and it's also been a matter of people being able to pressure the free press with its rights and responsibilities." In the Democratic primary on August 9, 1967 Mrs. Smith finished second in the race for nomination in the state Senate, but two weeks later she lost the run~off election to incumbent state Senator Ollie Mohamed. Her faith in the people of Mississippi was confirmed in the late 1960's, when advertisers began returning to her newspapers and the total circulation of the four weeklies surpassed that of the largest daily in the state. According to Mrs. Smith, the circulation of the Advertiser had never dropped significantly. "Oh, a handful of people cancelled their subscriptions during the civil rights years, but they sent their cooks down to buy the paper, issue by issue," she told Henry Mitchell of the Washington Post (May 4, 1973). In the same interview she estimated that the Advertiser's losses in 1972 had been "but $17,000 or $18,000." The interview with Mitchell took place when Mrs. Smith was in Washington for the premiere of the twenty~eight minute documentary film An Independent Voice at the Henry R. Luce Hall of News Reporting in the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of Science and Industry. That film is about outstanding smalltime newspaper editors, including Mrs. Smith. The Mississippi Press Association, of which Mrs. Smith is past president, awarded her a special citation in 1957. Her other honors include the highest editorial award of the National Federation of Press Women, in 1948, 1955, and 1956; the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award of Southern Illinois University, in 1960; Theta Sigma Phi's National Headliner citation, in 1962; and the Golden Quill of the Integrational Conference of Weekly Newspaper Editors, in 1963. She is a former director of the Mississippi chapter of the National Editorial Association and a member of the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission, and the Mississippi Delta Council. A handsome, dark~haired, buxom woman, Hazel Brannon~Smith looks years younger than her age. Her eyes, contrary to the title of her editorial column, are deep blue. Talkative and gregarious, she possesses a sense of hospitality which, according to Ann Geracimos of the New York Herald Tribune (May 10, 1964), "oozes fried chicken and biscuits." She and her Yankee husband, Walter, met as passenger and ship's purser, respectively, on a round~the~world cruise in 1949 and married within the same year. After settling in Lexington with his wife, Mr. Smith became administrator of the county hospital, but he was fired from that post when his wife went to war against the Citizens' Councils. Besides helping in the publication of Mrs. Smith's newspapers, he has served as executive director of Mississippi Action for Progress Inc., which launched the Head Start program. The Smiths have no children. With offspring to worry about, Mrs. Smith concedes, she could never have been so daringly outspoken in her civil rights editorializing. "God has been with me," Mrs. Smith, a lifelong Baptist, has said. "If he hadn't, I'd be insane or dead." In her spare time she edits the Baptist Observer, the monthly newspaper of the largest Negro Baptist association in Mississippi. She and her husband rarely attend social functions outside of those public events where they appear in their capacities as newspaper people and social activists. "We work too hard for one thing," Mrs. Smith has explained. "Anyway, we'd only get into terrible rows at any party we went to." Reference: Current Biography 1973 ~~~~ Smith, Hazel Brannon 1914(?)~May 14, 1994 Journalist; a white Southerner with antebellum roots who, as country~newspaper owner and editor, crusaded against political and social injustice, including racism; in 1935 moved from her native Gadsden, Alabama to Mississippi, where ,with borrowed money, she bought weekly Durant News, serving Holmes County; subsequently acquired three additional newspapers in Mississippi, including the Lexington Advertiser, which became base and mainstay of her small newspaper chain; while editorializing against the likes of bootleg racketeers and for unpopular causes, flourished as newspaper entrepreneur until mid~1950's, when she became an advance partisan of what would become the civil rights movement; in reprisal, was boycotted for ten years, lost subscriptions and advertising to a rival newspaper set up in Lexington by white segregationists, and suffered a firebombing of the Advertiser offices, which she was ultimately forced to close. in receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1964, was cited for the "whole volume of her work..., including attacks on corruption". was subject of a made~for~television movie A Passion for Justice (1994); died in Cleveland, Tennessee. Reference:

Obituary N.Y. Times B p8 May 16 1994

 

 

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