Sometimes, being the first of anything is beside the point.
George McElroy, my father, accumulated a lot of firsts as a pioneering African American journalist in Texas. As the Texas State Historical Association points out, he was the first Black journalist at a mainstream daily newspaper in Texas, The Houston Post; first to earn a master’s degree from the University of Missouri’s prestigious school of journalism; first to be a member of the Houston Press Club; first to teach journalism at the University of Houston; and first to be inducted into the Texas Newspaper Hall of Fame.
But as much as Dad enjoyed accolades from big-time journalism, his true journalistic love was his community newspaper, The Houston Informer and Texas Freeman, the first African American newspaper published west of the Mississippi River. He started reporting there at age 16 and never really left until he died at 84 in 2006.
At the Informer, Dad was dogged as the eyes and ears of Houston’s Black communities and cherished the opportunity to report back on the world beyond their neighborhoods. He kept every press badge he ever carried, pinning them on the paneled walls of our den.
The Informer, a storied part of the Black press, shared much with community and rural papers across the state. For Dad, it was home—located in a neighborhood where he lived most of his life. Mainstream newspapers might call its coverage hyperlocal: weddings and deaths, scholarship announcements, photos of smiling children and corsaged ladies. It’s the kind of journalism that Texas community papers—ethnic and rural—have been practicing for more than a century.
Dad was probably most proud when the Texas Gulf Coast Press awarded him first place for editorial writing. Like any good small-town publisher and editor, he chose his words wisely and lovingly, knowing that the person reading them might be sitting in the next pew or barbershop chair.
In the centennial year of my father’s birth, I’m part of two projects that honor the kind of journalism he practiced: the Headliners Foundation’s George McElroy Scholarship (yes, the first Black person to be so honored by the prestigious nonprofit) and the University of Texas at Austin’s Rural Journalism Pipeline Project, which seeks to sustain rural Texas newspapers by finding successors for aging publishers.
Whether it’s Houston’s bustling Third Ward or a one-stoplight town in the Panhandle, we’re all richer living in a place where that one journalist knows your name.