For more than 58 years, Vernon D. Jarrett has been recognized and honored as one of the nation’s most distinguished journalists and commentators on race relations, politics, urban and African-American history.
Vernon was born on June 19, 1918 in Saulsbury, Tennessee, the second child of William Robert Jarrett and Annie Sybil Jarrett, residents of Paris, Tenn. Both parents were children of former slaves.
Education was the focal point of the Jarrett family. Vernon’s father, a school principal, and his mother, a teacher, devoted an aggregate of 95 years as teachers in the public schools of western Tennessee.
Vernon’s older brother, the late Dr. Thomas Dunbar Jarrett, was elected the seventh president of Atlanta University in 1968, serving until 1977.
Vernon earned his B.A. degree at Knoxville College and did postgraduate degree work in journalism at Northwestern University and at the University of Kansas City, where he studied TV writing and producing. He also studied urban sociology at the University of Chicago, going on to earn a doctorate degree.
Following school, Vernon joined the Navy and served until his discharge in 1946.
Like thousands of other southern blacks, Vernon came to Chicago in 1946 during the Great Migration to pursue opportunity. His sights were set on a career in journalism. “I came to Chicago specifically to apply for a job at the Chicago Defender, which I did in March of 1946,” said Jarrett in one interview. “I think it’s important to understand that when I came to Chicago, specifically to work on a black newspaper, and even more specifically to be a writer with the Chicago Defender, I just didn’t come as people might do today to enter a field of journalism. I came here to help change the world.”
And, indeed, Vernon’s worlds began having an impact on thousands of readers. He worked at the Chicago Defender for two years, then went to the Associated Negro Press where he brought his insights first to sports and then to the major issues of the times.
Vernon soon found other avenues for his progressive take on the world. From 1948 to 1951 Jarrett produced, along with Oscar Brown, Jr., the nation’s first black radio newscast with “Negro Newsfront,” which was heard over the powerhouse station, WJJD-AM.
Vernon traveled to Kansas City in 1954 and briefly worked in public relations. But supporters urged him to return to Chicago and add his voice to those trumpeting the growing Civil Rights Movement. Following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Vernon was the producer of “For Blacks Only” in 1968 (which he also named), and worked on the high-rated program with hosts Warner Saunders and Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie on Channel 7/WLS-TV.
In 1970, Vernon became the first African-American to become a syndicated columnist on the op-ed page of the Chicago Tribune. He also continued working at WLS-TV, where he produced some 1,600 shows.
Vernon later moved from the Tribune and began writing for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1983, ultimately becoming and serving as a member of its editorial board, from which he retired in 1995. During his aggregate 26 years at the Tribune and Sun-Times, he wrote over 3,900 scholarly commentaries on contemporary issues.
Even as he continued his popular writings in newspapers, he started producing “The Jarrett Journal,” news broadcast for WVON-AM, Chicago’s only black-owned radio station.
In 1975, Vernon was among the 44 journalists who co-founded the National Association of Black Journalists. A year later, he helped organize the group’s first chapters, the Chicago Association of Black Journalists.
Vernon has been a tireless advocate for youth, and to promote more opportunities for them, he created the Afro-Academic, Cultural (ACT-SO) in 1977 with the NAACP. The program grew from its initial 19 cities to over 400, and donated more than $1 million in cash, computers and scholarships to students.
Vernon received over 100 awards and special recognitions from professional, civic, religious and educational institutions. Among the most prominent:
Frequently sought for his unique perspectives son contemporary issues and events, Vernon regularly appeared on such national news programs as “Meet the Press,” “60 Minutes,” “ABC – TV’s Nightline,” and “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
- In 1970 Vernon was recognized as one of the nation’s top five communicators in a national poll of black leaders conducted by Ebony Magazine.
- The American Civil Liberties Union bestowed him in 1988 with its James P. McGuire Award.
- In 1997 Vernon was among 20 journalists who were guests of the Neiman Foundation and Harvard University as a member of The Trotter Group.
- The 1993 President’s Award by the National Association of Black School Educators.
- 1998 inductee into the National Literary Hall of Fame at the University of Chicago’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center.
- The first recipient of the NAACP’s James Weldon Johnson Achievement Award.
- The 2004 Legacy Award from the National Association of Black Journalists (posthumously)
Among the many positions in which he served were president of the National Association of Black Journalists – Chicago Chapter; member of the advisory board of Fisk University’s Race Relations Institute; and member of the editorial board of the NMCP’s Crisis Magazine, founded by W.E.B. DuBois in 1910.
At the time of his death, Vernon was completing his autobiography, as well as a book of essays on black leaders entitled, “The Jericho Continuum,” which examines racism in the early 20th Century. He also had just created yet another program designed to inspire and educate youngsters called The Freedom Readers, a youth reading society sponsored by the Great Cities Institute of the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools.
Vernon was preceded in death by his son, the late William Robert Jarrett, M.D. He is survived by his beloved wife of 55 years, Fernetta H.; his son, Thomas S. Jarrett, Victoria R., (wife), and four grandchildren, Vernon C., Tracy E., Francesca F. and Laura.