Sam Yette: An Appreciation

When Samuel Yette arrived on the campus of Tennessee State University in Nashville from the small town of Harriman, Tenn., some of his fellow students sensed he was destined for a career of achievement.

Over the course of the next half century, Yette would make his mark in journalism, education, public service, photography and as an author. No dust would ever gather beneath his shoes. Yette, 81, died Friday evening at an assisted living facility in Laurel, Md., after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, according to his family.

“Sam showed promise in college,” says Xernona Clayton, founder and president of the Trumpet Awards and a classmate of Yette’s. “He was focused. He knew that he was going someplace. He wanted to make it big and he did.”

Yette was always an achiever. In 1950, he started The Meter, Tennessee State’s campus newspaper. The paper continues publication today. He would endure the racial segregation policies of the time and earn a master’s in journalism from Indiana University, where he also wrote for the school newspaper.

By the mid-1960’s, after stints at several newspapers, Life and Ebony magazines and in college public relations, Yette found himself in Washington, D.C., serving as executive secretary of the Peace Corps alongside the late Sargent Shriver, who also died earlier this month. A few years later, Yette was appointed the first Black Washington correspondent for Newsweek magazine. His coverage of Capitol Hill reflected his passion and great sense of the institutionalized racism that still pervaded much of federal Washington.

In 1971, Yette would author The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America. The provocative, non-fiction book suggested that emerging federal policies being discussed by then President Richard Nixon and Nixon administration officials — such as expanded abortion opportunities and birth control — were converging to promote Black genocide. The book created a national firestorm, and although it as widely praised in Black academic circles Yette always cited the furor it incited as a factor in his separation from Newsweek. His termination from the magazine sparked a bitter, seven-year legal battle, which was finally settled.

A year later, Yette was teaching journalism at Howard University. During his decade-plus tenure there he taught scores of aspiring college students and eventually completed a photo essay book, Washington and Two Marches, 1963 and 1983. The book captured the images and faces of the historic 1963 March on Washington and the commemorative 1983 march. The book was published by Cottage Books, a small publishing house Yette founded in Washington.

Yette gained a reputation as a champion of high journalism standards while at Howard.

“He was conscientious, committed and intent on giving Howard University journalism students the classical education many of us lacked,” says Gayle Jessup White, an investigative journalism student of Yette’s. “His objective was to teach us how to think, not what to think.”

Carol Dudley, director of career development at the Johnson School of Communications at Howard, recalls Yette and his controversial book this way:

“As a speech-language pathology major, coming from a small-town in Pennsylvania, I found the issue of Black survival in America, quite frankly, intimidating,” she says. “I wondered, who was this man telling me that the government was out to get Black people?  Then I met the author — Professor Sam Yette. I fell in love with this brilliant, gentle giant whose knowledge and wisdom was not a formula for scaring naïve college freshmen into joining the Black Panther Party but a lesson on how to navigate my way through life.”

Adds Ray Boone, editor and publisher of The Richmond Free Press and a teaching colleague at Howard:  “He demanded rigorous scholarship.” Boone worked with Yette at Howard in the 1980’s and was an information officer with Yette in the 1970’s at Tuskegee University.

Boone, who remained close friends with Yette and visited him regularly at Yette’s assisted living facility in Maryland, says he would often take Yette to task for “coddling” students too much while at Howard. Boone remembers Yette calling students he felt were sleeping late and missing class. When Boone questioned Yette over the practice, Yette replied, “if Howard doesn’t look out for them and encourage them, where else are they going?’”

By the turn of the century, Yette had retired from teaching. Still, his name would be seen in numerous publications, as he resumed writing for a number of publications on a regular basis.

“He would always encourage me to give the Tribune reader more than local news,” says Rosetta Miller Perry, publisher of The Tennessee Tribune, one of the main weekly papers in Nashville. Yette wrote a column for the paper for several years. “I have always followed his advice, which is one of the reasons the newspaper continues to be on the right track for sharing news about Americans in America,” says Perry.

Yette spent his last working days in 2008 as a writer in residence at Knoxville College, the school from which his late wife, Sadie, graduated. Years earlier, a student and aspiring journalist at the school had the opportunity to meet Yette during a campus visit.

“I was impressed that he would spend so much time with me once he learned I wanted to be a journalist,” says George Curry, the former correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and editor of the former Emerge magazine. “Once I became a journalist, I wanted to share with young people the same way Sam had been so gracious with me.”

Yette is survived by two sons.