Pictured Above: Dr. Kevin Churchwell and Gloria Respress-Churchwell stand proudly in front of Robert Churchwell Sr.’s trench coat, fedora, and typewriter on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Churchwells established the Robert Churchwell Sr. and Mary Churchwell Scholarship Fund at The Community Foundation more than a decade ago.
Scholarship honors the ‘Jackie Robinson of Journalism’
The Community Foundation annually offers a scholarship named in part after one of the country’s trailblazing journalists — Robert Churchwell Sr. — a soft-spoken education news reporter whose legacy and relevancy remains strong today, decades after his retirement and 11 years after his death.
Established by members of the Churchwell family a decade ago, the Robert Churchwell Sr. and Mary Churchwell Scholarship Fund offers financial relief to juniors, seniors, graduate-level or PhD. candidates in the field of journalism who are committed to a career in the profession.
Robert Churchwell Sr.’s impact in journalism created a legacy that extends well beyond this scholarship opportunity.
His trench coat, fedora, and typewriter are encased and on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 and continues to attract crowds on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
The display’s plaque reads:
“One of the first black journalists to work at a white-owned Southern newspaper, Robert Churchwell (1917-2009) was hired by the Nashville Banner in 1950 to cover news in the black community. Despite prejudice from co-workers, censorship of his articles on Civil Rights activities, and other hardships, Churchwell remained at the Banner for over 30 years. For his pioneering role in desegregating the mainstream press, he became known as the ’Jackie Robinson of journalism.’”
The history-making journalist went on to work for more than two decades as an editorial writer at the R.H. Boyd Publishing House in Nashville. He has been honored with numerous awards, including the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Society of Professional Journalists. His papers were donated to Emory University in Atlanta.
In the mid-1990s, long after his retirement from the Banner in 1981, Churchwell was coaxed into write a regular column for the newspaper’s editorial pages. He did so until the afternoon Banner folded, ending its 122-year run, in February 1998.
Upon Churchwell’s return to the Banner’s pages, he wrote in unvarnished, direct prose about: not having a desk at the newspaper until several years after his hiring; being shunned by many of his co-workers; and witnessing but not being able to report on the Civil Rights movement of lunchroom sit-ins and the Freedom Riders that flourished in Nashville.
Remember, this was in the early 1960s at what was then a very conservative, historically segregationist newspaper.
After his death at age 91 in 2009, the Metro School Board changed the name of Wharton Elementary School in North Nashville to the Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet Elementary School. It was one year later, in 2010, that Dr. Kevin Churchwell, now CEO of Boston Children’s Hospital, and wife and children’s author Gloria Respress-Churchwell, established the Churchwell scholarship at The Community Foundation.
“After Dad’s death, we wanted to make sure Robert Churchwell’s journalism legacy was recognized and supported,” says his daughter-in-law, Gloria, who has written a children’s picture book, “Robert Churchwell Writing News, Making History: A Savannah Green Story.”
“Dad always felt that education was of paramount importance, especially in educating the next generation of thinkers and leaders,” she continues. “Without hesitation, we knew that establishing a scholarship fund in Pop’s honor at The Community Foundation would go far in making a significant difference in helping to prepare students for future opportunities in journalism”
Robert Churchwell Jr., retired Metro school administrator and the eldest of Robert and Mary Churchwell’s five accomplished children (three doctors and two educators), works at the Churchwell Magnet School one day a week. Growing up, he recalls, “If we had homework, we had to complete that before we could go outside and play.”
His father graduated from Fisk University with an English degree, while his mother, Mary, earned both her undergraduate and Master’s of Education degrees from Tennessee State University.
“Both set a living example of how their journey in education helped them achieve their life dreams. It made their emphasizing the importance of getting a quality education easier,” Robert Jr. says. “Our mother was the education architect for all of us, and Daddy supported it. She would look at what academic programs would be best for each of us, and Dad would make sure her plan was put into action.”
His mother Mary, a retired Metro elementary schoolteacher of more than 30 years, passed away in February 2020 at age 89.
She was aspirational to hundreds of Middle Tennessee students, having taught in the Nashville Public Schools for 30 years. As an award-winning teacher who had a love for teaching children to read, like her husband, she valued education.
CFMT’s scholarship helps carry on Churchwells’ core values of the profession by showing the importance of journalists being representative of the communities they serve, as well as his belief that regardless of race, gender and generation, it is important everyone participates in the profession.
In fact, to be considered a candidate for this scholarship, students must compose an essay on “The Role of Professional Journalism in Today’s Society” and provide samples of journalistic work.
His parents “would be humbled about this [scholarship] honor,” Robert Jr. says, “and would do whatever they could do to make sure it served the students in our schools.”
The Churchwells no doubt would be mighty proud of the school that bears the family name, and its students.
Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet School, located on D.B. Todd Jr. Boulevard, was damaged and closed by the March 3 tornadoes that caused heavy damage through its North Nashville neighborhood. It soon became a drive-through tornado relief center run by nonprofits the Community Resource Center and Hands On Nashville.
Churchwell students temporarily were assigned to attend Park Avenue Elementary School.
Many of those same students were volunteers who helped hand out clothing, toiletry and food items after it became a tornado relief center.
Journalist’s legacy continues through ‘Savannah Green’ book, music
What can music do for a story?
Children’s author Gloria Respress-Churchwell has seen firsthand the power of how music can organically connect a child with a character’s life who lived and experienced things at a time that are far removed from the child’s experiences.
That’s precisely what the music she curates for her books does in “Savannah’s World.”
In 2010 Respress-Churchwell established with her husband, Dr. Kevin Churchwell, the Robert Churchwell Sr. and Mary Churchwell Scholarship Fund at The Community Foundation. In 2015, she joined forces with her adult child, Alexandria Churchwell (an L.A.-based actor) and Bryard Huggins (founder and CEO of Muse Entertainment, an indie recording company based in Nashville) to commission music for her children’s picture book, “Robert Churchwell Writing News, Making History: A Savannah Green Story.”
The book is about Respress-Churchwell’s father-in-law and Alexandria Churchwell’s grandfather, Robert Churchwell Sr., who in 1950 while writing at the Nashville Banner became the first African-American to work as a full-time reporter at a daily newspaper in the South.
Respress-Churchwell, owner of Butter Pecan Productions — a company that produces creative educational products for children, educators, and parents — speaks with elementary, middle grades, high schools, universities, and professional institutions using picture books such as “Robert Churchwell Writing News” to discuss heavy themes such as microaggression and civility.
Collectively known as Team Savannah — Gloria, Alexandria and Bryard — are invited into classrooms across the country. This included a stop at University School of Nashville in October 2019, as well as an appearance at downtown’s annual Southern Festival of Books.
Last summer, Alexandria and Bryard updated the music for the Robert Churchwell book with a scripted musical podcast called “Savanah’s World: The Power of the Pen.” Alexandria says, “With the evolving popularity of podcast in the zeitgeist, we felt it was a perfect opportunity to revamp the songs we created for the book about Robert Churchwell, although the themes still include Friendship, Perseverance, Grief, and Activism.”
Understanding that children learn differently, music allows children to experience and learn from the book in a new way. It’s a project that Team Savannah is committed to in ensuring that young readers learn about people like Robert Churchwell whose contributions to American history are never forgotten.
In addition to the podcast launched last October, an audiobook of “Robert Churchwell Writing News, Making History: A Savannah Green Story” was set to launch in early 2020.