A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Les Brownlee, SPJ’s first black member, dies at age 90

By Quill

Les Brownlee, the first black reporter for white-owned media in Chicago and first black member of the Society of Professional Journalists, died Nov. 21. He was 90.

Brownlee joined SPJ in 1947 as a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and in 1989-90 was president of the local chapter, the Chicago Headline Club. He was on the board from 1982-98.

Throughout his career, Brownlee worked diligently to promote ethnic diversity in newsrooms; to draw public attention to pressing issues in urban affairs and education, and to provide classroom training for journalism students.

Brownlee worked across media, holding positions in several Chicago newsrooms, including the Chicago Defender, where he started in 1948, and the Chicago Daily News. In 1964, he joined WLS-TV and become Chicago’s first black on-air reporter. He also had stints at WGN-TV and WBEZ Radio.

He taught journalism at Northwestern University and Texas Southern University and most recently worked as a professor at Columbia College Chicago, from 1978 until his retirement in 2004. That year, the school named him its first Professor Emeritus, one of Brownlee’s proudest achievements.

Brownlee was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 1993 and was given a Pioneer Award by the Chicago Association of Black Journalists that same year. He received the Headline Club’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 and the Chicago Journalists Association’s similar award in 2005. In 2003, Eastern Illinois University named Brownlee the Journalist of the Year.

Survivors include his wife, Priscilla Ruth MacDougall of Evanston, Ill., and Madison, Wis.; four sons, Laird, Ray, Curtis and Gerick; and sister, Maxime Hickman of Santa Rosa, Calif.

Brownlee asked that memorials contributions be made to the Chicago Headline Club Brownlee Series and/or the Columbia College Journalism Department. Chicago Headline Club mailing address: 333 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 2032, Chicago, IL 60601-4102; Columbia College, care of Nancy Day, 600 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60605.

The Chicago Headline Club contributed to this story.