Who Was Leanita McClain?

Why an old Chicago story of race, reporting and suicide remains important today.

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leanita
Photo courtesy of Leatrice McClain Mowatt and the Mowatt Family

Years ago, I sat in my public-policy journalism class when a professor circulated a 25-year-old essay that ran in the Washington Post. None of my mostly white peers could read beyond the provocative headline: “How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites.”

Only I, the lone black student in the classroom at Northwestern in the late 1990s, defended the writer, Chicago journalist Leanita McClain, who had also graduated from our program. A racist, my classmates called her. She’s so angry, they remarked as they screwed their faces.

McClain, then an editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, was describing her reactions to the 1983 mayoral race in which Harold Washington emerged as Chicago’s first black mayor. In response to Washington’s victory—just as in the more recent case of a Chicago politician elected “the first”—euphoria had swept over the city as it made history. Initially.

It wasn’t long, though, before embittered white Chicagoans started a racial backlash. In the Washington Post essay, McClain voiced her reaction to the swift and sudden fall from kumbaya: “So many whites unconsciously had never considered that blacks could do much of anything, least of all get a black candidate this close to being mayor of Chicago,” she wrote. “My colleagues looked up and realized, perhaps for the first time, that I was one of ‘them.’ I was suddenly threatening.”

She continued: “Bitter am I? That is mild. This affair has cemented my journalist’s acquired cynicism, robbing me of most of my innate black hope for true integration. It has made me sparkle as I reveled in the comradeship of blackness. It has banished me to nightmarish bouts of sullenness.”

The sullenness and cynicism that McClain expressed were apparently unshakeable. She killed herself in May 1984, less than a year after the controversial Post essay was published. She was 32 years old.

Twenty five years later, Chicago is still a place of de facto segregation, despite the sea of change represented by the election of Barack Obama. I am the same age that McClain was when she wrote that essay working as a black journalist in Chicago. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced the kind of backlash she described. But in many ways, the segregated picture she painted isn’t much different today.

As I navigate my journalism career, I remain gripped by her experience.

McClain was the first black person to serve on the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, and the youngest, at age 32. In 1984, Glamour magazine named McClain one of the nation’s top 10 career women. In 1980, she wrote a piece for Newsweek magazine about the burden of the black middle class, the awkward dance of basking in achievement while not forgetting her roots in public housing on Chicago’s South Side. McClain struggled with that precarious balance the rest of her too-short life.

Her oversized schoolmarm glasses concealed a lovely face. Her fiery prose contrasted starkly with her petite, almost demur stature. Born on Chicago’s South Side, McClain grew up in the Ida B. Wells projects, a massive public housing development that has been torn down by city officials. She attended graduate school at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism on a full scholarship.

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