Who Was Leanita McClain?
Why an old Chicago story of race, reporting and suicide remains important 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.
When she took her first job at the Tribune in 1973,McClain joined the first wave of post-civil rights black professionals. The burden and privilege weighed heavy on her mind, as she sat perched on the fence between the projects and middle-class mobility. It chafed both sides as she clearly observed the class barrier, and it troubled her greatly—even as her career took off.
In a 1980 “My Turn” Newsweek column, McClain had this to say about that weight: “My life abounds in incongruities. Fresh from a vacation in Paris, I may, a week later, be on the milk-run Trailways bus in Deep South backcountry attending the funeral of an ancient uncle whose world stretched only 50 miles and never learned to read. Sometimes when I wait at the bus stop with my attaché case, I meet my aunt getting off the bus with other cleaning ladies on their way to do my neighbors’ floors.”
“I have made it, but where?” she wrote. “Racism still dogs my people.”
In 1986, Tribune journalist Clarence Page, McClain’s ex-husband, captured her fraught experiences in a collection of her essays titled, A Foot in Each World.
“Material comfort and worldly honors could not lighten the burden she placed upon herself, a cross she felt she had to bear for her people. From her vantage point, it became difficult to distinguish between the world’s problems and her own. But through the magnifying glass of her own troubled soul she brought important issues into focus so that the rest of us could see a little more clearly,” Page writes in the introduction.
McClain kept guarded in her personal relationships and looking back more than two decades later, friends gather that she struggled with depression. Just before the Post essay came in the aftermath of those turbulent, early days of Harold Washington’s administration, when letters to the editor laced with racial epithets arrived at newspapers. Friends say McClain perceived the anti-Harold contingency as anti-black. She saw the affronts as sinister, not simply the cost of doing political business.
“She was a sad person,” says Grayson Mitchell, a former journalist and press secretary to Harold Washington who met McClain in the early ‘70s when both were young black journalists forging ahead in a newly integrated profession.
Lois Wille is one of the white Tribune editorial board colleagues who admired McClain’s work on race and class, but “didn’t see the depth of her unhappiness.”