‘I Would Certainly Have Come if I Could Have’
About 60 or 70 people paid tribute Saturday at services for Don Hogan Charles, who played a historic role at the New York Times as its first black photographer, but “there were no senior management representatives present from either the Photo Desk or corporate,” former Times photographer Chester Higgins Jr. told Journal-isms on Sunday.
“I’m in California with my son. I would certainly have come if I could have,” Executive Editor Dean Baquet, the first African American to lead the Times newsroom, said by email. He added a few minutes later, “And I’m really sorry I couldn’t go.”
Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
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Attendees included former staff photographers and photo editors, however, as well as lawyer Norman Siegel, former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a friend of Charles’.
Siegel said he told the multiracial group, gathered at Benta’s Funeral Home in Harlem, that Charles’ civil rights-era work documented an important time and should be preserved; that perhaps a foundation should be created in his name.
Young African Americans, in particular, need to know that they, too, could be a photographer as Charles was, he said.
Charles worked for the Times from 1964 to 2007. He was best known for photographs of Harlem, of the civil rights movement and for his iconic photo of Malcolm X holding a rifle at the window of his home, which appeared in the September 1964 issue of Ebony magazine.
He had a difficult temperament and was asked to leave the paper, colleagues said, yet his work speaks for itself.
Apart from Siegel, Higgins, family members and close friends, among those in attendance were retired Times columnist Clyde Haberman; photographers Michelle V. Agins, James Estrin and Sara Krulwich; photo editors Sandra Stevenson and James Nieves; former photo and picture editors, including Steve Berman, Mark Bussell and Mary Hardiman; former staff photographers G. Paul Burnett, Lee Romero, Marilynn K. Yee and Angel Franco; photo technician Patricia Wall and former photo technician Jeanette Ortiz-Burnett, wife of G. Paul Burnett.
Also present was Betsy Wade, who made history of her own as the Times’ first female copy editor, hired in 1956.
“Betsy’s most celebrated legacy, however, occurred in the 1970s when she and fellow women co-workers filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against the Times in pursuit of equal opportunity and pay,” according to “The Herstory: JAWS Oral History Project.” “Today, she views this as ‘the most important thing we did in our careers.’ . . .”
Siegel said an autopsy would be performed to determine the cause of death. The Times obituary reported that Charles died Dec. 15 at age 79.