Wilbert Tatum

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Wilbert Arnold "Bill" Tatum (23 January 1933 – 26 February 2009) was an American newspaper executive who variously served as the editor, publisher, chairman and chief executive officer of the New York Amsterdam News, a weekly newspaper that serves the African-American community of New York City.

Early years[edit]

Tatum was born in a three-room shack in Durham, North Carolina, the 10th of 13 children, in 1933. He attended Durham's segregated schools, working during the summer in tobacco fields.[1]

Education/US Marine Corps[edit]

He majored in sociology at Lincoln University, the United States' first degree-granting historically black university. During the Korean War, he served in the United States Marine Corps as a drill instructor in Japan from 1951 until 1954.[2] After completing his military service, he attended Yale University as a National Urban Fellow. Tatum was later awarded a master's degree from Occidental College, where he majored in urban studies.[1]

Tatum spent 13 years working as a mayoral appointee in the government of New York City, during the John Lindsay and Abraham Beame administrations. While director of community relations at the New York City Department of Buildings, he spent a cold winter's night in 1967 in a Queens housing project that lacked heat, to publicize the circumstances of tenants there. He proposed a $6 billion "clothing stamp" program that would provide clothing for the poor nationwide while assisting the city's struggling garment industry. Another proposal would have replaced the site of the former Madison Square Garden with an indoor amusement park.[1]

Amsterdam News[edit]

Tatum was part of a group that purchased the paper in the 1970s, the third ownership group in the history of the publication, which included notable investors such as former New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall and Manhattan Borough President Percy E. Sutton.[3] By the mid-1980s, he had invested more than $400 thousand in the publication, most of it borrowed from banks against the value of his real estate holdings.[1] Tatum acquired control of the paper in 1983 and became the paper's sole owner in 1996 after acquiring the stake of the last independent shareholder.[2]

During his 25 years with the Amsterdam News his name was "nearly synonymous with the paper's", as described in a notice by The New York Times announcing his death.[4] Though circulation dropped from 58,907 in 1977 to 25,962 in 2000, the paper remained influential.[2]

During the 1984 presidential election, Tatum declined to endorse the candidacy of Jesse Jackson or any of the other Democratic Party candidates.[4] Tatum approved stories that included a defense of Tawana Brawley after official findings found her 1987 sexual assault claims to be false and a decision to disclose the identity of the Central Park jogger, the victim of a widely publicized assault and rape case in 1989. While Ed Koch was Mayor of New York City, Tatum had editorials printed weekly on the paper's front page with the title "Why Koch Should Resign".[4] The series of editorials ran from February 1986 to September 1989, with Tatum accusing Koch of leading an ineffective and corrupt municipal government that did not address the concerns of minority residents of the city. After Koch lost the mayoral primary in 1989 to David Dinkins, Tatum announced that his last Koch editorial would read "On September 12 at 11:50 p.m., Edward I. Koch conceded defeat in the primary. December 31 will be his last day of work. End of series."[2]

Tatum was credited by members of the city's Jewish community with improving the paper's balance in coverage of Jewish subjects. The associate executive director of the American Jewish Congress recognized in 1984 that "Tatum has been very sympathetic and understanding of problems confronting both Jews and blacks". Mayor Koch had earlier called the paper "an anti-Semitic rag" that had become "less rabid in its coverage than it was before", but held a July 1984 debate with Tatum on Jewish-black relations after Tatum published an editorial critical of the Mayor.[4]

While most of the initial investors had left over time, John L. Edmonds had stayed on over the years, feuding with Tatum over the management of the paper and Tatum's use of funds. A suit filed by Edmonds ended in 1996 with a jury finding that Tatum owed Edmonds just over $1 million that it determined had been diverted from the paper's parent company, with Edmonds' attorney describing that Tatum had "used The Amsterdam News since 1982 as his own personal piggy bank".[3]

Tatum stepped down in 1997 and named his daughter Elinor Tatum, then 26 years old and a graduate of New York University's postgraduate journalism program, to serve as publisher and editor-in-chief of the paper. "I was in shock", she was quoted after the unexpected promotion.[5] Tatum retained his position as chairman of the board after his daughter took over day-to-day operation of the paper, and he retained the position until his death.[2]

Tatum wrote that Al Gore had chosen Joseph Lieberman as his running mate in the United States presidential election, 2000 because Lieberman would be able to raise funds from fellow Jews, stating that "Gore and his minions did it for the money".[2]

Asked by his daughter why he did not pursue public office, he responded that he could help most in his role leading the oldest continuously-published African-American newspaper.[4]


Tatum married Susan Kohn, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia. Their daughter, Elinor, was given the choice of following his religion and becoming a Baptist or of following her mother's faith and preparing for her bat mitzvah.[1]

Later years[edit]

As of 1984, he lived in the Manhattan's East Village in a 23-room triplex that he had bought in 1967 for $4,000 and had improved. Through the mid-1980s, he had made money in real estate, purchasing and renovating abandoned or neglected buildings that were reconstructed and repaired using unskilled ex-offenders and political refugee laborers.[1]

In 1984, Tatum established an informal group of Jewish and African-American leaders that met to address issues regarding relations between the two communities. That same year, he was recognized by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies for his efforts on behalf of runaway children in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.[1]


Tatum died, aged 76, on 26 February 2009 from multiple organ failure in Dubrovnik, Croatia, where he was traveling with his wife, Susan. A diabetic, Tatum was a wheelchair user at the time of his death.[4] He was survived by his wife, daughter, a brother and three sisters.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Sciolino, Elaine. "Wilbert Tatum, the Mayor's Debater, Has His Own Flair For The Dramatic", The New York Times, 14 July 1984. Accessed 26 February 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Hevesi, Dennis. "Wilbert Tatum, Activist Editor, Dies at 76", The New York Times, 26 February 2009. Accessed 28 February 2009.
  3. ^ a b Barron, James. "Jury Finds Publisher of Amsterdam News Diverted Funds", The New York Times, 16 April 1996. Accessed 26 February 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Lee, Jennifer. "Wilbert A. Tatum, 76, Ex-Amsterdam News Publisher, Is Dead", The New York Times, 26 February 2009. Accessed 26 February 2009.
  5. ^ Stamler, Bernard. "NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: HARLEM; New Editor, New Ideas, Same Name", The New York Times, 21 December 1997. Accessed 27 February 2009.

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