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The late James Washington was a Black media pioneer. But in Dallas, his influence was even bigger

African American newspaper publisher speaking into a mic at his daughter's wedding
Amber Knowles
Elena Bonifay
Newspaperman James Washington at the wedding of his daughter Elena in 2015

James Washington’s weekly column appeared in Black newspapers around the country. He was the publisher of  The Dallas Weekly for almost three decades – and later, president and general manager of The Atlanta Voice in Georgia.

But Erle Nye said, thinking of Washington — who died last month at 73 — in just those terms is too narrow.

"Jim was not just an African American journalist," he said. "He was a businessman. He was a civic leader. He was a community supporter. And he was a voice for good."

Nye is the former CEO of TXU Energy. He said he had breakfast regularly with Washington for 25 years. In particular, they worked on the Dallas Together Forum which included former Dallas Cowboys star Pettis Norman. Called by D magazine, "the multi-ethnic peace council of Dallas CEOs," the forum was a pioneering effort that, as Nye said, got minority and female-owned companies "a place at the table."

Across the board in Dallas

When business contracts were awarded, if a particular Black company didn’t have the insurance necessary for the job, the Forum would help them get it. If the contract was too large, they’d see about breaking it into manageable pieces.

The Forum eventually led more than 200 companies to join in what D Magazine described as "a private sector covenant to disclose and set objectives for purchases of goods and services from minority firms, hiring of minorities and inclusion of work place diversity in regular performance reviews."

"Early on," said Nye, "we recorded a billion dollars in sales. And it was spread over American Airlines, Southwest, Southwestern Bell, Texas Utilities. It was a big deal at the time."

In fact, the forum became a model for similar efforts across the country — even Japan.

And it was Washington, Nye said, who first suggested that the project, which had been aimed at minority-owned companies, should include female-owned companies as well.

Washington’s list of board memberships and community work in North Texas is long: the United Way, the Dallas Arboretum, the State Fair, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Commission on Race Relations. He worked with the Federal Reserve Bank.

A conduit to and from the community

But could some business or cultural organizations appoint a Black board member like Washington simply so they could look progressive?

"It was the '80s," said Vicki Meek. "It was Dallas."

Meek is a Nasher Sculpture Fellow and James Washington’s first wife. She said board appointments like that were always "transactional."

"If you look at the boards of the arts organizations, they had the same five Black people rotating on all of those boards," Meek said. "But James made sure it wasn’t just him being a figurehead. When he was on a board, it was because he felt like he could make a difference."

Certainly, owning a weekly newspaper was a factor in Washington gaining such access — especially the largest Black-owned newspaper in North Texas. For businesses and cultural groups, he was a conduit to and from the Black community.

Older African-American man behind desk talking with and gesturing to another younger one
Elena Bonifay
James Washington working with his son-in-law David Bonifay in 2016

"He knew that if you have a strong media presence," Meek said, "it would allow you to give voice to people who didn't necessarily have it in the mainstream media. He knew that that was something his paper could do."

But Meek says, with all the focus on Washington as a publisher, what’s overlooked is that after he came to Dallas, he started the city’s first, full-service, Black PR firm. Handling public relations is how he originally connected with different boards across the city.

So Washington knew about ‘optics,’ about smoothing things over. But he also knew what levers had to be pulled to get things done.

"And I think he played all those sides to his advantage, you know," said Patrick Washington. He is James Washington's son and the current publisher of The Dallas Weekly. "Like, he could play the ‘Oh yeah, I'm your Black friend if you want to think of me like that’ or ‘Yeah, I'm the rabble rouser’ – if that gets me in the room, and that's what it's going to be."

Patrick Washington says his father coming to Dallas from the North meant he wasn’t vested in the city’s various social and racial distinctions. It lent him a degree of audacity.

"And I think certain people on those boards appreciated that," James Washington said. "Some people on those boards actually respected that."

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.