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'She's a trailblazer.' How the family of North Texas' pioneer Black newswoman anchored my career

Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis
Jill Louis Bowman
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Courtesy
From 1971-1977 Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis appeared on KERA's news magazine format show "Newsroom," chronicling medical breakthroughs, public health issues, desegregation and civil rights activists.

Twelve months ago, I became the first Black woman recipient of the Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis fellowship at KERA.

Twelve months ago, I would not have used the term journalist to describe who I was professionally or in practice.

I was unfamiliar with the world of public media other than being a listener and consumer of PBS, KERA, and KERA News. Prior to the start of this fellowship, although I am a Black North Texan and proud Dallasite, I also had not known in depth the name Majorie Welch Fitts Louis.

However, Marjorie Louis was once a household name.

The early years of KERA gave platforms for Black news reporters and journalists such as Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis and Bob Ray Sanders
Brittany Stubblefield-Engram
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KERA
The early years of KERA gave platforms for Black news reporters and journalists such as Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis and Bob Ray Sanders

Exceeding racial barriers, Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis became one of the first Black women on news television in North Texas and the first Black woman hired by the KERA newsroom in 1971.

“She's before Rochelle Brown. She's before Iola Johnson. She is before Clarice Tinsley,” her daughter Jill Louis Bowman said. “She’s a trailblazer.”

Raised in the epicenter of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts—Holt Street Baptist Church, Marjorie Louis witnessed Black history, likely unaware that only a couple decades later, she would do the same.

Pictured, Marjorie Welch Fitts at age 19. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Zoology from Fisk University in 1959. In later years, she received Master of Arts degree in Women's Studies from the University of Alabama.
Jill Louis Bowman
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Courtesy
Marjorie Welch Fitts at age 19. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Zoology from Fisk University in 1959. In later years, she received Master of Arts degree in Women's Studies from the University of Alabama.

Marjorie, or Marj, as her daughter Jill affectionately referred to her, joined a diverse newsroom at KERA.

Much like myself, Marjorie Louis did not have a traditional background in journalism.

In 1971, Marjorie Louis and her family became an integral part of “The Little Red Schoolhouse.”

Louis’ daughters Erika and Jill often appeared in the montage that KERA aired during the holiday season. It was also not uncommon for them to join their mother in the field during her reporting.

Jill recounts how important her mother’s visibility was to the Black community in Dallas during those times when the city was still very much racially divided.

“We ran into some family friends and the mom wanted to tell me, ‘When we saw your mother on television, it was so validating for us as a community because seeing her being represented, speaking on the issues that mattered was very validating,’ ” Jill said.

Marjorie Louis worked in a newsroom during the 1970s and although it was KERA, the newsroom still had a dominant white male culture.

“Jim Lehrer told my mother that he had to pay her less than the men because she was married to a doctor,” Jill Louis said.

While disheartening, it is not surprising. The gender pay gap is a challenge that endures in newsrooms today. As a parallel, there is also a gap in newsroom representation especially in leadership for women of color.

Jill said Lee Clark Cullum was one of her favorite persons for her dedication to bringing equity to the KERA newsroom.

Lee Cullum, a champion for women in journalism, increased Marjorie Louis’ salary creating equitable wages and a dual income household for the Louis’ family, establishing an opportunity to build Black generational wealth.

“I'm forever admiring of Lee Clark, because when she took the helm, she saw who was being paid what and immediately raised my mother's salary to pursue with the others who were doing the same job,” Jill said.

Lee Clark Cullum (far left), Patsy Swank, Michael James, and Marjorie Louis (far right) were all intrigual in the KERA Newsroom in the early 1970s. Lee Cullum taking over the KERA Newsroom at that time.
Courtesy
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Jill Louis Bowman
From left, Lee Clark Cullum, Patsy Swank, Michael James, and Marjorie Louis were all an important part of the KERA newsroom in the early 1970s.

When Marjorie Louis was not out in the field or in the newsroom – she spent time making memories with her daughters. Jill recalled being included with the social congregation of Dallas journalists in the early 1970s.

“My most cherished memory of my mother is going to the Stoneleigh P and being able to go with her like a big girl and have a hamburger and a bowl of lentil soup and feeling like I was a part of her world and what she was doing. And it ignited certainly in me, a passion for moving forward and having an impactful purpose.”

Jill grew up into her own impactful purpose.

When Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis died in 2016, Jill Louis Bowman was invited to join the Executive Board at KERA. To honor her pioneering mother, fifty years later, the Louis family and others invested generously in 2021 to launch the Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis fellowship.

KERA is striving to recreate the diversity of the newsroom of 1971. This fellowship contributes to that — ensuring that the stories of Black North Texans are represented in programming.

The Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis fellowship is a stepping stone explicitly for Black journalists, specifically for early career journalists, and in my case, journalists just like Marjorie Louis – those who were not journalists by traditional training standards.

The fellowship allowed me a platform to publish seminal stories on race in Dallas, just like Marjorie.

Stories such as the unique Black History Month rap series or the advancement of a Dallas Independent School District campus that was once segregated and is now a thriving institution of learning.

Jill shared that Marjorie was “A present mom. Taking us to gymnastics, to soccer, to ice skating, while pursuing a career as a woman at that time when the expectation was to just be pretty and be a doctor's wife.”

Reporter Brittany Stubblefield-Engram is a Dallas ISD alum and now her son Legacy (5) also attends Prestonwood Montessori at E.D. Walker, a new DISD campus.
Brittany Stubblefield-Engram
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Courtesy
Reporter Brittany Stubblefield-Engram is a Dallas ISD alum and now her son Legacy (5) also attends Prestonwood Montessori at E.D. Walker, a new DISD campus.

An echo that I hear as I juggled going to graduate school, being on the PTO Board and starting a BIPOC affinity group at my son’s school, a soccer mom, and wife of a software engineer through this fellowship year.

As the first in my own right, who after a year not only completed a fellowship but became a NPR Next Generation Radio Texas Newsroom alumna — I look to Marjorie Louis as a guiding star.

She navigated complexities with grace, leaving an indelible mark on journalism and inspiring the next generation of reporters—especially those of us who are also Black mothers.

As I prepared to depart this fellowship, I wondered what was next for myself but found solace in the words of Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis, “what is for me is for me–” which is now a new role as the Arts Access Digital Engagement fellow, a collaboration between KERA and the Dallas Morning News.

It all came together.