NEW YORK – “Scores of witnesses saw a 44-year-old man assaulted, kicked and fatally shot by an off-duty policeman who hauled his victim along a Sugar Hill street, left him in a heap on the sidewalk and fled into a nearby apartment house, last Wednesday.”
No, this article was not written last week, though it resonates with an eerie currency. This was a headline story in the Amsterdam News written by C. Gerald Fraser in 1954.
Fraser may have reached his peak as a journalist during his long distinguished career at The New York Times, but it began at the Amsterdam News, a Black newspaper.
After his stint with the Times ended in 1991, Fraser continued to write and edit, but it was his presence at countless community events in Harlem in which he offered advice and commentary; sometimes his criticism could be biting. Even so, his voice was a wise and counseling one for interns and new arrivals in journalism.
Born Charles Gerald Fraser Jr. in Boston on July 30, 1925, he was the son of a Guyanese father, who was a cook, and a Jamaican mother, a talented seamstress. The ink in Fraser’s blood, inherited from his great-grandfather, founder of The Jamaican Advocate, surfaced very early. An inveterate reader, he absorbed the news from reading the three papers that came daily to their home.
For a brief period, while still in high school, he worked as a copy boy at the Boston Globe, a position facilitated by the Urban League. There were a number of odd jobs before he landed a position at the post office.
A more concrete manifestation of journalism occurred during his days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he worked on the student newspaper. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics in 1949. Later, from the New School of Social Research he was awarded his master’s degree.
In 1952, he was hired by the Amsterdam News, and for four years covered everything from crime, housing integration, social affairs, economic issues, civil rights, education and labor. When there was a paucity of African American teachers in the New York school system, Fraser’s front-page story in 1955 illuminated their plight. The Teachers Union, Fraser wrote, claimed “that less than four percent of the teachers in New York schools are Negroes.”
He left the Amsterdam News in 1956 and worked at the United Nations for several West Indian publications before being hired by the Daily News. As an African American reporter in the 1960s, he was a perfect fit to cover the turmoil in the ghettoes, which he did with sensitivity and sympathy. A similar style and passion were evident in his stories from the South where he was a major reporter covering civil rights.
In 1967, the Times hired him for the paper’s metropolitan section. He was the paper’s third Black reporter, coming aboard after Thomas A. Johnson and Earl Caldwell. Like many Black reporters during this time of riots and urban unrest, Fraser, Johnson and Caldwell could work their beats with less personal danger, their editors decided.
His coverage of the courts put him in a prime position to cover the condition of Black prisoners, particularly during the uprising at Attica penitentiary in 1971. When Brooklyn Rep. Shirley Chisholm announced her bid for the presidency, Fraser relished the opportunity of following her on the campaign trail as the first Black woman to seek the nation’s highest office.
At the Times Fraser’s byline popped up in nearly every section of the paper. His book reviews and cultural articles were never without keen insight and a tactful nudge about society’s endemic racism and discrimination. During and after his days at the paper, he waged a consistent demand for the Times to hire more African American’s reporters and editors.
It wasn’t unusual to find him at jazz concerts, poetry readings, plays, lectures and political discussions in New York City after he retired, especially when the events featured major writers and politicians. On these occasions the younger reporters welcomed a chance to speak to him about the profession. The advice he gave them was also shared with his students at Columbia University and John Jay College.
The esteemed reporter died on Dec. 8 in the Bronx at the Calvary Hospital. He was 90 and reportedly succumbed after a courageous fight against cancer, according to his partner, M. Phyllis Cunningham.
Fraser and his wife, Geraldine McCarthy who died in 1981, had two children who survive them, Charles Gerald Fraser III and Jetta Christine Fraser. He is also survived by Cunningham, their daughter, Maurella Cunningham-Fraser, three grandchildren and his brother, Walter.