A Voice for Desegregation

By Celia Wan

In an American Association of News Editor conference in 1956, Reed Sarratt (ΦBK, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1937) rose up among the audience and halted a Southern editor from making racist comments against African Americans. As an editor and a Southerner himself, Sarratt witnessed first-hand North Carolina’s journey of desegregation in the 50s and 60s. Amidst the turbulence of desegregation, Sarratt dedicated his life to journalism and education in the South. 

Sarratt was born in 1917 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to Alexander R. and Jonice Elizabeth Hutchison Sarratt. He started his journalism career while he was still in college. In his senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), Sarratt became the managing editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. In 1937, Sarratt graduated with a degree in economics and began working for the Blowing Rocket, a local newspaper in North Carolina. He then rose to the editor position at the Charlotte News and worked there until 1946, when he left North Carolina to work for the Baltimore Evening Sun

“Sarratt… was idealistic, bookish, and straitlaced,” commented Douglas Cumming, an associate professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University. “Sarratt was the teetotaling, hair-parted-in-the-middle cub reporter who… helped make up the energetic staff at the Charlotte News… in the late 1930s.” 

After spending six years in Maryland, Sarratt came back to his home state and joined the Winston-Salem Journal and the Twin City Sentinel. He held various positions at these two newspapers, including editorial director, executive editor, and the executive assistant to the publisher overseeing news, advertising, circulation, and promotion. After Brown v. Board of Education, Sarratt reported that the court decision “changed the law, but it did not change the thoughts and feelings of vast numbers of white Southerners.” 

In 1960, Sarratt was appointed as the executive director of the Southern Education Reporting Service, a Ford foundation supported fact-finding agency that provided educators and public officials information on school desegregation. He was also the director of the journalism project of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta (SREB). During his tenure at SREB, Sarratt published The Ordeal of Desegregation: The First Decade (1966). The book documents the desegregation turmoil in the South from 1954 to 1966, and provides detailed reports of data and facts on segregation and desegregation. In 1973, Sarratt became an executive director of the Southern Newspaper Publishers’ Association, a position he held until his death. He was inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame in 1985, a year before he passed away at the age of 68. 

During his lifetime, Sarratt was also involved with the UNC Journalism Alumni and Friends Association. After his death, the university established the Reed Sarratt Lecture Series in memory of him. Every year, the series invites some of the brightest minds to the university to discuss important social issues and concerns. 

Celia Wan is a junior at the University of Chicago majoring in history, philosophy, and social studies of science and medicine. The University of Chicago is home to the Beta of Illinois Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

Photo at top: Sarratt in 1937.