Ollie Stewart: The Afro-American’s man at the front

June 1944 was rife with banner headlines in newspapers worldwide, with the long-awaited invasion of Normandy ratcheting up the sense of urgency for the Western Allies.

One of the leading black newspapers in the United States, The Afro-American, was no different, though it had to wait a few days as a weekly published on Saturdays.

Afro-American correspondents had been deployed to various theaters for two years by that point, but the paper was caught flat-footed on D-Day. Perhaps its best-known war reporter, Ollie Stewart, had been back in the States for a few months after spending a year and a half with American troops in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and the paper didn’t have anyone else in London among the horde of correspondents poised for the invasion of Northwest Europe.

Ollie Stewart

The events of June 6 immediately raised the stakes, so Stewart hopped a plane to England three days later and had filed his first report from London by Sunday the 11th. As a veteran frontline correspondent, Stewart was anxious to get across the Channel where the action was, but so were dozens if not hundreds of other reporters.

He was forced to cool his heels, picking up secondhand scraps of information from various sources on how African American troops — usually referred to as “colored” in his dispatches — were helping Allied efforts in France. Stewart didn’t bother to hide his frustration with the setup, leading his story for the June 24 Afro-American this way:

LONDON — Still unable to cross the Channel into France because of my late arrival in this theatre, I have spent the second week since the invasion talking to returned correspondents and observers here who have seen our troops in action.

All except those assigned to the navy have seen colored soldiers in the thick of things and all agree that both in France and on the invasion coast over here these men are doing a terrific job.

After a few more weeks of cobbling things together, as with his July 1 story headlined “Troops in Britain Have Big Share of Invasion Burden”, Stewart finally made it across a little over a month after D-Day. For The Afro-American, having one of its own in-theater rated another banner headline.

That July 15 front page trumpeting the correspondent’s arrival featured three stories from Stewart, bearing three different datelines: “IN NORMANDY”, “WITH AMERICAN FORCES IN FRANCE”, and “WITH ADVANCED AMERICAN FORCES IN FRANCE.”

The lead story revels in the setting:

IN NORMANDY — So this is France, this thrifty, beautiful land with red poppies and read-and-white roses on hundreds of hedges enclosing battered but clean cottages. On Sunday I went inland from the beach, in the direction of the front. The beach was the scene of beehive-like activity as I left, with a colored barrage balloon outfit commanding a series of silver balloons protecting ships, which are constantly coming and going, from dive-bombing enemy planes.

In another, Stewart notes that he is writing his dispatch “beneath an apple tree by the roadside, with fat cattle grazing nearby, unmindful of the trucks rushing to the front with men and supplies, or of the incessant pounding of artillery not far up the road.”

The third front-pager tells readers of the black troops operating the amphibious DUKWs transporting supplies from ship to shore (including future Baseball Hall of Famer Leon Day). “The more I see, the more I am convinced that this is a war of details,” he writes in that piece, hitting on the crucial logistics angle rarely covered by contemporary correspondents but championed in recent years by historians like Rick Atkinson and James Holland.

At last, Stewart was in France, and that was all that mattered. He could have no idea at the time how important the country would become to him.

Ollie Stewart was born May 18, 1906 in Gibsland, Louisiana, a small town about 45 miles east of Shreveport, where his father, Rev. James D. Stewart, taught at Coleman College and was pastor of the local baptist church.

Gibsland is best known now as the municipality closest to the rural Louisiana road where a six-man posse gunned down Bonnie and Clyde on May 23, 1934.

Stewart was long gone by then, having graduated from Tennessee A&I State College (now Tennessee State University) in 1930 and begun a writing career. By the summer of 1934 he had moved to Baltimore and was writing for The Afro-American.

He mostly covered sports early on but occasionally mixed in features, columns and even fiction for the paper. But he was prolific, always writing, with multiple pieces in most weekly editions.

In 1937, he officially resigned from the paper to travel, embarking on a six-week tour of the Caribbean. He continued writing for The Afro-American on his travels, though, turning in features and first-person pieces. Among his subjects was Satchel Paige, then starring for dictator Rafael Trujillo’s personal team in the Dominican Republic.

In Haiti, he spent time with Zora Neale Hurston just as her masterpiece “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was about to be released. She was researching the book that would become “Tell My Horse”, an exploration of voodoo rituals in Haiti and Jamaica.

Stewart’s visa photo for Brazil trip

Stewart continued writing for The Afro-American as a special correspondent the next few years, then set off on another exotic excursion in 1940. This time, Stewart spent 26 days in Brazil, tasked with chronicling life in a nation “where there are more colored people than in the United States and where there is no color line.” His reporting did not bear that out, as he repeatedly encountered — and wrote about — racial discrimination in Brazil.

Stewart began reporting from New York early in 1941, writing about everything from boxing to jazz to politics. By summer he was back home in Louisiana, writing a series about the military training camps that had been established and ramped up since the draft went into effect.

On August 9, The Afro-American ran his story on the 99th Pursuit Division’s training base in Alabama, which began: “What is happening at Tuskegee Institute at present is stupendous, breathtaking and significant.”

Stewart focused largely on military affairs from that point forward and was officially accredited as a military correspondent by the War Department in July 1942. He flew to London in early September and finally reached the front in Oran by the beginning of December.

Stewart covered the Casablanca conference the next month, recounting in a January 30 piece how he sat two tables away from Franklin D. Roosevelt as the president ate lunch, then shook hands with both Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at a press conference.

But it was the smaller stories that endeared Stewart to his readership. His reports often ended with a simple list of soldiers he had encountered in the field — a collection of names, ranks and hometowns that buoyed family members back home. The paper routinely published stories in which parents expressed their gratitude for Stewart passing along word of their sons.

Tears filled the eyes of Mrs. Carter, 27 N. Peach Street, when told that Ollie Stewart, AFRO war correspondent in Africa, had seen and talked to her son, Sgt. James H. Carter.

By mid-summer 1943, he was writing regularly about the Tuskegee Airmen, though not using that moniker at the time — they were generally referred to simply as the 99th Squadron. He made the jump across the Mediterranean to Sicily in August, then followed the troops on to mainland Italy in October.

In early December, AFRO sports editor (and future publisher) Art Carter arrived to take over the 99th beat, leaving Stewart a long and not entirely welcome trip home. “Leaving the squadron was like leaving family and home,” he lamented in a short article published December 11.

Perhaps I am ungrateful, but I am not too happy over being relieved. My life overseas for fifteen months has been a good one and I have made many friends. I leave them with regrets and happy memories.

Stewart shipped back to London for a few weeks — taking time in the process to open Christmas gifts sent to him a year earlier — before heading back across the Atlantic and arriving home in early January.

He embarked on a speaking tour, drawing huge crowds at churches in Baltimore, Washington, Richmond and beyond. Audience members routinely asked Stewart for his autograph — a concept he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around in the moment: “Now I know how Joe Louis or Clark Gable feels — but why it should happen to me is a mystery I wish somebody would help me unravel.”

While those talks kept Stewart busy throughout the spring, he mostly took a break from newspaper work. A mid-May interview with Sugar Ray Robinson in New York was his only Afro-American story for three months.

Then, D-Day came, and Stewart was back across the pond.

Stewart, right, hands out copies of the Afro-American to troops in September 1945

On August 26, 1944, Stewart and three other correspondents rolled up the Avenue de Fontainebleau into Paris after three long days waiting for clearance to enter the city.

We found the greatest collection of correspondents in history from every part of the world. Many of them were veterans of former campaigns who expect to return home soon. This is the city that they have waited for and this is the day that the French nation prayed for. After all, there is but one Paris.

Though waxing nostalgic about the City of Light was practically mandatory for correspondents as Allied troops plowed toward the French capital, Stewart followed through like few others. He reported from Paris through January 1945 before heading back home, but returned to France that summer even though the war in Europe was finished.

By the spring of 1948, Stewart had decided to make Paris his home. He had described it in print as his favorite city, and continuing battles over civil rights in the United States prompted him to seek comfort on familiar ground.

On July 24, 1948, The Afro-American published the first “Report From Europe” column by Stewart, a series that would continue weekly through January 22, 1977.

Now 70 years old, his health beginning to fade, Stewart returned home to the U.S. in March 1977. Why? “Of course, I wanted to see my family; I’m human, after all,” he wrote. “But taking priority was one overriding fact — health care.” Medicare, specifically.

A week or two after his return, Stewart acknowledged in an April 2 column that from what he could tell, race relations had indeed improved in his decades away: “I’ve seen and heard things I never expected to see during my lifetime, in the land of Dixie.”

But he made it clear he wasn’t pleased about the change of scenery.

Big, rich and violent. That’s the land I’ve come back to.

There are people here who are dear to me. If THEY weren’t here, I just might take off again — and never come back again.

Stewart’s anguished reentry was tragically short-lived. On May 1, he suffered a stroke while staying with family in Atlanta. He died two days later and was buried a few days after that in Gibsland.

An editorial in the May 14 Afro-American eulogized one of the newspaper’s brightest stars:

Gibsland, Louisiana. That is where Ollie Stewart began. Off the Red River. Bayou country. Near Shreveport.

That a black son of this soil would end as an intellectual, a journalist who literally knew the crowned heads of Europe, who walked with presidents and kings, is not so startling.

Black people, as we forever report in these pages, can do whatever their strengths, wills and hearts inform them to do. As Ollie followed his star, given the opportunity, so can all of us.

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