Vernon Jarrett was a Chicago journalist and advocate for education. Born on June 19, 1921 in Paris, Tennessee, Jarrett received his undergraduate training from Knoxville College where he was editor of the campus newspaper. He graduated from Knoxville College in 1941 and soon afterwards joined the U.S. Navy where he edited The Manannan. During the next two decades Jarrett received degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Kansas City, and the University of Chicago in journalism, television writing and producing, and urban sociology respectively.
In 1946 Jarrett moved to Chicago and became a journalist for the Chicago Defender. While there he also worked with the Associated Negro Press, a now-defunct news gathering service which provided national and international stories for African American newspapers across the country. In 1948 Jarrett teamed with composer Oscar Brown, Jr., to produce Negro Newsfront, the first daily radio news broadcast created by African Americans.
In the mid-1950s Jarrett became one of the first African American journalists to work in television. He appeared in numerous documentaries for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Most notably, Jarrett spent thirty years as producer of Chicago’s American Broadcasting Company (ABC)-owned network and host of a Sunday morning talk show. Jarrett often gave Chicago area African American children the opportunity to co-host the show with him.
In 1970 Jarrett began writing for the Chicago Tribune and in 1983 he was hired by the Chicago Sun Times, becoming the first African American journalist at each of these major newspapers. He wrote more than 4,000 columns for the papers until his retirement in 1995. In 1975 Jarrett became one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and served as the organization’s second president.
In 1976 Jarrett helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) program to promote education for African American youth. Jarrett envisioned a program that highlighted black academic achievement since so much of black youth culture focused on sports heroes. The ACT-SO competition continues to promote academic achievement in over four hundred cities across the United States.
In 1995 Jarrett created a literary campaign he called the Freedom Readers, which was inspired by the Freedom Riders of 1961. Jarrett and his supporters used this campaign to encourage more reading by the city’s black youth. The program particularly emphasized both local and national African American history.
In 1983 Jarrett made a rare foray into Chicago politics. In that year Congressman Harold Washington made a bid to become the first African American mayor of Chicago. When support for Washington wavered and he considered dropping out of the race, Jarrett organized a group of black political leaders and activists who successfully persuaded Washington to continue his campaign. Jarrett and the other leaders organized a voter registration campaign which they believed would help Washington’s chances. Washington won the mayoral race and many observers credit the victory to the efforts of Jarrett and the other people he persuaded to back Washington.
Jarrett received numerous awards and honors in his lifetime including induction into the National Literary Hall of Fame in 1999. He was also a member of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity. Vernon Jarrett died of cancer in Chicago at the age of 86 on May 23, 2004.