Ralph Dawson Matthews, Jr.

Ralph Dawson Matthews, Jr., pictured here as a young man, died April 3. He was 86. (Handout photo, Baltimore Sun)

Ralph Dawson Matthews Jr., a former managing editor of the Baltimore Afro-American who worked closely with Malcolm X in the early 1960s and once shared a house with a young Miles Davis, died April 3 at the Adelphi House assisted living facility in Adelphi, Prince George's County.

Mr. Dawson died of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD. He was 86.

"Ralph was always very inquisitive," remembered Harry Peaker, a retired mathematician who grew up with Mr. Matthews in Northwest Baltimore. "He could always fit in somehow, he could gain confidences and talk to a lot of different people. He would be accepted, he could relate to a lot of different people."

A Baltimore native, Mr. Matthews attended Booker T. Washington Junior High and Frederick Douglass High School before enrolling in Syracuse University. While studying there, he contracted tuberculosis and had to leave school for treatment. He eventually received a degree from Morgan State University, where he studied journalism.

Mr. Matthews' father, Ralph Matthews Sr., was a longtime managing editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, a legacy that heavily influenced the younger man's choice of a profession.

"He made Ralph come home during his college summers and work at the Afro," said Mr. Matthews' wife of 25 years, Sharon Williams-Matthews, who lives in University Park, Prince George's County. "He got a chance to be groomed and tutored by all of the people who did the layout, the writing, the editing. He got a feel for journalism from the ground up."

After several years of covering religion and the arts for the Afro, Mr. Matthews moved to New York and began writing for publications there. "His mid-career occurred during the rise of the black power movement," his wife recalled, "and he was right in the middle of it."

While in New York, he wrote for Color magazine, a publication modeled after Life magazine, but for black audiences. In the early 1960s he founded the New York Citizen Call newspaper, which carefully chronicled the black movement. One of the paper's key influences was Malcolm X. When the civil rights leader had a famous meeting with Cuba leader Fidel Castro at New York's Hotel Theresa in 1960, Mr. Matthews was the only reporter allowed in the room, his wife said.

"Every Friday, he would meet with Malcolm X and go over things that were going to be in the paper," remembered his son, David Matthews, a screenplay writer who splits his time between New York and Los Angeles. "They were really tight."

For about 10 years beginning in 1967, Mr. Matthews split his time between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Besides occasional stints writing for the Afro, he traveled the country for the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEP), helping to chronicle President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, and was the first African-American to serve as managing editor of broadcast news for Howard University's PBS television station, WHUT. In that position, he was able to shepherd many young African-Americans looking for jobs in broadcast journalism.

"He was able to open the door for a lot of people they wouldn't have hired otherwise," Ms. Williams-Matthews said.

In 1977, the year he was named managing editor of the Afro, Mr. Matthews settled in Baltimore. He left the paper in 1986; three years later, when he married Sharon Williams, a mathematician and economist, the couple moved to University Park.

Mr. Matthews also worked as a health educator for the Washington, D.C., Department of Health (from which he retired in 2000) and as a speechwriter for onetime D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.

During his early days as a reporter for the Afro, Mr. Matthews' beats included the arts, during the years when Baltimore was an almost mandatory stop for African-American entertainers. David Matthews said his father often spoke of the glories of covering entertainment in Baltimore, in the days when the old Royal Theatre helped keep Pennsylvania Avenue hopping.

"My dad was always going out to Pennsylvania Avenue," David Matthews recalled. "He said it was every bit as much fun as being in Harlem."

Mr. Matthews' jazz connections ran deep. For a few months in the early 1950s, he shared a house in New Jersey with Miles Davis; other close friends among jazz musicians included the Heath Brothers and Max Roach. In Washington, he served as historian for the Jazz Listening Group, a society of jazz scholars.

"He would always end up on the stage after a show, talking to everybody," David Matthews said. "He was probably one of the great jazz archivists."

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Matthews is survived by a daughter, Marcy Crump, of Baltimore, another son, Khari Charles Matthews, of Bowie, and four grandchildren.

The Matthews family is hoping to have a jazz-themed memorial service in May, Ms. Williams-Matthews said.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com