The photo accompanied DeWayne Wickham’s last column at USA Today. He sits next to President Barack Obama around a large table in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Presidential aide Valerie Jarrett is there too, as well as other Black journalists. Obama listens as Wickham speaks.
The image is a snapshot of the journalism prestige Wickham has gained in 40-plus years in the business. The Baltimore-born University of Maryland, College Park graduate, a founder and past president of the National Association of Black Journalists, also co-founded the organization of Black columnists seated around that table, the Trotter Group, to expand opportunities and access for Black journalists at the highest levels of politics and government.
Wickham, who worked a short stint at The Sun, earned that kind of access for himself with fiery columns on the opinion pages of USA Today for 30years starting in 1985. He never shied away from controversial issues like advocating for normalized relations with Cuba or denouncing the way America treated Haitian refugees at Guantanamo Bay during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
At the time of the White House photo, Wickham was already embarking on a new endeavor, one that brought him in 2012 to the campus of Morgan State University as chairman of what was then the Department of Communication Studies. In just one year, he would transform the department into a full-fledged journalism school at Maryland’s largest historically Black university.
The goal was to provide a path for more people of color to embark on careers in the largely white industry. Wickham became the school’s first dean, a job he will retire from this spring.
When he first arrived at Morgan, people thought his goal to transform the journalism program in a year’s time a lofty one.
“People snickered,” he said, when President David Wilson told faculty of his plans. “They snickered.”
Just in case the snickers weren’t enough to communicate the extent of skepticism, there was one last diss as the session ended — from a worker at the physical plant.
“You know, that’s not going to happen,” Wickham remembered the man saying, a memory that still makes him laugh.
Had that co-worker known the incredible challenges Wickham had overcome, he might not have been so incredulous. Orphaned at the age of 8 after the murder-suicide of his mother and father, Wickham grew up in dire poverty in Cherry Hill, initially at the home of an aunt, one of nine people living in four rooms with concrete floors, he wrote in an autobiography.
He dropped out of high school and joined the Air Force, where he was trained in combat photography before being sent to Vietnam at the height of the war in 1967. Honorably discharged in 1968, and having earned a G.E.D. in the military, he worked his way through journalism school as a medical photographer and a part-time salesperson, with the help of the GI Bill.
Mere snickers were not going to deter him.
After just nine months, Wickham’s proposal for the School of Global Journalism & Communication cleared all the approval processes of both Morgan and the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Last year, the school earned full accreditation from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications — the ultimate stamp of approval for journalism programs — on the first try with a unanimous vote.
“I believe the development of the school during Dean Wickham’s time was one of the most remarkable initiatives I have seen in chairing more than 100 accreditation visits in this country and abroad,” said Will Norton, former dean of the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media, who led the team that approved the accreditation. “His vision for what is needed in education was so clear and well-formulated, and his connections to people in the media are spectacular.”
With that accreditation in hand, the 74-year-old Wickham told the Board of Regents his work was done and he would step down in May.
“I want to do something else,” Wickham said. “For me, this job has been accomplished. The president asked me to come and build a school of journalism with national standing at Morgan State University. He asked me to get that school accredited. And the school was accredited.”
As easy as he made it look, Wickham faced challenges at Morgan, namely criticism over his lack of an academic background.
“There was a level of distrust among some of the faculty members … who saw me as an interloper,” he said.
But his professional journalism background, and expansive network, were exactly what made him right for the job, said Jacqueline Jones, an assistant dean and chair of the department of multimedia journalism at Morgan.
“DeWayne Wickham was the best person to create and launch a program of this kind,” said Jones. “Part of that is he has vision. But he also has focus and drive.”
Wickham shook up the typically slow pace of academia with his decisiveness, Jones said. “He will consult, and he will weigh options and discussions,” she said. “But at some point, you’ve got to make a decision and then you’ve got to go with it. … That’s how DeWayne works.”
Wickham also had an academic track record, despite what the critics thought. From 2010 to 2012, he was interim chair of North Carolina A&T’s Department of Journalism & Mass Communication while writing his column for USA Today.
In 2012, Wickham says, a mutual friend arranged for him to play a round of golf with Wilson at the Clifton Park Golf Course in Baltimore, the first of several meetings.
“We talked a lot of journalism, and played just a little golf,” Wickham said.
Said Wilson: “I was looking for a transformational leader for our inaugural dean of the school, and I was not going to elevate the department to a school until I found that leader.”
Wickham had all the qualities Wilson was looking for.
“He was just so seasoned and he understood journalism the way I understood journalism, which was a field where you had to have one foot on a university campus as a leader of a school in the practice of journalism and you had to have another foot in the academic enterprise,” Wilson said.
Wickham’s plan to focus on digital journalism was something that impressed Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Morgan graduate and chairman of the school’s Board of Regents.
“DeWayne realized properly that African Americans and Latinos were the largest users per capita of smartphones and tablets,” Mfume said. “And he saw a whole vista of training and opportunities there if he could work to develop a curriculum that provided people what they needed when they left the university to be able go and plug into this growing digital journalism field as we now know it.”
Wickham also had a global vision that Wilson and Mfume liked.
“He wanted to find a way to give students an opportunity globally to see the world, to report on the world, to understand the issues of the world and try to develop journalism around that,” Mfume said.
Exposing Black journalists, who rarely get foreign correspondent gigs, to global opportunities had long been important to Wickham. Before coming to Morgan, he spent two decades taking groups of them abroad to visit and report from such countries as Cuba, Columbia, Brazil and Panama to expand their resumes and experiences.
Organizing these trips also helped Wickham hone his fundraising abilities, a handy skill for building a journalism school. The school will bear the fruits of his work long after Wickham leaves.
Last month, NBCUniversal announced a partnership that included $500,000 for the School of Global Journalism & Communication, a decision it made in part based on Wickham’s reputation.
“Wickham’s School of Global Journalism creates a direct pipeline from Morgan State’s classrooms to newsrooms all over the country. NBCUniversal News Group is thrilled to help keep that legacy alive,” Yvette Miley, senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said in an email. She also said Wickham’s columns had long been inspiring to her and others.
The school also has a partnership with The Wall Street Journal and has received major grants from the Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, The New School and others during Wickham’s tenure.
Tramon Lucas, a 2017 Morgan graduate who is now a digital editor at WBAL-TV in Baltimore, benefited from that pipeline into newsrooms Wickham created.
“I learned so much not just about how to be a journalist but also to manage the business and place myself in the right positions — one of the key things I learned under the leadership of Wickham and other professors,” Lucas said.
While Wickham will be closing the door on his Morgan days in a few months, don’t call it a retirement.
“I am stepping down, not retiring,” he said emphatically.
It’s easy to believe Wickham, given that he is a dynamo of ideas and full of energy. He’s had discussions about writing a book and is also working with actor-producer Tim Reid (”Frank’s Place” and “Sister, Sister”) on possible documentaries, hoping to benefit from new interest by Netflix and Verizon in storytelling in the Black community.
Several journalism schools have come aggressively knocking, something he is not all that interested in.
Wickham can’t imagine not working, having held two or three jobs at a time most of his life. Working was a way out of poverty and having multiple jobs a way to stay out of poverty, he said.
He hesitated a moment when asked if he ever thinks about how far he’s come from Cherry Hill, a past he doesn’t take for granted.
“What I think about,” he said, “is that but for my determination to succeed and the grace of God, I might be just a couple paychecks away from my life in Cherry Hill.”
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.