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Interview: Book on African-American leaders includes St. Louis connections

Portraits of Purpose Ken Cooper
Courtesy of Ken Cooper
Partial image of book cover

Former Post-Dispatch and St. Louis American reporter Ken Cooper just published his first book, "Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership."  The book is a collaboration with the photographer Don West and chronicles the lives of influential Bostonian African Americans. Yet, nestled within the book’s 116 profiles are the stories of five St. Louisans. St. Louis public Radio’s Willis Ryder Arnold recently spoke with Cooper about crafting the book and the intersections between Cooper’s own life and the lives of St. Louis subjects.   

Willis Ryder Arnold: So how does it feel to have a book out there in the world?

Ken Cooper: It was a long time coming. I got into journalism because I wanted to write and that was a way to write and get paid on a regular basis. Only in middle age have I been able to turn to what I really wanted to do in the beginning, which is to write books.

Reporter and author Ken Cooper
Credit Courtesy of Ken Cooper
Reporter and author Ken Cooper

WJA: How did you think of your writing as a complement to Don West’s images?

KC: Images are portraits and the best portraits tell you something of a person’s character. And the profiles were intended to give an impression of what that person accomplished that had an impact on social change in the Boston area and what their animating values and experiences are that caused them to do.

WRA: The style of writing in this book seems pitched somewhere between encyclopedia entries and vernacular English. What type of consideration did you give to tone while presenting these histories? 

KC: In developing each profile, we thought of them as life sketches. Five hundred words for the bulk of these people is not nearly enough to tell their entire life story, the soups, the nuts of where they’ve been and what they’ve done. But you’ve got to cover the highlights of [their lives] so that could be like an encyclopedia.  There was an effort from my part in conjunction with my editor to write very accessibly, such that a young person in high school, a teenager in high school, could read the book and get it. Or that an adult in this multimedia age who is accustomed to reading short texts and emails and the web, it would be something that they could easily grasp. So, the language is very close to the vernacular, sort of conversational, and it avoids, most of the time, getting too abstract. Working with my editor I think we kind of hit the sweet spot most of the time.

WRA: While you were doing this work you said you talked with at least 60 people. What was the strongest moment of personal connection you felt with a subject while working on this project?

KC: The chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston is an African-American man named Keith Motley. I have known Keith for 30-odd years. As young men, we were part of a group that played basketball together on Saturday mornings. So, I thought I knew Keith pretty well. Keith Motley is 6-foot-7 or so, a very muscular built man, think Charles Barkley size.

But I was floored when Keith Motley told me he’d been playing the violin and quite capably since he was elementary school. The image of him pounding the basketball and pounding the board as a high school student when he was in the school orchestra. As he was in sitting in the orchestra delicately strumming the violin. I thought that was an “ah-ha” moment, and I actually used his violin playing and work with orchestras as a metaphor for what he’s done to orchestrate the growth and development of the orchestra he leads.

WRA: Four of the characters, Dick Gregory, Katherine Dunham, Henry Hampton and one other [Charles R. Stith] all have a St. Louis connection. You worked here. How did you use your own St. Louis history while approaching subjects with St. Louis connections that appear in the book?

KC: With most of those people it was my experience living and working in St. Louis that played a role. The first time I interviewed Dick Gregory, I believe it was in St. Louis when I worked for the St. Louis American decades ago. Henry Hampton, who is the producer of "Eyes on the Prize," the civil rights documentary, it meant something to me to know that he grew up in Richmond Heights. I know where that is and what that sort of suburb is like. That his father was a surgeon at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, I knew what that context was. And that he graduated from Washington University as I did, although in the early '60s, in his case.
So, I had some sense of what his experience might have been like at that school at that early stage, as a black student at that early stage of things.

Charles Stith — he actually was a student at Soldan High School when a late uncle of mine was actually teaching there. So, having lived and worked in St. Louis I had a fuller sense of their origins by being familiar with the geography and history of St. Louis, which helped me inform my pieces. 

WRA: Why is it important to have people with St. Louis connections represented in a book on African American leaders right now?

KC: For one thing, a migration from St. Louis to Boston and settlement there is not a prominent pattern of migration for anybody or any group of people, I don’t think. And I think it actually says something positive about the St. Louis area. I don’t have an exact count. I think that, only after New York, St. Louis has the most non-Boston natives represented in a book that is Boston-centric.

WRA: Do you feel like there’s any link between your work at the Boston Globe and your subject Charles R. Stith’s work to better integrate that newspaper?

KC: Yeah. Very much so. I was working at the same time he was doing that. I worked there twice but in the '80s when he did that intervention, I was a reporter on the Globe staff, a young reporter.

WRA: Wow, so that was concurrent with your own time in Boston?

KC: In fact there’s another second link, I was part of a team of reporters at the Globe in 1983 that wrote a series about race and racial equity in Boston. And it was actually that series in which the Globe also looked at itself and examined its own hiring practices that prompted Charles Stith to see an opportunity to advocate with the publisher for the Globe to take a lead in the problems we found in the employment of African Americans in the major sectors of the Boston economy of that time.

So, I helped write something that prompted him to do something. We were already applying pressure, but he was meeting with the publisher periodically. We were meeting inside periodically with the publisher in separate meetings. And so one thing lead to another which lead to another.   

This interview was edited and condensed for readability.