This was the second time as an adult that Elinor had run into her grade school teacher, an elderly white lady named Ms. Kerry. She stood face to face with the teacher who had called her stupid, advised her to go to trade school and find a job. Now, as a graduate student and the editor in chief of a legendary newspaper, Elinor Tatum, in a fury and a deep-seated sense of justice unleashed, shared her accomplishments of being named a Violet scholar at St. Lawrence University, a designation of leadership, graduating St. Lawrence and then studying abroad at Stockholm, Sweden for a year. She told of her appointment as editor in chief and then reciprocated by asking Ms. Kerry what she was doing. The teacher revealed that she had retired from teaching, and in splendid candor Elinor cried out, “Oh, thank God!”
During first grade, Elinor was diagnosed with dyslexia and many of her teachers who apparently weren’t familiar with people like Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Albert Einstein or John Lennon, who also viewed letters a bit differently, underestimated the potential within Elinor. Fortunately she did not let such discouraging words deter her. “It was just one of those things,” Elinor describes, “there are just people out there who are not going to believe in you and you have to prove them wrong. I learned that very young. There are people out there who will be your detractors and you don’t play into what they say to you. You have to prove them absolutely wrong.”
As painful as those encounters may have been, they fueled Elinor with a dogged determination to excel and the passion to help level the path for others. The force of her dynamism is concealed by her subtle freckles, curly locks, almond eyes and fresh-faced beauty, but when she verbalizes her point, whether it is on Israel or the social inequities in this country it is with profound brilliance.
Elinor Tatum is the only child of Wilbert and Susan (Kohn) Tatum. Her father, one of thirteen children born in North Carolina, is a prominent businessman and journalist – part of Harlem royalty. He initially acquired the Amsterdam News with a consortium in 1971, which included Percy Sutton and Mayor David Dinkins. He later gained controlling interest in 1996. Her mother is Jewish, born in Czechoslovakia, who fled with her family from the Nazis at the beginning of the Holocaust. And as Elinor indicated, her mother’s family moved to South America at the time because the United States did not accept Jews into the country during 1939.
Fortified with the potent DNA of two powerful cultures, identifying as both Black and Jewish, Elinor appears to be a freethinking leader who has a broad understanding of the social disparities between black and white lifestyles. She seems the perfect voice of expression for the Black press and the catalyst to begin bridging the cultural gaps. However Elinor doesn’t see true racial harmony coming in her generation or the next. Albeit, she welcomes it, she explains, “to be free in your thinking goes to the idea that people are talking about transcending race, which I don’t believe we can do right now. Look at what happened in Oakland. The fact that we have a Black president is not going to stop racism. It’s not going to stop police brutality. It’s not going to further a larger percentage of people of color to become the CEO’s of the fortune 500 companies.”
Sitting higher in her chair, Elinor continues with a visible resolve, “A Black president is only the beginning, but it won’t bring us equality overnight. One man can’t make the necessary changes that give people the quality of life, change the way our families are treated.”
With 10 years under her belt as the publisher and editor in chief of the 100 year old weekly, Amsterdam News, a Harlem institution with coveted influence, she perhaps has more power to set those changes in motion than she has envisioned. Elinor, in the footsteps of her father and on the shoulders of those who partook in the fruit of Amsterdam News including W.E.B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Roy Wilkins and Malcolm X and in the spirit of the Black newspaper that championed civil rights causes and chronicled the movement of the Freedom Riders, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and countless other significant events, still carries the voice for those who may have otherwise never been heard. All of the history, passion, ideas and freedom have culminated into her hands and she is well equipped to bring in the next wave of social justice.
At 37, Elinor is stepping into the role she has been groomed for her entire life, not only a journalist and business woman, but the next generation of leadership. It’s a natural progression. She worked on her first political campaign at 13 years old when David Dinkins was running for borough president and as she stated, she did so alongside David Paterson. But more than nepotism and environment it is within her character to make a difference. “It’s just a way of living your life and being honest with yourself,” Elinor clearly articulates, “telling the truth and speaking up for what you believe in.”
Now that the newspaper business at large is facing uncertain times and many are closing their doors, the nearly century old Amsterdam News has kept its head above water. It is mainly because the paper fits within a niche market and is rooted in Black tradition. Elinor says she is reminded of the paper’s purpose when she drives by the newsstand on 135th Street and Seventh Avenue and witnesses people buying their Amsterdam News on Thursday morning. It’s woven into the fabric of Black New York.