Renee Poussaint: Award-Winning Washington Newscaster and Correspondent for ABC News

From a Washington Post obit by Louie Estrada headlined “Renee Poussaint, award-winning newscaster, dies at 77”:

Renee Poussaint, an award-winning local Washington newscaster and correspondent for ABC News who stepped away from journalism in the late 1990s to pursue endeavors to educate young people about Black history and civil rights, died at her home in the District. The cause was lung cancer, said her husband, Henry Richardson, a retired Temple University professor of international law.

Ms. Poussaint joined the Washington-area media market in the mid-1970s as a correspondent for CBS News before WJLA-TV  hired her in 1978 as an evening and late-night co-anchor with David Schoumacher.

She received local Emmy Awards for her reporting on human-interest stories, including Haitian migrant workers at a labor camp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and her account of the return of the American hostages from Iran. She won another for a profile of Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of what is now the Washington Commanders football team.

After leaving WJLA in 1992, she was elevated to the network level and continued to win awards. She covered U.S. presidential campaigns and reported from conflict zones such as Haiti, South Africa and Uganda for the newsmagazine programs “20/20” and “PrimeTime Live.” On  occasion, she filled-in for anchor Peter Jennings on the network’s half-hour evening program “World News Tonight.”

Renee Francine Poussaint was born in Manhattan and grew up in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood. Her father was an engraver and union leader at the New York Times, and her mother was a social worker who became the city’s deputy commissioner of welfare.

She and her younger brother were raised primarily by their mother after their parents divorced, and she was surrounded by relatives who stressed the importance of education. Her uncle Alvin Poussaint became a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and was a consultant to Bill Cosby in creating “The Cosby Show.”

Ms. Poussaint attended Sarah Lawrence College on a scholarship and graduated in 1964 with a degree in comparative literature. She received a master’s degree in African studies from UCLA in 1970, took classes at Yale Law School for a year and entered Indiana University for doctoral work in comparative literature.

While teaching a class on Black American literature, she said she found that her students had little interest in the material and exhibited barely passable reading and writing skills.

“They told me that they didn’t see it as a problem because they got the bulk of their information from television,” she said. “So I went through a kind of identity crisis because at the same time my studies were becoming more and more esoteric — I would sit in seminars with six people and translate parts of the Bible into Swahili — and so I decided that I needed to learn something about television.”

She left Indiana to enroll in a program for minority journalists at Columbia University, then was hired as a news writer for WBBM in Chicago. Her first on-air reporting occurred accidentally. Short-staffed, the editor sent her to relay information back to the station about a house fire in the suburbs. Authorities discovered that the fire was the site of a murder-suicide that left five people dead, and Ms. Poussaint found herself for the first time speaking to the television camera for a live report.

“I did it, and I was terrible,” she said in 1982. “I stumbled and hemmed and hawed and carried on and figured that the only redeeming feature of the whole thing was my mother in New York couldn’t see me make a fool of myself. But it was pretty bad. Anyway I survived the experience.”

In 2001, she co-founded and served as executive director of the National Visionary Leadership Project, which recorded 300 oral history interviews with Black leaders in the arts, education, government and civil rights. Ms. Poussaint compiled many of them in the 2004 book “A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak,” which she co-edited with Cosby’s wife, Camille.

Ms. Poussaint tutored and mentored District children and was an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. She also was president of her own communications firm and founded Wisdom Works, a nonprofit documentary film company that made “Tutu and Franklin: A Journey Towards Peace,” with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and American historian John Hope Franklin discussing racial reconciliation….

When she entered broadcast journalism in Chicago, she recalled being told that she would never succeed, for many reasons. In addition to her race, gender and short hair, a supervisor told her, she came across as too intelligent — superior to the average viewer.

The conversation compelled her to challenge bias and inequality during and after her TV career.

“As a young black woman, my opportunities for activism and involvement were rich and constant,” Ms. Poussaint wrote in a 2001 essay. “My moral imperatives — my woulds and shoulds — were firm and clear. And, although I was a woman and a black, I believed I should have an equal chance to be president, or anything else I pleased.”

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