Shawn G. Kennedy, Times Reporter in a Vanguard, Dies at 73

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Back in the 1970s, as The New York Times lagged behind other papers in hiring reporters and editors of color, Paul Delaney, the first Black reporter hired in the newspaper’s Washington bureau, was among those helping to recruit nonwhite journalists.

He was on assignment in New Orleans in 1973 when he ran into a Black television reporter, who told him that her twin sister, who worked as a fact checker for Playboy magazine in Chicago, was eager to move to a daily paper. The next time Mr. Delaney was in Chicago, he looked her up.

And that was how Shawn G. Kennedy came to work at The Times, taking a route as random as any in that era, before organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists were formed to help organize the recruitment of journalists.

Ms. Kennedy, who worked at The Times for 23 years, died on April 5 at the home of her sister, Royal Kennedy Rodgers, in San Francisco. She was 73 and lived in New Orleans. Ms. Rodgers said the cause was breast cancer.

Ms. Kennedy began her career at The Times as a trainee in the Washington bureau in 1975 as part of a program to cultivate minority journalists.

Max Frankel, who was the Washington bureau chief from 1968 to 1972, and who later became executive editor, had recruited Mr. Delaney from The Washington Star. Then, as Mr. Frankel wrote in his memoir, “The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times” (1999), “We decided we had an obligation not just to raid other staffs but to open a path into our business for promising youngsters.”

The Times created that path by hiring people of color in the bureau as news assistants. Through an agreement with the reporters’ union, Mr. Frankel said, the bureau used them as reporters while paying them clerical wages; in exchange, the bureau promised to sponsor them for reporting jobs in New York if they met Times standards. One of the bureau’s editors, Bob Phelps, helped them by taking their work home and marking it up as a teacher would.

Ms. Kennedy made the cut. “She was in the vanguard,” Mr. Delaney said in an interview. “Having her succeed and join the staff attracted a lot of other minorities to the program.”

At the time, people of color at the paper were relatively rare; more recently they made up about 26 percent of the newsroom (nine percent are Black) and 32 percent of the company as a whole, and The Times has established a fellowship program that attracts a great number of journalists of color.

In New York, Ms. Kennedy worked on the Metro Desk and was promoted to Long Island bureau chief. She then sought and was given the job of real estate writer.

“She loved real estate,” Lena Williams, another Black reporter who worked at The Times and was a close friend of Ms. Kennedy’s, said. “She was one of the first to see gentrification in Crown Heights and Harlem. She was writing real estate stories and turning them into lifestyle stories.”

Her dream beyond that, Ms. Williams said, was to work for the Styles section. Ms. Kennedy was an accomplished cook and knowledgeable about fashion, interior design and architecture. She was disappointed when she was told that she was “not ready” for Styles, Ms. Williams said, though she occasionally freelanced for the section anyway.

Mr. Delaney said that “you’re not ready” was a common explanation when a Black reporter was denied a move. “That was the kind of stuff we faced all the time,” he said. “That’s what we had to overcome.”

Credit…via Royal Rodgers

Shawn Graves Kennedy was born on June 8, 1947, in Chicago. Her father, Lt. Col. James Vincent Kennedy, was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black corps of elite pilots; he completed his training too late to see combat in World War II but became a career Air Force officer and flew missions in Korea and Vietnam. He received degrees in electrical engineering and worked on the Apollo space program.

Her mother, Shirley (Graves) Kennedy, went back to school after her children had grown and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in African-American studies and her doctorate in political science. She then taught Black studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

With Mr. Kennedy in the military, the family lived on air bases around the world. The parents were intensely interested in current events and liked to read, and their children adopted the same habits. Royal Rodgers said that while living in Tokyo and having no television there, she and Shawn “devoured” American magazines. Shawn went to Ohio University in Athens but left for Playboy before graduating.

She married Harold Brown, an investment manager, in 1997 and left The Times shortly thereafter. They moved to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., before settling in New Orleans.

“New Orleans was her big second act,” her sister said. Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Brown were already involved in economic development there before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and afterward they devoted themselves even more to rebuilding the city. After Mr. Brown died in 2013, Ms. Kennedy continued many of his projects.

One project of which Ms. Kennedy was especially proud was overseeing the conversion of the historic St. Rosa de Lima church into a center for a Waldorf school, a performance space and a business incubator.

In addition to her sister, she is survived by two brothers, Kevin and Colin; a stepson, David Brown; and one step-grandson.

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