Through the Gates: Shaping a Career

From her earliest days growing up in the segregated South to her posts as a correspondent for the PBS’s The NewsHour, and as a special correspondent with National Public Radio based in Johannesburg, global correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault has been drawn to the stories of powerful women. At the age of 12, Hunter-Gault knew she wanted to be a journalist. Her career has taken her to some of the most prestigious news outlets in the United States, such as Newsweek, The New Yorker, and The New York Times as its Harlem bureau chief. But she is best known for her long career at PBS and as the familiar voice bringing listeners news from Africa for NPR.

In September, Kathryn Kolbert, Constance Hess Williams ’66 Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard, introduced Hunter-Gault as the first speaker at this academic year’s Power Talks, a series sponsored by the center that engages today’s leaders in conversation on provocative topics of the moment. In her talk, “From Closed Doors to Open Roads: A Journalist’s Journey,” Hunter-Gault relayed the crucial—and often overlooked—role that women play in politics and civil society around the globe. She spoke about growing up in Covington, Georgia, while Jim Crow laws still prevailed. Her school textbooks were hand-me-downs from white schools, often with pages missing. “That drove me crazy,” she said, “because I was a reader.” School playgrounds were tarred, burning the soles of children’s feet during hot weather. “Separate was definitely not equal,” she recalled.

To make up for these shortcomings, families held annual fund-raisers for the school. The son or daughter of the family that brought in the most money was made the event’s king or queen. One year young Charlayne was crowned queen. “The notion of being a queen took up residence in my head,” she said. She carried that feeling with her as she met with additional challenges.

It served her well as the first African-American woman enrolled at the University of Georgia and the school’s first African-American graduate. As she walked past heckling white students on her way to class, Hunter-Gault held fast to the image of herself wearing her crown.

As a young adult in the civil-rights movements, Hunter-Gault saw how much women contributed. They were not only on the frontlines of civil disobedience actions and marches, they also worked behind the scenes, transcribing meeting minutes, stuffing envelopes, and sweeping the office floors. She chronicled these formative experiences in the South in her autobiography In My Place.

As a correspondent from Africa, she found the continent’s struggles tightly interwoven with the story of the women living there. “The poorest of the poor in Africa are women,” she told the audience. Hunter-Gault has worked hard to make sure that Americans hear more than the typical storyline of war, famine, and disease. “African women are not standing still while horrible things are happening around them,” she said. There are numerous examples of women working to make a difference: the presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia; the humanitarian work of Graça Mandela on behalf of Sudanese women; the political achievements of Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania who now serves as the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations; and most recently, the very public faces of women protestors of the Arab Spring. “I am convinced that solutions to Africa’s problems will come out of Africa,” said Hunter-Gault.

-Ilana Polyak