Leon Bibb: Anchor of Our Community
Written by Kyra Wells // Photos Courtesy of WKYC-TV & Cleveland.com
Being a reporter is a huge task. It’s a profession which should be held with as much regard as the most prestigious lawyers, doctors, and professors. What a task it is to take on delivering a message to the public that can be devastating, heart wrenching, or inspiring while striking the balance between composure and empathy. The man who self professed, “I am Cleveland”, Leon Bibb, has done just that. Some of our toughest times and most heart-warming moments have been covered by him. During a career spanning over 40 years, Emmy-award winning broadcast journalist, reporter, author, and Cleveland native, Leon Bibb continues to lead the way for today's African American journalists. He was the first African American on prime time television news, coinciding with some of the most tumultuous times in the history of Ohio, the nation and the world. Some of his work includes an interview with Martin Luther King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, and reporting on the scene of Kent State University following the deadly shooting in May of 1970. As a reporter, Bibb has bridged the gap between world turmoil and our television sets. He upholds a responsibility to the public for accurate and fair reporting. I had the opportunity to sit down with Bibb and have several conversations about his career and experience and hopes for the future.
Why did you decide to spend your career in Cleveland?
This is a question I ask myself a lot. It got comfortable for a while. I married, my children were in school. You want stability in their lives. My parents were here and I cared for them until they died, so that had a lot to do with me staying in Cleveland. Things were comfortable and I stayed.
Had I been born five years later, I would have been more of the mindset to move on. Had I been born 5 years earlier, I probably wouldn’t be doing television at all. I was the first. It was a lot of things I felt I needed to prove. Sometimes I have a regret. But if I had left I would not have been able to accomplish some of what I’ve accomplished here. We opened the door for a lot of our folks to come into television, Black folks especially. I opened the door.
Tell me about going to college during the 60’s.
I think there was a lot expected of us. We weren’t the first Black people to go to Bowling Green [State University], but we were among the first generations. At the time Bowling Green [State University] had a population of close to 10,000 students and 140 or so were Black. So you didn’t see a lot of Black people on campus. You were usually in classrooms by yourself. We understood these were changing times, and our job was to get educated and to help pull along others behind us and to help with the moment. And be part of what W.E.B. Dubois referred to in the early 20th century as “The Talented Tenth”. The talented tenth percent of educated Black folks. And we realized that's what we were trying to do. And the jobs were beginning to open up. Integration was coming into the workplace so we had to be prepared to get those jobs when they opened up and when I started in 1962, there probably was not a lot of chance of getting a job on a major newspaper, television station, or magazine. But by 1966, four years later, the world had changed and they were looking for folks like me. Maybe they weren’t looking for a lot but they were looking for some like me.
During the time of segregation were you concerned that people didn’t want to see African Americans on TV?
I had people tell me that I don’t sound Black. I’ve always said, “What does Black sound like?” I’ve had people challenge my Blackness. They’ve said, “Are you certain you’re not Lebanse?” I say, “Yes I’m positive.” It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened. My language is pretty much General American English. This is the way I speak, this is the way I am, this is the way my parents spoke. I don’t add anything, I don’t subtract anything. This is who I am.
When I walked into Channel 11 in Toledo in 1971, out of graduate school. I was the fourth or fifth Black person in the building. I don’t mean in the news department, I mean in the building! You could see some people were wondering, “Who is this kid?” But the cities were in riots and had rioted before and management wanted to make some inroads and needed to hire some qualified folks.
In 1971, Channel 11 had a Christmas party at a country club. I had to work that night as a reporter. I had only been working at the station for seven or eight months at the time. I was not widely known, but I was a street reporter. I had to do the 11 o’clock news that night, so I got my story done that night. Then I drove like crazy to the country club in suburban Toledo to catch up with the party which had been going on since like 7. I said I’ll get there and maybe they will have a meal available for me. I get to the country club and the lady at the desk, White women middle age, I tell her I’m here for the channel 11 christmas party. She says, “Well, you’re late.” and I said, “Yes, I had to work tonight.” and she says, “It’s not good being late to a party.” I said, “Well I’ll agree with that, I did the best I could but I’m here now.” and I’m beginning to feel what is this all about? She says, “Come on, let me get you started.” She walked me around and next thing I know, I see these two swinging doors and I’m standing in the kitchen.” and she says you’re late already get an apron and start busing those tables. I said ma’am I’m here for the Channel 11 christmas party and she says, “I know you’re late.” and I said, “Ma’am, I am Channel 11!” and the blood just drained from her. I left her standing in the kitchen and I left out and found the banquet room on my own.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want people to say that I cared. Maybe you can carve that on my tombstone. “He Cared.” That I cared about people and that I tried to represent myself as well as I could. I want people to know that I tried to do the best I could, wherever I was, whatever I was doing. Every story I cover, even to this day. I cover it as if it is the last thing that I will ever do. Because I don’t know when the end of my life is coming. When the end of my life comes, I would think the television stations would maybe look back at the last story I did and say “Yeah, that was Leon.”
Read the extended version in our February 2020 print issue!