Prof's gift chronicles Pulitzer Prize career

Prof's gift chronicles Pulitzer Prize career

URBANA – Readers will be able to trace the remarkable genesis of a Pulitzer Prize-winning story, now that Leon Dash has donated his notes, photographs and taped interviews to the University of Illinois Library.

Dash, 61, is a UI professor of journalism and African-American studies. He has immersed himself for years at a time in the lives of the underclass, both in the United States and in Africa, for the Washington Post, where he worked from 1965 until he joined the UI in 1997.

He was nominated five times for the Pulitzer before winning for an eight-part series in the Post about Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family, some of whom make it into the middle class, but most of whom became mired in drugs, poverty, illiteracy, prostitution and AIDS.

Dash, who is also a professor at the Center for Advanced Study and a Swanlund Professor, donated materials that also explore his time in the Peace Corps in Kenya. The papers are in the University Archives.

From 1991 to 1994, Dash chronicled Rosa Lee and her family. The series can be read online at

Walt Harrington, head of the UI Journalism Department who has been Dash's co-worker at both the Post and UI, said Dash is remarkable for his bravery in investing the time to get a story right.

In a business where a day without a story makes many reporters nervous, Harrington said, Dash has stood up for his story, "not without his critics."

"He has an absolute commitment to the story," Harrington says.

An early start

Dash was born in Massachusetts and grew up in New York City. He joined the Post even before graduating from Washington's Howard University, where he was majoring in history.

The future professor had a job steam-cleaning high-rise buildings at night to pay his way through college. Then came a cold snap.

"I began looking for an indoor job," Dash says.

The Post was looking for someone to work as a copy boy from 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.

"No one was lining up for that job." he says. "It was perfect for me – and it was indoors."

That was 1965. Within months, he was offered a job as a police reporter, only the third black reporter to be hired in a city that is 60 percent black.

The young reporter was working with some of the most famous names in newspaper history. "Carl Bernstein gave me good advice at the beginning of my career."

Dash was no shrinking violet. An older reporter on the crime beat asked him his first day on the job what Dash was working on, and then stole his stories. It happened again the second day.

On the third day, Dash rose up and said "nothing." Then he filed his stories from a pay phone in the police station basement where he couldn't be overheard.

"The Post runs on the theory of creative tension. We spent more time competing with each other than with the other two dailies in town. I got a lot of breaking stories. I would grab hold of them and not let them go," Dash says.

"I'd stay until 2 a.m. and be in by 8. It was the only way to make sure nobody took over my story."

Life at the Post

He quickly became valuable to the Post because of contacts in the protest movement.

"The cops called me the reporter from the Daily Worker," said Dash, referring to the socialist newspaper. "I got along with the cops even though they didn't like the Washington Post. They had a lot of complaints. I listened without comment."

He was often the only reporter at civil rights or Vietnam protests, where students chanted, "Draft beer, not students."

Dash was even put on a discipline list at Howard for being at so many rallies – and often ending up in Post photos of them – that he had to explain he was a reporter, not a participant.

"Two FBI agents came to my apartment and wanted to know if I was there when (black power activist) Stokely Carmichael advocated the use of guns," he recalls.

In 1968, he traveled to Memphis to cover Martin Luther King's efforts in a labor dispute. A week later, he was back to cover the assassination of the most powerful voice in the civil rights movement.

"All my clothes were at the cleaners. I had to grab some dirty laundry and head to the airport," where a Post editor was holding a ticket, and holding the plane, for him.

With all that was happening in America, Dash had a yearning to see what the rest of the world was like. With the Post's blessings, he signed up for the Peace Corps and went to Kenya with his first wife to teach high school.

The two years gave the middle-class young man a hint of what was to become an obsession: the persistence of the underclass. In Kenya, he realized that his ways were not everyone's ways.

For instance, he and his wife invited Kenyan friends over for a party that started at noon. Three hours later, the guests began filtering in.

The Dashes began to understand the rules better when they were the guests.

"When you're invited to someone's house, the main meal isn't killed until you arrive," he explained.

Angola series

Even his experience in Africa was not enough to win him a job as foreign correspondent, his goal at the time. Instead, Dash was assigned to cover a wealthy suburban county.

In 1973, as the Watergate story was breaking, Dash was looking at tax assessments. Even an accountant couldn't help him find the story in the data.

He was gaping in despair at the mountain of numbers when the phone rang. It was a professor who wanted to hook him up with UNITA, a guerrilla group fighting the Portuguese in Angola.

Was he willing to come to meet her?

"When?" was his only question.

As for tax assessments, he told his editor, "I have to drop this for a while."

That was an understatement. Dash spent three-month sojourns in Angola, sneaking in illegally the first time and spending much of his journey on foot.

His series ran in August 1974, the week Richard Nixon resigned, pushing his stories off the front page.

"Nixon, why couldn't you hold out another week?" he jokingly implored the disgraced chief executive.

The war in Angola grew, with the Soviets sending in Cuban troops, so that America began to see the far-off rebellion as part of the Cold War. The story continued to grow, and Dash spent five years as an African correspondent, during which time his daughter Destiny was born.

When he returned, he'd gotten out of the tax assessment story. A new threat loomed: a boring assignment editing other correspondents.

But the underclass story was growing in his mind.

Teen mothers

He had read the statistics: 53 percent of black children born to single mothers, one-third of the mothers teen-agers.

"That's how I got off the foreign desk," he says of his Pulitzer-nominated teen moms stories. It also led to a book, "When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teen-age Childbearing."

It was a classic example of immersion journalism, the field that Dash created. He didn't just do a few 15-minute interviews with the young mother; he closely followed their lives, and moved to their neighborhood .

Seeing the linkage of lack of education, drugs, prostitution and perennially poor families, he moved on to his next project, the story of just one, albeit large, family.

Rosa Lee Cunningham was poor, her parents were poor, and her children were poor. She had prostituted herself, and stuck needles in herself; either practice could have caused her HIV infection.

But she was open to talk about her life and let Dash into it. At first, her story could be self-serving; as time went on, the reporter would call her on her lies.

Over the eight-part series, Rosa Lee's life emerged in all its complexities. The story won the Pulitzer, and became a book.

Dash's next long look at the underclass was a study on how young men become violent offenders.

He was working on that story when Harrington invited his former colleague to speak at the Urbana campus. The late dean of the College of Communications offered Dash a tenured professorship within hours of meeting him.

Harrington said Dash's papers are a "remarkable asset."

"The guy's a national treasure," he said, noting that "Rosa Lee" was voted one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century.

"The papers show how journalism gets done," Harrington says. "Leon's journalism is in itself special and worth studying, how he peels the onion down to the core, layer by layer."