It was my first day as a reporter for The Richmond Afro-American. The editor, Raymond H. Boone, gave me some advice I still live by today.
"Mr. Epps," he said, "Three things sell newspapers — sex, blood and money."
The Afro tried to feature some of each on every front page. It wasn't salaciousness for its own sake; when one subject of a profile told me a couple of mildly racy stories, Boone took them out. "You're going to get that man in trouble with his wife," he told me. It might have sold papers, but it wouldn't have served the community.
Boone used sex and blood to sell his real stories — about money, power and community. Most of the stories he assigned were about black-owned businesses and institutions, the ongoing deadlock between white and black in city and state government, the struggle for open housing and job opportunities, and racism in Virginia's courts and prisons.
This coverage — exhaustive and deadly serious — was Boone's real mission in life. At the Afro, as executive editor of the entire Baltimore-based Afro chain, and, since 1992, at The Richmond Free Press, Boone worked every day to speak for those whose voices weren't being heard in the segregated South, and demanded that the white South learn, at long last, to treat them with the dignity they deserved.
At the Afro, Boone had a strict rule; all of us — reporters, editors and staff — called each other by courtesy titles: "Mr.," "Mrs." or "Miss." He put the rule in place when he took over the Afro in the mid-'60s. At the tail end of the segregated era, white visitors to the paper had expected courtesy titles as a matter of course, but casually used first names with any black staffers they encountered.
It was the gruesome etiquette of segregation, and Boone wouldn't put up with it from anyone. In an oral history interview preserved at the VCU Library, he recalled publicly confronting Gov. Mills Godwin, a champion of segregation, when the governor referred to "nigras."
"Governor," Boone said, "can you say 'zero'? Can you say 'hero'? Then you can say 'Negro.'" Godwin, Boone said, never publicly used the slur again.
Boone died last week at the age of 76. A powerful voice is stilled, an encyclopedic memory lost. But he leaves behind a fighting newspaper and the inspiration he imparted to three generations of journalists around the country.
He also leaves a city he helped make a better, happier place.
Richmond, can you say "hero"?