Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Pillars of NC: Ernie Pitt’s pioneering career in Tar Heel journalism

The veteran Winston-Salem newspaper owner kept issues of the city’s Black community front and center.

Charisma and certitude led Ernest Pitt to start a four-page weekly in Winston-Salem as the city’s only Black-owned newspaper in 1974. He’d been frustrated that no one would publish his article about why Black law students at North Carolina Central University were passing the bar at a lower rate than their white counterparts. 

So he started The Chronicle in Winston-Salem with no money or investors. Unsure of his ability to be editor-in-chief and publisher, he begged Dbubisi Egemonye, an African shop owner on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, to take the publisher title. Pitt says he needed emotional support.

For more than 40 years, The Chronicle has tracked the Twin City’s Black community, earning Pitt, 76, national recognition as a leading publisher. In April, Pitt was inducted into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame. 

The Raleigh native moved to Greensboro with his family when he was in elementary school. He graduated in 1964 from James Benson Dudley High School and started as an architecture student at North Carolina A&T State University but left to enlist in the Army. As a member of the transportation corps, he was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, after serving one tour in Vietnam.

Pitt admits to having a wild side. He went to prison a couple of times in his early 20s. While he was locked up, he earned an associate degree from Rockingham Community College. Gov. Jim Hunt eventually pardoned Pitt, and Pitt later was a commencement speaker at the Reidsville college.

After earning his two-year degree, he entered UNC Chapel Hill, where he credits admissions counselor Hayden Bently “Benny” Renwick with giving him a chance. Pitt graduated in 1974 with a degree in journalism.

When he and his former wife, Elaine, started The Chronicle that same year, Pitt was a full-time education reporter at the Greensboro News & Record. They struggled to sell ads for their paper, so he enrolled in a sales seminar in Wheaton, Illinois. The only Black man in the class, Pitt learned not to take rejection personally. 

Contracts with Flow Motors and Crown Drug Stores helped provide enough revenue to enable Pitt to leave the Greensboro paper in 1978 and focus full-time on The Chronicle. In addition to the weekly paper, he printed college and high school papers and published the Black College Sports Review, an insert included in 200 Black newspapers featuring sports highlights from historically Black colleges and universities. 

Beyond his publishing work, Pitt chaired the Winston-Salem Housing Authority for seven years. That stint led to controversy when he was convicted in 2009 on two counts of mail fraud involving a land deal with the authority. After serving 10 months in jail and paying $90,000 in fines, Pitt’s guilty verdict was overturned by a judge who concluded the jury had not been properly instructed.

He sold the paper to Chronicle Media Group in 2017. Pitt and Elaine Pitt have one daughter, two sons and three grandchildren. Pitt plays golf, stays active in Winston-Salem and travels to Charlotte to see his grandchildren. 

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

I went to Vietnam in 1965. I didn’t have any money. I wasn’t on scholarship (while at North Carolina A&T). My folks didn’t have any money. I was drifting. The Army seemed to be a holding ground: ‘Go to the Army and get yourself together.’ When you have no guidance, no guardrail, you’re a teenager making major decisions. It’s hard.

When I got out, I got in a lot of trouble. My roommate was involved in drugs. I didn’t know he was dealing. They tried to set him up, and I got caught. They tried to get me to testify against him, but I couldn’t do it. I went to prison for two or three years at Central Prison in Raleigh. Then, I was moved to a prison farm in Caledonia [in Halifax County]. I taught school to the inmates. I went back to prison a time or two. However, I have no criminal record. A friend of mine, Ben Ruffin, was a special assistant to Gov. Hunt, and he got me a pardon.

When I was at N.C. A&T, I found out I could write. I had this English class, and the professor would put a topic on the board and you’d have to write an essay. I was getting A’s, and then one day, he gave me an A-plus-plus-plus-plus.

I had an investigative reporting class (at Chapel Hill). The assignment was to find a topic, investigate and report it, and get it published. I noticed how many Black folk from (North Carolina) Central’s law school were failing the (bar) exam. Sometimes it would take them three or four times to pass. I was curious about that. The basics of what I found out was that even though Central had white students, they didn’t use the law library at Central. They went to Duke and Carolina. And the significance of that is that Carolina and Duke had a much larger law library than Central. 

Ernest Pitt founded The Chronicle in September 1974.

I started The Chronicle in September 1974 with blood, sweat and tears and help from a lot of people. I chose Winston-Salem because it was the only one of North Carolina’s major cities without a Black newspaper. I had so many motivators, serious things and obstacles that were trying to keep me from doing this. It only fueled my desire to do it because I saw that it needed to be done.

Pitt sold the paper in 2017 to Chronicle Media Group.

I kept calling on (auto dealer Vic) Flow, and he kept telling me no, no, no. One day I went by there, and Mr. Flow said, ‘I’m so glad you came by. I’m going to buy an ad from you.’ I was so happy. 

My selling skills were getting so much better. When Keith Pitts from Crown Drug Stores hid from me in the storage room, I sold him an ad. The Pitts family and I got to be tight. We’d have dinner together: They’d call me their long-lost cousin. 

I was pushing homeownership. I started a company, East Pointe Developers, and I developed two housing neighborhoods. I got the YMCA to build a center out here, and Forsyth Tech built a satellite campus. 

So, they got me. I was just trying to do God’s will. I don’t want to paint myself as a saint. I wasn’t a crook; I wasn’t a criminal. I was genuinely concerned. I wasn’t trying to make any money. I was spending money. That’s why I’m broke now, helping people. 

There’s a thing called resurrection. You can only be resurrected when you’ve gone through the fire. And I’ve been through the fire several times. It just signifies the goodness of God; he always gives you a chance. I had everything. I threw it away because I didn’t understand the spiritual world and the material world.

The National Newspaper Publishers Association recognized The Chronicle as the best Black-owned newspaper in the nation.

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