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Rising through the ranks

katherineKennedy.jpgKatherine Kennedy heads the Howard Thurman Center, after strings of luck and a 20-year history of determination took her full circle from The Boston Globe to the University of California at Berkely and back to Boston. Sarai Nuñez / DFP STAFF

Riding with black school children during the Boston busing crisis in 1974, Katherine Kennedy drove The Boston Globe toward a Pulitzer Prize by capturing a student perspective on the volatile issue.

And now, 26 years later, she is still submerged in the causes of racial equality and student concern.

Kennedy, 55, is the new director of the Boston University Howard Thurman Center and advises leaders of student organizations. She also works as the Resident Assistant for the Common Ground House.

Originally established in 1986, the center is dedicated to the late BU Dean Howard Thurman’s idea of transcending racial and gender differences. Just this year, it was incorporated as a department of the Office of the Dean of Students.

Working at her father’s alma mater, Kennedy says her life seems to have come full circle.

On her desk in the Thurman Center sit pictures of her pastor, Rev. Kendall Greer and his children and also those of her boyfriend of 10 years, Edward Brice. Kennedy, who has never married or had children, says these youngsters are “the children in my life.”

As a black female journalist, she tried to remain objective while dealing with her feelings about an issue that caused pain and suffering for so many people, she says.

“It was a mix of emotions,” Kennedy says. “I was Katherine Kennedy the reporter on assignment; and Katherine Kennedy, a black person, like the children.”

She says she felt people saw her as just another “nigger on the bus.”

Kennedy’s story helped the Globe team win the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service and thus she began her 15-year career in journalism.

She lives with her mother in the house where she was raised on Devon Street in Dorchester and is a deacon at her childhood church, St. Mark’s Congregational Church. It was at this church, in 1968, that her Sunday school teacher’s husband opened the door to her future career. His name was Dextor Eure, a columnist for the Globe and he offered Kennedy her first job in the Community Affairs Department at the paper.

Behind her desk in her small, cozy office in the Thurman Center, Kennedy keeps a framed, yellowed copy of her prize-winning article.

Though she loved reading books and magazines as a child, she thought she wanted to be a teacher or a nurse because her teachers never encouraged her to explore other professional options.

“My experience as a journalist shaped my whole career,” she said.

When she became the director’s assistant in the Globe’s newly established Community Affairs Department she had no idea that the job would begin a 15-year career.

After nine months, Kennedy reluctantly agreed to assist the editor-in-chief, Thomas Winship, while his regular assistant took a leave of absence. Her work impressed him so much that Winship asked Kennedy to become his regular assistant, a job that would open up new opportunities for her.

Winship often spoke to Kennedy about being a black woman in her position at one of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers.

“I would learn how the white power structure in this country worked,” she says.

Though rumors spread among some Globe staffers that Winship hired Kennedy as a “token” black employee, Winship assured her that her race played no role in his decision. He said the position was too important to give to an underqualified person.

“In my role, I had a commitment to my own community and he expected me to be true to that,” Kennedy says. “I did not understand how important that job was outside the newspaper.”

For example, the Globe published the Pentagon papers, top-secret government documents regarding U.S. involvement in Indochina that were leaked to the press in 1971.

The next morning three men from the Department of the Treasury arrived at the office early to speak with Kennedy’s boss. Later, Kennedy received a call from Attorney General John Mitchell who warned her not to leave the state. The U.S. Government contested the publication of the documents and lost in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The next day, after seeing a photograph of the event captured by the Associated Press, an editor from another newspaper, assuming that Kennedy was white, said to Winship, “You should tell Wes Gallagher (the former AP head) he made your assistant look like a nigger,” Kennedy says.

“It felt awkward when people would make comments about me as if I were white,” she says. “But I knew at that time it was unusual for a black woman to be working on a major newspaper.”

After working five years as the editor’s assistant, Kennedy was persuaded by Winship to attend journalism school because the writing in her reports impressed him. He also granted her a leave of absence and a living stipend if she returned to the Globe. Though reluctant, Kennedy enrolled in a minority journalism program at Columbia University the following fall.

When she returned to the paper in 1974, the busing crisis in Boston had just begun. For her first assignment, Kennedy went to report on events at the Freedom House, a social services center in Roxbury.

On the school’s first day, angry mobs threw stones at the buses of black students. Roughly 300 black parents stormed the Freedom House and demanded protection for their children.

As the events unfolded, Kennedy took notes as best as she could and phoned the Globe to send “real reporters,” but she was encouraged to stay at the scene.

The next day, Kennedy’s story appeared on the front page, a feat that ensured her a place on the team that won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize.

“I went from being a rookie to a name that was recognized,” she says.

After just two years of being a reporter, Kennedy accepted a position at the University of California at Berkeley to establish a minority journalism program, though she was hesitant to leave Boston and the Globe.

“I looked past my professional gains to look to help other journalists,” she says.

Kennedy returned to Boston in 1984, after eight years at the University, because she wanted to help people in her own community.

After a short stint as an advocate for the rights of professional athletes, Kennedy began working as an alumni officer at the BU Office of Development and Alumni Relations in 1991.

One of her projects included organizing the Marsh Plaza renovation, which was completed in 1999.

When Vice President and Dean of Students Norman Johnson asked her to become the new director of the Howard Thurman Center later that year, Kennedy jumped at the opportunity.

This new position has merged all of her life and professional experiences, and her daily interaction with students has created lasting relationships, she says.

College of Arts and Sciences senior Obenewa Amponsah says she enjoys working with Kennedy. As the former president of the student organization, Associates for the Search of Common Ground, Amponsah has known Kennedy for three years.

“She’s not just an administrator, but she is also a good friend,” Amponsah said.

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