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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism professor gives papers to U. of I. Library

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Christopher Prom
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
U. of I. assistant archivist Christopher Prom with some of the materials of the Dash papers: (from foreground to background) transcript of part of the interview with Rosa Lee from his Pulitzer-winning project,
a photo of Lee taken by Washington Post photographer Lucian Perkins, and notes taken of Lee's criminal record in 1988 at the Washington, D.C., jail.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — An author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has given his professional papers to the Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Leon DeCosta Dash Jr., who covered war, urban poverty and teenage childbearing for The Washington Post, is a professor of journalism, a Center for Advanced Study Professor and a Swanlund Professor at Illinois. He teaches courses on “immersion journalism,” a method he is credited with creating.

Dash’s papers include correspondence; photographs; interview transcripts; recordings; course and workshop materials; and reference materials related to his career with the newspaper and his time in the Peace Corps. The papers are in the University Archives, Room 19 of the University Library, 1408 W. Gregory Drive, Urbana.

Leon Dash
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Univeristy of Illinois Photo
Two free public events on Oct. 27 will celebrate the opening of Pulitzer Prize-winner Leon Dash's papers at the U. of I. Library.

Two free public events on Thursday (Oct. 27) will celebrate the opening of Dash’s papers: an informal reception at 6 p.m. in the Marshall Gallery of the University Library, with comments by Paula Kaufman, University Librarian; Ronald Yates, dean of the College of Communications; and Jesse Delia, provost; and a 7:30 p.m. Center for Advanced Study/MillerComm lecture by Nicholas Lemann in Room 100, Gregory Hall, 810 S. Wright St., Urbana. Lemann is the Henry R. Luce Professor and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. His topic will be “Journalism and Social Justice.”

In addition to these events, an exhibition of Dash’s papers is running through November in the University Library.

Dash’s career at The Post began as a copy boy on the night shift in 1965 while he attended Howard University during the day. He began reporting for The Post in 1966. In 1968, he took a two-year leave of absence from the paper to work as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Kenya.

Dash returned to The Post in 1971, and went on to work for the city desk, the foreign desk and the investigative/special projects desk.

He twice lived with and reported on Angolan guerrillas: in 1973 and 1976 to 1977. On the second trip he hiked 2,100 miles through the embattled nation.

From 1979 to 1984, Dash was The Post’s West Africa bureau chief. He left the paper in August of 1998 to join the faculty at Illinois.

The author of three books, Dash is best known for his third book, “Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America,” which was based on his 1994 Pulitzer-Prize winning series in The Post. Dash is recipient of 17 other prizes or awards, including an Emmy in 1996.

The materials in his collection include extensive documentation relating to his writing, including on Rosa Lee Cunningham, her family and their harrowing struggles to survive despite hardship, abject poverty and violence.

For his newspaper series on Cunningham, Dash took up residency in one of Washington’s worst slums. He met the struggling woman in 1988 when she was in jail. She died in July of 1995, well before Dash’s book was published.

Dash and Cunningham often met for interviews at a local McDonald’s; she had “a certain stature with the McDonald’s crowd,” Dash wrote in his book, because that’s where she often sold her Darvon and Xanax pills to people on drugs.

He wrote: “A few weeks after I began visiting Rosa Lee regularly, she said that several of her drug buddies at McDonald’s couldn’t understand why she was allowing me to write about her. ‘They told me: “Stay away from reporters. They put people’s business in the street.’ ”

“I smiled and confirmed that what they’ve said is true. ‘We’re nosy and intrusive. … You might end up cussing me out.’ ”

Dash wrote that he tried to remain an impartial observer, but that inevitably, he became “a vital part” of her life, “serving vicariously as driver, translator, and most important, confidant, listening to her painful recriminations about her life and her children.”

Highlights of Dash’s papers:

• A transcript of a key interview with Cunningham, offering “fascinating insights into his (Dash’s) journalistic methodology and treatment of people,” said Chris Prom associate archivist and curator of the Dash Papers.

In the interview Dash told Cunningham and her adult daughter Patty – both of whom were HIV-positive – that he had to ask them some “come to Jesus” questions. The questions centered on the time when Cunningham prostituted Patty, then age 11 or 12, for cash.

• The April 18, 1995 telegram to Dash and to Washington Post photographer Lucian Perkins notifying them of the Pulitzer Prize.

• A Feb. 7, 1972, letter from Dash and seven other African American reporters at The Post to Benjamin Bradlee, executive editor, asking for speedy written responses to seven questions pertaining to what they regarded as inequities in hiring at the newspaper.

• Transcripts of interviews between Dash and Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward. At the time, 1986, Dash went to Woodward for mentoring regarding the book Dash was writing on adolescent childbearing.

Woodward said: “Leon, what you’ve got to do is open this book with going down to Washington Heights to do the series. And then drop in there that there’s a reason – and we’ll have to sit and talk about this – why you’re interested in this story. …

“And what you need to do, the rough structure that would really work, it’s kind of like a mystery. … and as the book moves on you tell more and more and more about what’s happened to you. So there’s an interweaving. … So it’s continually unfolding, and we’re learning about what goes on down there and the people and the group.”

Dash is working on a book that probes the survival mechanisms of African Americans in Mattoon, Ill.

When Prom and William Maher, the university archivist, called on Dash in his home, they discovered that his papers were stored in his basement. They told Dash they were interested in making his papers more accessible to researchers.

They also said the University Archives was interested in his papers because it has been building a collection around one of its strengths – the history of journalism and of communications, Prom said.

“Leon’s methodology is what he’s teaching here. His papers support the curriculum.”