Former 'Ebony' Editor Was Proud German

Tell Me More remembers Ebony Magazine's former managing editor, Hans Massaquoi. He arrived in America as an outsider, after growing up black in Nazi Germany. Host Michel Martin speaks with his former colleague, Lynn Norment about his career and legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We wanted to take some time now to remember a legend in journalism. Hans Massaquoi passed away this month at his home in Jacksonville, Florida at the age of 87. He was the longtime managing editor of the Chicago-based Ebony magazine, a preeminent voice in African-American life and culture.

But that came after he managed to survive growing up biracial as the Nazis came to power in Germany. Here he is talking about that experience.

HANS MASSAQUOI: (Through Translator) When I was 10 years old, a teacher pulled me to the side and told me, when we are done with the Jews, you are next. I didn't know what exactly you are next meant. I just knew it was not a good thing for me.

MARTIN: After moving to America, Hans Massaquoi witnessed his fair share of racial tensions and he covered those issues for both Ebony and JET magazines. We're joined now to remember him by one of his former colleagues. Lynn Norment is a former managing editor of Ebony herself and she joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us and we're sorry for your loss.

LYNN NORMENT: It's a pleasure to be here and I was very distressed to hear about Hans's passing.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about him. How did you meet him? Do you have any memories of your meeting him and what was he like?

NORMENT: I met him when I first started at Ebony in the late '70s. Of course, he was already there and had been there for a number of years and so, of course, I met all of the editors and it struck me as odd. Here was this gentleman with the name of Hans Massaquoi and it was very clear that he was of German heritage. He was a bit stern. He had a very rye sense of humor and, sometimes, you didn't know if he was being funny or not, or if he was chastising you or whatever - and a very proper, respectful way that he carried himself.

MARTIN: Was there ever a time where he, kind of, described to you what Ebony's mission was? I'm not sure that everybody remembers, you know, before there was social media, before there was, you know, the Internet, before there was - before African-Americans were routinely featured in, you know, other media, Ebony was - and JET - were the places where African-Americans could not only find out important things, but also be displayed in a way that was positive. Right? And I just wonder if he ever talked about that, you know, whether he talked about the mission and why it meant something.

NORMENT: Yes, without a doubt. And I was a prime example of that message of Ebony getting out. I grew up in the south and Ebony was always a part of my home and my upbringing. It was used to for homework, you know, to do reports. My father encouraged us to read, made sure we had the newspaper, made sure we had Ebony, and books and other publications. And that's something that Hans and I talked about, the importance of Ebony in my growing up and, of course, in the generations coming behind me.

And it meant a lot to him because he did not have those role models growing up in Germany that I might have had, especially through Ebony and in my family. My father was a very strong, positive person. And I think that's why Hans really enjoyed working at Ebony. He had encountered so much growing up in Germany, being one of just a handful of people of color and then of biracial background. And whereas he always pointed out, he was necessarily persecuted, but he certainly felt that he was a second class citizen and that was pretty much the same in the United States, leading up through the early years, on through the '50s and the '60s. Then, of course, in the '80s, you know, things started changing for the better, so he could relate to all of that. He felt a kindred spirit with the experience of African-Americans in this country.

MARTIN: What do you think is the most important thing that you learned from him as your editor?

NORMENT: To persevere and to be proud of who you are, and to overcome, despite the circumstances. I mean, we in this country had to be strong to overcome the racism, but in that country where it was very clear that people were being killed just because of their culture or their race, and he came through it with a very positive attitude and outlook on life and that will to succeed. It did not break him or take away his spirit. He was a very proud man, never ashamed of his German heritage, and strove to succeed in everything that he set out to do. And he instilled that in his sons and to all of that around us. He was just a very proud, positive role model for all of us.

MARTIN: How do you think he would like to be remembered?

NORMENT: As a proud German, African, and as a great magazine editor - and that he was - and as a proud father. And I want to say American all around, but let's say a great German-American and he was that.

MARTIN: Lynn Norment is a former managing editor at Ebony magazine and she was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you so much for joining us.

NORMENT: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, President Obama's second inauguration fell on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and, while some people see similarities between the two men, others say the president is not exactly a man of peace.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law.

MARTIN: Our Barbershop guys give us their take on that and other news of the week. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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