Biographer's books bridge journalism, social issues
Professor of media arts and design Dr. Alex Leidholdt's research focuses on the response of the liberal Southern press to racial, gender and labor issues in the first half of the 20th century.
James Madison University professor of media arts and design Dr. Alex Leidholdt grew up in Virginia Beach in the early 1960s in what was then a sleepy coastal community under the vestiges of Jim Crow.
“We lived in a very comfortable middle-class neighborhood,” Leidholdt recalls, “but I could throw a baseball twice and be in an all-black section of town that looked like it was straight out of the 1920s in the American South. The houses were tenant farmers' shacks, the streets were unpaved and there were no streetlights. That disparity was very interesting to me.”
As organized resistance to Brown v. Board of Education dissolved, schools in Virginia Beach and across the commonwealth gradually integrated, placing Leidholdt and his friends in the same classrooms and on the same ball fields as African-American students for the first time. “The pioneering families had kids who were smarter than we were, they were better looking than we were, they were better athletes. For me, it was a very powerful refutation of the myth of black inferiority.”
Leidholdt’s emerging social consciousness would come to define his work in later life, first as a media writer for advertising firms, television and educational institutions, and then as a professor. His research focuses on the response of the liberal Southern press to racial, gender and labor issues in the first half of the 20th century. “It’s an area that I mined out in graduate school” beginning in the late 1980s at Old Dominion University, where, he says, “I was tutored by a bunch of old hands, retired journalists from that area who introduced me to the literature, the history and some of the characters. I guess I’ve been going at it since then.”
The recipient of the 2013-14 Madison Scholar award in the College of Arts and Letters, Leidholdt is the biographer of two Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editors, Lenior Chambers and Louis I. Jaffé, as well as the author of a book on the life of Nell Battle Lewis, the South's most important female journalist in the 1920s. His work also includes articles focusing on journalism and racial violence in central Appalachia and the journalistic advocacy associated with the desegregation of the University of Virginia. His most recent investigation involves the redbaiting of a series of rural North Carolina newspapers during World War I.
“Alex’s work on scholarly historical books using primary and secondary sources is unique in SMAD, and his research generates new understandings of forgotten, yet important, historical journalism figures,” says Dr. Steven Anderson, professor and head of media arts and design. “His work is not merely descriptive; he takes an interpretive approach that places his subjects in the framework of society during his subjects’ lives.”
In an era when newspapers were still the predominant form of mass communication, editorial writers at metropolitan newspapers in the South were often the region’s “foremost public intellectuals,” Leidholdt says. “They carried a lot of punch. … I don’t know that journalists today have that same clarion voice.”
Some, like Jaffé, the son of orthodox Jews who became the editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and one of the South’s leading advocates for liberal causes in the first half of the 20th century, endured hate and prejudice, while others, like Staige Blackford, whose student editorials in the Cavalier Daily in the early 1950s broke the ice and helped set the agenda for integration at the University of Virginia, were ostracized for their enlightened views.
“These important figures are a testament to the human spirit,” Leidholdt says. “The bravery that they displayed to stand up to the region’s politicians and business leaders was extraordinary.”
Filling in the gaps in this period of journalism history can prove a difficult task, however. Leidholdt’s personal library not withstanding, secondary sources are often few and far between, and personal papers sometimes don’t provide a lot of insight into the struggles these leaders faced. “So you triangulate and shop around,” he says. “You go to other journalists’ papers and look for references. And sometimes you have to theorize a bit and offer a range of explanations based on the best available evidence.”
Leidholdt has been known to immerse himself in a subject for years, reading every available manuscript, poring over old newspaper accounts on microfilm and even traveling to the localities where key figures lived and worked to try to get a sense of what their lives were like. “I like to get as specific as I possibly can.”
For all his achievements and recognitions, Leidholdt remains humble and self-effacing. “I don’t consider myself to be a rocket scientist or a talented writer or a brilliant professor,” he says. “It’s a marathon race. I just stay at it. … I guess if I have anything that recommends me, it’s that I’m intellectually curious and there are some compelling stories to be told here.”
By Jim Heffernan (’96), JMU Public Affairs
Jan. 9, 2014