By Chris Ison
The Cowles family's commitment to racial and gender equality, combined with the power of the press, helped shape the course of history. This legacy, begun decades ago, lives on as a new generation continues to promote diversity and equality, and support journalism and journalism education.
Carl Rowan had few expectations as he left his perfunctory job interview at the Minneapolis Tribune. "We have no jobs available now," the personnel official said. It was 1948, and a young black man from Jim Crow Tennessee had little hope of landing a big-city newspaper job, even with a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. "They've done it to me again," he told himself as he boarded a streetcar heading for his small apartment in St. Paul.
By the time he got home, Gideon Seymour, the paper's ranking editor, had called three times. He had the job.
"I would not learn for many years that the Minneapolis papers had a great man as owner, John Cowles Sr.," Rowan later would write in his autobiography, "and that he had laid the law down to Seymour and other editors. He had told them that he did not believe that in all of America they could not find a single black man or woman capable of being a reporter on his newspapers."
Rowan went on to become a syndicated columnist and bestselling author. The Washington Post once called him "the most visible black journalist in the country." He held posts under two U.S. presidents. And on the day he received the NAACP's highest individual achievement award, 50 years after that day at the Minneapolis Tribune, Rowan again paid tribute to John Cowles Sr. "I would never have gotten into journalism in any meaningful way," he told a reporter, "without the affirmative action of John Cowles, the publisher of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune."
For Cowles, hiring Rowan was a small step in a much bigger commitment. He and his wife, Elizabeth Bates Cowles, were known for giving millions to education, the arts and other causes. But they spent much of their energy, influence and considerable wealth promoting racial and gender equality. The University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication honored that legacy this year with the appointment of Catherine Squires as the first Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality.
"We approached the Cowles family because of their longstanding commitments to social justice, and John and Elizabeth's pioneering contributions to journalism and journalism education," says journalism school director Al Tims.
It is a commitment with a long history. A creased and faded symbol of it hangs on the wall of John Cowles Jr.'s home office in Minneapolis. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1863, it names William F. Cowles the collector of internal revenue for Iowa's Fourth Collection District.
William Fletcher Cowles was a self-taught Methodist minister, a "circuit rider" who rode his horse from town to town in southeast Iowa, serving churches that could not afford their own fulltime minister. "He became an ever more ardent abolitionist," John Cowles Jr. said of his great grandfather. "He helped organize the Republican Party in Iowa in the 1850s and get Lincoln elected in the 1860s." Cowles speaks with pride of the certificate, "not so much because of who signed it, but because of the cause that it represented -- the abolition of slavery."
William Fletcher Cowles passed those values on. His son, Gardner Cowles Sr. owned the Des Moines Register and Tribune, and in the 1930s created The Gardner Cowles Foundation, which became known for its gifts to Iowa colleges, hospitals and nonprofit organizations. One gift helped create the Wendell Willkie Negro Community Center in Des Moines.
Meanwhile, his son, John Cowles, had graduated from Harvard University and was earning his stripes at the Des Moines paper, rising from reporter to editor to associate publisher. By 1935 he and brother Gardner Cowles Jr. (Mike) would branch out to buy the Minneapolis Star. Within six years, the Cowles brand of aggressive news coverage led to the takeover of the Minneapolis Journal, and then the Tribune. While brother Mike went off to begin Look magazine, John Cowles became one of the country's most powerful newspaper owners.
It was not uncommon in those days for a big-city publisher to be driven by a chauffeur, and John Cowles hired a young black man named Randolph Burnett. Over the next 42 years the two men formed a bond that shaped the Cowles family's views on race for generations. Burnett was "almost like a surrogate father for my brother and me," John Cowles Jr. says. "Randolph Burnett was a wonderful part of my life ... a constant refutation of all the bad stuff so many people thought and felt about Negroes -- we didn't call them black people back then."
Randolph's 93-year-old widow, Nellie Burnett, says her husband was loyal, hardworking and no pushover. "Randolph was driving them one day in the limousine. There was one thing my husband did not take -- insults. But on this particular day, (John Cowles Sr.) said something Randolph didn't approve of. He stopped the car and opened the door. He wasn't going to drive anymore. And Mr. Cowles said, 'Randolph! You know I can't drive this car!'"
The moment passed, and the relationship grew. Says Randolph's son, Phillip, "My father was very direct. If you're looking at who learned what from whom, there was give and take. We learned about the good things in life. And I think the Cowleses learned that people are equal. And I think they already had that in them. I don't think that he (John Cowles) saw color."
But he addressed issues of color in the editorial pages of the Star and Tribune. His papers became known for progressive stances on racial equality, women's rights, birth control and other social issues. He explained his reasoning in a speech at the Minneapolis Club in 1963: "Because newspapers, unless they are spineless, should express their own editorial opinions even on hot and highly controversial subjects about which people feel strongly, our editorials inevitably displease many of our readers," he said. "Some strongly dislike, for example, our editorial positions on birth control, on racial discrimination, or on the John Birch Society."
Elizabeth Bates Cowles did not sit in the background. She had acquired her interest in civil rights early, growing up in Oswego, N.Y., a key stop for slaves escaping to Canada on the Underground Railroad. "She was very aware of Oswego's history," Cowles Jr. says of his mother. "I grew up very aware of the Underground Railroad because of her."
She also became an admirer of Margaret Sanger, the oft-arrested activisit who founded the National Birth Control League in 1914. John Cowles Jr. recalls the story of his mother, "whose influence was considerable," vowing to start a women's health organization in Iowa. "Family lore is that my grandfather said to her, 'I'd like to see you try.' It's not clear if he was being supportive or challenging. She succeeded."
The Iowa Maternal Health League, the state's first birth control clinic, opened in Des Moines in 1935. The organization is now known as Planned Parenthood.
Elizabeth Cowles likened women's struggles to those of blacks. "I felt a bond with colored people whose lives are held cheap in varying degrees in forty-eight states," she wrote in 1948 for Opportunity, a publication of the National Urban League. In the publication, she lamented the lack of jobs for blacks and the "sordid" housing. "In the public hospitals where I worked I saw two Negro nurses in all those weary months. I knew the national need for nurses. There were vast numbers of Negro girls who could be trained. Why weren't they trained? I knew the need for doctors. Why hadn't Negro doctors been trained?"
Again, Elizabeth Cowles acted on her convictions, working to help pass the Fair Employment Practices Act, which banned hiring discrimination. She served on the National Urban League board, was a vice-chairperson of the United Negro College Fund, and received an award in 1965 from the Minnesota-Dakota Conference of the NAACP.
The Cowles family also became known for its philanthropic spirit. Cowles Media Co. was among the original 23 members of the "5 Percent Club," giving away 5 percent of its pretax profits. Family members gave millions personally in Minnesota and around the country. At the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, Cowles gifts have funded the Minnesota Journalism Center, the Cowles Media Fellowship and the Cowles Chair in Media Management. The Cowles Auditorium at the University's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs was built through their generosity. An endowment at Harvard currently funds a position held by Orlando Patterson, whose areas of study include the culture and practice of freedom and the comparative study of slavery and ethnoracial relations.
In 1977, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith presented its First Amendment Freedom Award to John Cowles Sr. and John Cowles Jr. and their newspapers. John Sr., in poor health, could not be there to receive it. His wife had died the year before. He died six years later, on Feb. 25, 1983.
New generation, same values
John Cowles Jr. continued the legacy when he took the reins of the Minneapolis newspapers from his father in 1968, as racial unrest was peaking. The new boss held sensitivity meetings at the papers, and within two years more than doubled the number of black employees, wrote James Alcott in "A His- tory of Cowles Media Company." He had helped form the Minneapolis Urban Coalition and later hired its former president, black civil rights activist W. Harry Davis, as assistant to the publisher.
Sage Cowles, John Jr.'s wife, joined the board of Planned Parenthood shortly after arriving in Minneapolis in the 1950s. She served on the Minneapolis Mayor's Commission on Human Relations, among other volunteer work. Avid supporters of gender equity in sports, the couple later funded the University of Minnesota's women's softball stadium, one of many gifts to the University. Called Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, it is named after their daughter, a former college softball player. Family members were principal creators of a professional league, Women's Pro Fastpitch.
The Cowleses' newspaper days ended with the sale of the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1998, but their voices still echo in the editorial pages today. "All of those things that the two of them believed in have been imbued in our editorial stances ever since," says current editorial pages editor Susan Albright. "We still write about those topics - civil rights, minority rights, women's rights. Those are deep principles. If we changed our stance on these very basic principles, it would be a very different editorial page."
And the University of Minnesota would be a different place without the Cowleses' influence. Sage Cowles provided a glimpse into what has driven that commitment in an article written last year, when she and John Jr. were Louis W. Hill Jr. Fellows in Philanthropy at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. "Philanthropy is not just about dollars and cents," she wrote. "It's about giving time, energy, commitment to some idea or cause that we care about. We can all be philanthropists fueled by our individual passions, and we can do a better job of identifying our passions if our early experiences give us confidence to pursue them."
Chris Ison is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has served the SJMC as an adjunct faculty member and guest lecturer for many years. This fall, he joins the faculty as an associate professor teaching news reporting, advanced reporting and mass media ethics.