Moneta J. Sleet Jr.
Photographer Moneta J. Sleet Jr., believed to be the first African-American journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize, was briefly an instructor at Maryland State College in the late 1940s.
Sleet won daily print journalism’s most coveted honor in 1969 for his photograph of a grieving Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral – an iconic image of that tumultuous period in the nation’s history.
At the time, Sleet had been a magazine photographer, which made him ineligible for the award. Mrs. King, however, insisted that Sleet be part of the press pool coverage of the funeral, and his picture of her was published by numerous daily newspapers that subscribed to a wire service.
Sleet was among his generation’s pioneering photo-journalists and on the front line as early as 1955 taking pictures of the Civil Rights movement that made Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a household name. Sleet's body of work and bravery were widely respected, so much so The New York Times published a staff-written article about his death in 1996.
Sleet’s son, a federal judge in Wilmington, Del., remembers the day a reporter from the newspaper contacted him.
“I couldn’t believe the New York Times was calling to ask about my father,” Gregory Sleet said. “We certainly didn’t initiate it.”
Gregory Sleet said he provided, or confirmed, what information he could about his father, who died at age 70.
The Times’ article by legendary obituary writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr. described Sleet as "a gentle, ubiquitous presence in the civil rights struggle in the United States and a fixture at independence ceremonies and celebrations in Africa.”
“In a profession whose practitioners are expected to bring a certain detachment to their work," The Times' article goes on to say, "Mr. Sleet saw no reason to apologize for his commitment to the cause he covered or for his emotional involvement with those he photographed.”
The Oct. 2, 1996 article does not mention his time at Maryland State, an oversight his son said was unintentional in the difficult days after the elder Sleet died.
Others, however, who chronicled Sleet’s career noted he taught in Princess Anne. A July 8, 1950 Afro-American newspaper article announced Sleet’s marriage to Ruth J. Harris, a physical education teacher at the now-defunct Greenwood High School in Princess Anne. The three-paragraph article reported that Sleet’s occupation was “photographer teacher” at Maryland State.
Sleet was awarded a master’s degree in journalism from New York University just two weeks before he got married, then took a job as a sportswriter for the (New York) Amsterdam News (newspaper). He soon moved on to be a photographer with Our World, a large-format magazine, and was employed by Ebony magazine when he snapped the photo of Mrs. King in April 1968.
Gregory Sleet said Maryland State president John T. Williams “played an important role in my father’s thinking” about the career path he eventually chose. He also described has father as a humble man.
Williams had been a senior administrator at Kentucky State College, Sleet’s alma mater. The two knew each other and shared a love of photography. Sleet’s parents gave him a Brownie box camera when he was a boy growing up in Owensboro, Ky.
Sleet’s college studies were interrupted in 1942 by military duty during World War II, but he returned to Kentucky State to earn a business degree, with honors, in 1947. Williams, who had been Kentucky State’s dean, left Frankfort in the summer of 1947 to become president of Princess Anne College, which was about to be renamed Maryland State.
No formal records are known to exist, but Sleet followed Williams to Maryland State and is credited with launching photography instruction that the institution -- now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore -- still offers. Gregory Sleet said his aunt, a retired librarian, recalls that her brother taught at Maryland State during the 1948-49 school year.
A 1950-51 course catalog in UMES' Frederick Douglas Library archives lists Robert Cottrol as an “Instructor of Photography” who joined the Maryland State faculty in 1949. A New York University spokesman confirmed that records show Sleet enrolled in its graduate school in September 1949.
-- BILL ROBINSON with ERIC JODLBAUER