George E. Curry, who grew up in a segregated Alabama housing project and became a prominent black journalist, notably as editor of the feisty, short-lived magazine Emerge, died Aug. 20, 2016 at a hospital in Takoma Park, Md. He was 69.
His partner, Ann Ragland, said he died after being taken to the emergency room but did not know the immediate cause. Mr. Curry had a heart attack last year, she said.
Mr. Curry, who once reported on racism, poverty and national politics for newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, most recently wrote a syndicated column that ran in more than 200 black-owned newspapers. At the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group for black-oriented publications, he was editor in chief of its news service.
Emerge, which at its peak reached a circulation of more than 160,000, gave Mr. Curry his most prominent platform as an editor. The monthly magazine was founded in 1989 by Time magazine reporter Wilmer C. Ames Jr. as a news-oriented rival to Ebony and Essence, older periodicals aimed at a black audience.
When advertising sales failed to materialize, the focus shifted to lifestyle and celebrity coverage, and Black Entertainment Television acquired a majority stake.
Mr. Curry, then serving as New York bureau chief for the Tribune, was named Emerge’s top editor in 1993 with the goal of steering the magazine back to its original mission.
He replaced the entire newsroom, pilfering contributors from the New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. He gave the glossy monthly a striking new tagline: “Black America’s Newsmagazine.” And the magazine relocated to Washington from New York.
The goal, he told the Washington City Paper in 1993, was “so that people can think of us as a black Time or Newsweek, or, better yet, think of them as a white Emerge.”
The magazine drew national attention that November, when its cover featured an illustration of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with a handkerchief on his head tied in an Aunt Jemima style — a symbol of subservience to whites. The story, headlined “Betrayed,” argued that Thomas had consistently ruled against minorities and civil rights advances following his 1991 confirmation to the court.
Emerge ran another incendiary caricature of Thomas in 1996, this time showing him as a cast-iron lawn jockey holding a lantern. The headline was “Uncle Thomas: Lawn Jockey of the Far Right.” In an editor’s note, Mr. Curry explained that the lawn jockey was used by plantation owners to indicate when a slave had escaped.
“I apologize,” he wrote in the note, lamenting the magazine’s earlier cover of Thomas in a handkerchief. “In retrospect, we were far too benevolent. Even our latest depiction is too compassionate for a person who has done so much to turn back the clock on civil rights, all the way back to the pre-Civil War lawn jockey days.”
The “highlight” of his career, he said, was a 1996 story he helped edit: It concerned Kemba Smith, a onetime student at historically black Hampton University who was sentenced in 1994 to 24 years in prison for her part in a drug-distribution scheme. The piece was credited with inspiring a national movement against harsh sentences for drug offenders. President Bill Clinton commuted Smith’s sentence in 2000.
In 1995, the Washington Association of Black Journalists honored Mr. Curry as journalist of the year for helping reshape Emerge.
Emerge also drew detractors such as the conservative Weekly Standard, which noted the black publication’s tendency to cover stories with a conspiracy-minded tinge involving the CIA and the FBI. “Emerge has become one of the chief propounders of the idea that the white establishment consciously uses government authority to harass, persecute, and downgrade American blacks,” the Weekly Standard reported in 1997.
Throughout its run, Emerge struggled for commercially viability. Keith Clinkscales, a magazine publisher who had served as an executive at the hip-hop publication Vibe, acquired all of BET magazine holdings in 2000. Clinkscales relaunched Emerge as a lifestyle magazine called Savoy.
Mr. Curry left, briefly serving as head of American Society of Magazine Editors while also trying unsuccessfully to start a follow-up publication to Emerge. Shortly before his death, he was raising money to relaunch Emerge as a digital magazine.
“There’s a black middle-class audience that’s looking for news with an edge,” he told Time in 2000. “Our people still need a magazine like Emerge.”
George Edward Curry was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Feb. 23, 1947. He ascribed his interest in journalism to his stepfather, who brought home lots of newspapers.
The other driving force in his formative years was segregation. “I used segregation, as cruel as it was, as a positive factor in my life,” he told the reference guide Contemporary Authors, adding that he refused to drink from “colored” water fountains. “I was determined not to let any system or anyone deter me from reaching my goals.”
After graduating in 1970 from Knoxville College, a historically black college in Tennessee, he worked at Sports Illustrated and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He published a biography of the black football coach Jake Gaither in 1977.
A marriage to the former Jacqueline Smith ended in divorce. In addition to his partner, of Laurel, Md., survivors include a son, Edward Curry; his mother, Martha Brownlee; three sisters; and a granddaughter.