By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN — Cassandra Easley’s family legacy includes many firsts. Her father, Billy Easley, was the first Black news photojournalist for a major state newspaper in the 1960s with Gannett, which owned the former Nashville Tennessean (now known as The Tennessean).
His work led to a portfolio of more than 8,000 photos and the development of articles covering stories important to the Black community. Publications Ebony and Essence would reach out to him to take photos for them.
His pictures have been shown all over the world, even as far as Norway, Cassandra said. He won numerous National Press and Journalists awards and is in the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.
In fact, Cassandra just finished a conference honoring his contributions to the industry.
Her mother, Gladys, was married to her father for 55 years and was very involved in Cassandra’s educational development, becoming a PTA member and eventually served as District 10 President and then 3rd Vice President for the state’s PTA.
“I remember my mother constantly making sure that the children were receiving adequate funds within their schools by having fundraisers to assist with the needs in the community,” Easley said. “She went on to become the first Black Parliamentarian and Liaison Lobbyist for the National PTA and the state of Tennessee, constantly meeting with senators to get educational bills enacted, traveling frequently to Washington D.C. and across the country.” Gladys was integral in developing nonprofit Project Pencil Nashville, all while being employed with the Metropolitan Police Department’s Communications team.
Cassandra was the first and only Black student to integrate David Lipscomb Junior High and was one of two students offered a scholarship for scholastics in Boston due to being academically on a 12th grade and first year college level, she recalled.
It’s clear education was important to the Easleys. Her father shared with her his love for math and history: “‘If you don’t know the history of the world, then you won’t know why things are the way they are.'” Her mother ensured she mastered the English language and spelling.
“I am so blessed to have such a wonderful, positive, loving Christian mother and father, who always cared about the welfare of others, understanding that the only way to make things better for those that are underserved is to be a servant for the betterment of mankind,” Easley intimated.
An only child, Easley could often be found roller-skating around the office where her father worked, eventually navigating the behind-the-scenes action of the industry just as easily as she’d skated those office floors.
She began as a copygirl at 13, the first Black female to do so, and soon learned her way around the advertising department. She quickly adapted to it; in fact, she excelled, and did so despite having to deal with things others didn’t because she was a Black woman.
Her extensive background in newspaper, radio and television includes service and leadership roles, including at WVOL and WSMV in Nashville; she was selected by then-Mayor Phil Bredesen and elected officials voted her to be on the board for NECAT (Community Access Television), she said. “I noticed that CATV didn’t have a staff, nor did they have any funds from the city to continue the association. After studying funding that was received in other cities comparable to Nashville, I suggested that I would like to step down from the Board to secure funding . . . I was able to secure funding from the Metro Council and to also renegotiate the plans between Viacom and CATV.”
She then returned to her board position, finishing her term.
Easley also worked with the United Press International affiliate television station, Sinclair broadcasting affiliate and NBC affiliate television station, she said.
At 29, she became the first Black broadcast general manager of a TV station in the state, which saw her responsible for building the station from the ground-up, so to speak. She oversaw everything from the hiring of personnel to programming. She was also the first Black general manager at ION television in the state of Tennessee.
The intersection of press and politics was intriguing, Easley said. She launched CVONN Media to tell the stories the mainstream outlets shied away from. It was her way of making Black history available for anyone to see.
Easley said that truth in journalism has been overshadowed by opinion punditry, leaving many Americans disappointed, disgruntled, and deprived of facts when misinformation is abundant.
“Anyone can be a journalist, but not everyone is a journalist,” Easley said. She explained that these days, audiences see media through one lens and sensationalism drives public opinion. “Those who practice fair and balanced journalism are a dying breed.”
In February 2019, she launched The Nashville Historical, a yearly publication spotlighting African American history in the region. For so long, those stories had gone untold; those voices, unheard. Easley is doing her part to change that.
The inaugural issue detailed the stories of heroic firefighter Captain Charles Gowdy, famous journalist Ida B. Wells, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Fort Negley and Jesse Eugene Russell, who contributed to the invention of the cell phone.
“The media still lacks fair representation in management and reporting,” she said. “A lot of the stories that need to be told aren’t being told.” What’s happened in Black history, to Black bodies, should not be overlooked. “It’s the truth. It’s history,” Easley stated.
Though her father passed in 2014 and didn’t get to see her launch The Nashville Historical, she knows he’d be proud. “I know that his work lives within me,” she said, adding she’s thankful to God, her family and everyone that has been instrumental in her life.
Easley will soon publish a picture book containing her father’s photos over his prestigious career and is launching a Black History VOD channel.
Find past editions (and the 2023 edition) of The Nashville Historical online at www.thenashvillehistorical.com.