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Alison Stewart Unplugged

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JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May

Alison Stewart looks up from her smartphone, laughing. Amazon.com just e-mailed her a "personalized recommendation" for her own book, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School (Lawrence Hill Books, 2013). Though the suggestion was clearly based on research books she'd ordered, the online retailer wasn't wrong about Stewart's enthusiasm for First Class. "I'll talk about this book till people move away from me at parties," she says with a grin.

It's hard to imagine anyone shunning her at a party. An award-winning broadcast journalist with credits ranging from MTV to PBS, Stewart radiates an ebullient, intelligent warmth that draws people closer; that's how you get a good interview from Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Bono, among many others. 

Book-tour travels have kept Stewart from her beloved Woodstock retreat for several weeks running, so she picks a café near the Chelsea apartment she shares with her husband, Rachel Maddow producer Bill Wolff, and their five-year-old son. She's carved an hour and a half out of a busy day, and she's there on the dot, dressed in New Yorker top-to-ankle-boot black, with silver hoop earrings and moss-green nail polish. Her dense curls tumble over her shoulders, a look that once miffed her employers at buttoned-down CBS News.

Stewart just returned from Washington, DC, where she spoke at three different schools, including her book's subject, Dunbar High School. Founded during Reconstruction—an era whose one-step-forward, two-steps-back policy shifts remind Stewart of recent assaults on voting rights—the nation's first black public high school broke barrier after barrier before hitting the skids in the wake of No Child Left Behind. How did Dunbar achieve such remarkable heights, Stewart asks, and what happened to it—and to public education—in recent decades?

First Class begins on a nostalgic high note, as two older alumni watch Barack Obama's inauguration, sharing memories of the exemplary school they'd attended in the segregated 1940s. They are Alison Stewart's parents.

Joe Stewart, Harvard MBA and inveterate breaker of glass ceilings, died shortly afterward—but not before giving his daughter several pithy interviews ("Getting me to study was like putting cooked spaghetti through a keyhole"). Carol Graham Stewart, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence and a dedicated teacher, also died before the book was completed; while cleaning out her house, Stewart found dozens of handwritten to-do lists including "Ask Alison about Dunbar."

Stewart followed their footsteps as a high academic achiever, graduating from Brown University in 1988. She immediately landed a job at MTV News: "I was the PA taking paper jams out of the Xerox machine and calling car services for rock stars." Eventually, she worked her way up to producer and frontline reporter. Though her primary beat was political, she was assigned to cover Woodstock '94 (aka Mudstock) and fell in love with its namesake town. "I started coming up regularly, then did the math and realized I was spending more on rental cars and B&Bs than I'd spend on a mortgage." In 1998, she bought a home of her own on the outskirts of Bearsville.

From MTV, she was recruited by CBS News, which proved an uneasy fit. Alongside pressure to straighten her hair and wear suits ("Who did they think they were getting?" she asks), her stories got smaller. "For the first few months, they'd only give me stories about children and animals. I'm thinking, 'Hey, I just covered a presidential election!'"

Stewart moved to ABC, "where my co-anchor was a guy called Anderson Cooper," winning an Emmy as part of its 9/11 coverage team.

Around 2003, she started to interview prominent Dunbar alumni, such as Edward Brooke `36, first African-American senator, and US Naval Academy groundbreaker Wesley A. Brown `44. "I realized people of the older generation were starting to go," she explains. At first she envisioned a documentary film, and began writing grants, "at which I failed miserably. I remember thinking, 'If someone had written a book about Dunbar, I bet I'd get that grant.' Ding!"

Despite Stewart's journalism credentials, it wasn't an easy sale. Ten publishers turned down her book proposal before an editor (and former teacher) acquired it for Chicago's Lawrence Hill Books. She was especially haunted by a rejection letter that said it sounded more like a long magazine article than a book. "I thought, what if that's true?"

But she kept her eyes on the prize, using Dunbar's 140-year history "as a lens to look at civil rights, educational history, class, race, Washington, DC—there are so many layers." She holed up in the libraries of Harvard and Howard University, amassing a roomful of research in stacked bankers' boxes. She also visited the Ohio birthplace of school namesake Paul Laurence Dunbar—an elevator operator who became America's first widely published black poet—and found primary sources at Dunbar reunions.

"I would interview people and they'd all say the same things, how excellent the teachers were, that they had PhDs. But I also had to write the sides that were more problematic, like intraracism." During its heyday, Dunbar had a reputation for social elitism—and for favoring lighter-skinned pupils. "I had to stay true to journalism. I knew I had to address the color issue, even though it's a funky one," Stewart says bluntly. "I don't believe in objectivity—a child of divorce has a different perspective on divorce. Objectivity comes with what you choose to use or not use."

There were other issues as well. "My subject, my protagonist, is a thing—it's a school. So that was a bit of a challenge."

So was juggling her very full schedule as newswoman, author, and new parent. Though she quit her day job as co-host of the PBS news show "Need to Know" to focus on her book, the mom hat was harder to shed. "If I ever tried working at home, my son would find me," she says with a rueful smile. When he started preschool, she joined a cooperative writers' space, working for five or six hours at a stretch. "I'd drop him off, carrying two boxes of files. I went into my little cubicle and just went for it."

Stewart had a specific deadline: She wanted the book to be out before the August 2013 grand opening of Dunbar's new building. Since the school's facilities seem to have to mirrored its changing fortunes—a once-proud "Tudor" tower was demolished to make room for a disastrous 1977 building often compared to a prison or parking garage—the $122 million "Dunbar III" sounds a welcome note of hope. Its grand opening was attended by DC mayor Vince Gray (Dunbar '59), Bill Cosby, and other celebrities. Alumni of all generations turned out; many had been interviewed by Stewart.

"A 91-year-old woman came up to me on a walker and said, 'Thank you for telling the story,'" she says, visibly moved. "There's so little positive about African Americans in the media, especially as intellectuals and contributors to this country. It's time that generation gets some props and respect."

Stewart would love to develop a TV series set in the 1940s, "the very beginning of the Civil Rights movement, just before Jackie Robinson, just before the Army integrated. That first wave is often forgotten, but the second wave couldn't have happened without the first," she says, adding, "It's time. This year we had 42, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave.... There's an interest in this unrecorded history."

Essence magazine just named First Class one of 2013's four best books, and Stewart hopes to book more appearances during African American History Month in February; she's also joining a Woodstock Writers Festival panel in April.

She's currently writing a children's book about birthdays. (Her own is the Fourth of July, about which she says, "It was great. You always had the day off. Your parents had the day off. And you could convince yourself that the fireworks were for you.") Her next long-term project might be another nonfiction book, a master's in education and public policy, or a new TV project about creative solutions. "I've always tried to work on projects I would actually watch, something that's useful. That's a big word for me, useful."

Stewart used her book advance to launch the First Class UNCF Scholarship Fund for college-bound Dunbar graduates. The fund has also received checks from readers and people who saw her promoting First Class on TV. "I wanted to give something back," she says. "Not that my advance was so big—just in photos alone, the book cost me a fortune."

She whips out her phone to display some of those photos, green fingernails skittering over its touchscreen to find favorite images: a vintage yearbook cover, a group of uniformed Dunbar cadets, US postage stamps featuring Dunbar alumni, her son Isaac carving a pumpkin.

It's 3:30, and right on schedule, Stewart's phone starts to buzz: first a filmmaker friend, then a message confirming her son has been picked up from school. Within seconds, it buzzes again. Alison Stewart rolls her eyes, her smile radiating contentment. "Who wants me now?"


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