Lo Jelks, Atlanta’s first Black television reporter, dead at 83

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with viewing and funeral arrangements.

Lorenzo “Lo” Jelks, the first Black television reporter in Atlanta, has died at age 83.

The media milestone was reached when WSB-TV hired him in 1967. He would remain with the station through 1976.

In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution profile last year, Jelks was humble about his role in Atlanta’s television history.

“Once (WSB) took that opportunity of going with someone green like me, someone who had never been inside a television station, I think perhaps that helped with the other stations,” said Jelks, who still lived in the Atlanta area.

“He opened the door for us. He’s my hero,” Monica Pearson, a former Channel 2 Action News anchor at WSB-TV, told the AJC.

Jelks’ family confirmed to Channel 2 on Saturday morning that Jelks had passed away overnight. His family did not comment on the cause of his death.

Credit: Atlanta Association of Black Journalists

Credit: Atlanta Association of Black Journalists

Jelks’ journey to Atlanta began in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he grew up. Like many broadcast reporters of that time, he started in radio. In 1955, Jelks ran a weekly music show on a local radio station as a high school student.

He graduated from Clark College, now called Clark Atlanta University, in 1961 and was operations manager at WIGO-AM, a R&B station, in Atlanta when he get the call from WSB-TV.

“He will become the first Negro TV newsman in Atlanta,” his hometown paper, now called The Tampa Bay Times, reported in its June 5, 1967, edition.

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The station initially didn’t show Jelks’ face on the air, fearing a backlash from some whites. Viewers only saw “Lorenzo Jelks reporting” in white letters in the middle of a black screen.

“I didn’t complain about it because I didn’t have any control over it,” he said.

WSB managers told Jelks they hired him in part because the station needed a Black reporter. Station officials insisted he would not solely cover news impacting the Black community. Jelks got training on writing for television news.

He understood the significance of his position and arrived at work before other reporters to read the newspapers to familiarize himself with the day’s top stories.

“You were watched a lot by the general public. There were people out there who didn’t wish us well at all and hoping we would make all kinds of mistakes,” he recalled.

Jelks traveled to other cities with mass transit systems for reports on Atlanta’s plans for what became MARTA. He interviewed Jimmy Carter during his 1970 gubernatorial run. For many, his most memorable assignment was interviewing Ku Klux Klan leaders before a rally at Stone Mountain.

Credit: Atlanta Association of Black Journalists

Credit: Atlanta Association of Black Journalists

After leaving WSB-TV, Jelks returned to his first love, radio, despite offers to become an anchor at the station and entreaties to report for NBC News.

He started a radio station, WAUC-AM, developing projects, such as “Campus Spotlight,” which highlighted life and education on historically Black colleges and universities nationwide. Jelks also founded The AUC Digest, a newspaper serving the Atlanta University Center, which he still published at the time of his AJC profile last February.

Gov. Brian Kemp expressed his family’s condolences, saying of Jelks, “As someone who made history for our state, he paved the way for other African Americans in media during a pivotal time. As we pray for his loved ones, we’re also remembering his valued contributions.”

WSB-TV, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year, recently spotlighted Jelks, who was inducted last year into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame.

In a statement to the station, the Jelks family said, “(We’re) so grateful that he’s had an opportunity to be celebrated so much in the last several months of his life, and thank you all for your kindness, friendship and support of him.”

A viewing is scheduled for Friday, March 10, from 4-8 p.m. at Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home Historic West End Chapel, 1003 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. in Atlanta. A homegoing service is scheduled for Sat., March 11 at 11 a.m. at Antioch Baptist Church North, 540 Cameron M. Alexander Blvd. in Atlanta.