In Part 1, speaking fifty five years after her graduation, Justine Tyrrell begins her interview by noting that she is one of seventeen family members to graduate from Brown University. She states that she always knew she would attend Pembroke College and recalls asking Dean Margaret Shove Morriss for a scholarship. She briefly discusses the difficult transition from Pawtucket High School to Pembroke and mentions that her first job after graduation was at Army Security Agency as a crypt analyst.
Tyrrell describes the various ways World War II affected the campus and specifically recalls the moment she found out about the bombings on Pearl Harbor. She remembers many of her male classmates fighting over seas, corresponding with them, and the trauma of their deaths. Tyrrell goes on to detail her fourteen-year career awarding need-based scholarships through the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation and discusses raising her four children at the same time.
Tyrrell explains her transition in 1961 to writing as Gertrude Wilson for NewYork Amsterdam News, the oldest Black newspaper in the country. She recalls the difficulties she had getting to her office in Harlem and her experiences as the only white reporter. Tyrrell concludes Part 1 with a memory of reporting at a presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. and recognizing the different meanings the event had for her compared to her coworkers.
In Part 2, Tyrrell remembers interacting with Malcolm X and reporting his death, as well as a column she wrote titled “Just Above Your Heart” about an eight year old Black girl in Alabama who was critically injured and left bleeding on the road when someone called for a “white ambulance” instead of a “Black ambulance.” Tyrrell concludes her interview with a summary of her life after New York Amsterdam News.
See also: The book By Gertrude Wilson: Dispatches of the 1960s from a White Writer in a Black World and the Brown Alumni Magazine article This Is My Country, This Is My Fight, Too: Justine Tyrrell Priestley ’43
Recorded on July 30, 1988 at Justine Tyrrell’s home in Martha’s Vineyard, MA
Interviewed by Barbara Anton
Suggested Chicago style citation: Tyrrell, Justine. Interview. By Barbara Anton. Pembroke Center Oral History Project, Brown University. July 30, 1988.
Justine Tyrrell was born in 1921 in Rhode Island, the second of six children. After receiving a scholarship for her straight-A average at Pawtucket High School, Tyrrell joined the Pembroke College Class of 1943, where she received an A.B. in English. Following graduation, Tyrrell was a cryptanalyst for the Army Security Agency in Washington, DC. From 1954 until 1961, she was executive director of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, which gave educational grants to minority students. In 1961 she became the only white reporter for New York Amsterdam News, the United States’ oldest black newspaper, where she wrote under the name Gertude Wilson, until leaving in 1972. For a short time, Tyrrell worked in the development office for Norwich University in Vermont and in 1979 she and her husband moved to Martha’s Vineyard.While on Martha’s Vineyard, Tyrrell and her son Arthur founded the real estate firm, Priestley, Smadbeck & Mone. She died on August 4, 2004, at the age of 83, and a collection of her columns from New York Amsterdam News was posthumously published in 2005 under the title By Gertrude Wilson: Dispatches of the 1960s from a White Writer in a Black World.