She hates big malls. She does not understand why the Turnpike isn’t free. And she doesn’t eat bagels. But otherwise Brenda Blackmon, co-anchor at WWOR-TV My9, says she feels right at home in New Jersey.
“This is where I was suppose to be all my life,” says the Georgia native. “Oh God, I love it here. I really just love it here.” The feeling seems to be mutual. Blackmon has received numerous broadcasting awards, including multiple Emmys, and holds honorary doctorates from her alma mater, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and from Caldwell College.
Watching the upbeat anchorwoman on My9 at 11 each night, it’s hard to imagine her as a civil rights pioneer. But Blackmon, who has lived in New Jersey since 1990, spent much of her early life breaking down racial barriers in the Deep South.
Growing up in Columbus, Georgia, in the waning days of Jim Crow, Blackmon endured the humiliation of riding in the backs of buses and sitting in designated sections of restaurants because of the color of her skin. In 1970, she became a member of the second group of African-American students admitted into the University of Georgia, where she studied broadcasting. She began her journalism career at a television station in her hometown, where some sources refused to talk to her, and a statue of a Confederate soldier stood in front of the network building. “The things that I overlooked then,” she says, “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t overlook now.”
In 1973, after six years of paying her dues as a reporter, Blackmon became the first black anchor in Columbus. “When you’re there and you’re doing it, you don’t know that you are there and you’re doing it,” she says of her landmark achievements.
Blackmon then took a job in the larger market of Nashville, Tennessee, but still dealt with discrimination, even from her manager, who told her that her lips were too glossy and she needed to lose weight. “All that did was make me want to eat more because I was depressed that my boss was calling me fat,” says Blackmon, who was once a plus-size model.
Next, her ambitions brought her to the metropolitan area. Résumé in hand, she landed a job in 1990 with WWOR My9 as a general-assignment reporter and fill-in anchor. Blackmon and her husband settled into a home in Englewood with their 4-year-old daughter, Kelly, and began the transition to Jersey life.
“The scariest thing about moving here was the cost of living,” she says. After her first day on the toll roads of New Jersey, Blackmon was completely flustered. “You have to pay to take a ride, and when I asked for directions, people were speaking so fast, I just wanted to cry!”
Even after almost two decades in the Garden State, she gives thanks for GPS. “I think it’s God’s Positional System for Brenda,” she says with a laugh.
Then there was her introduction to the bagel. “They didn’t have bagel shops in the South,” she says. “I didn’t know you are supposed to eat thick bread.”
Blackmon now lives in Tenafly, where she enjoys some traces of the South, even in North Jersey. “My town still believes in mom-and-pop shops,” she says. “I hate the big malls. I know it’s a Jersey thing, but when I first moved here, I asked myself why there were so many shopping malls in one area.”
Even her eating habits hearken back to her Southern roots. “I try to find the best chopped-pork sandwich with coleslaw,” she says, quickly correcting herself. “But it’s called pulled pork here, right?” Blackmon has learned to enjoy that thoroughly Jersey institution, the diner—especially the Coach Diner in North Bergen.
Her position at My9 has given her a ringside seat for some of the most dramatic moments of the past twenty years, including the events of September 11, 2001. “I don’t remember how long I was sitting at the desk, but I do remember the first time I went home, finding a flag and putting it on my mailbox,” she says. “That was the first time I cried, then I went back to work.”
Another challenge was dealing with the death of her friend and My9 colleague, Reggie Harris, who had a heart attack in 2000 at age 46. “To lose him that day and go on air that night was very difficult,” she says. “I remember we had less than a minute before we were about to go on air and I said, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” she recalls. But Blackmon pulled it off. “I swallowed and said, ‘Okay.’”
Covering the inauguration of President Barack Obama became a significant event in her life. “As the great-great-granddaughter of a slave, I was born in the South,” Blackmon wrote on her My9 blog. “I sat on the back of the bus. I sat on the colored side of the waiting rooms and cafeterias. And I sat at my first television anchor desk in a television station with a rebel soldier on the front of the building. But on Inauguration Day I stood up!”
Blackmon’s My9 colleagues appreciate the energy she brings to her job. “A lot of people are happy, but Brenda is joyful,” says co-anchor Harry Martin. “Happy can come and go, but joyful is a fixture. It’s part of her DNA.”
Blackmon has maintained that positive outlook despite running smack into several personal crises. Her marriage came to an end shortly after she moved to New Jersey, leaving Blackmon to start her new life as a single mother. She carried on with the help of her “New Jersey mother,” Elizabeth McKnight, whom she met while attending Ebenezer Baptist Church in Englewood. “Mom McKnight was just a godsend,” Blackmon says. “She encouraged me to learn and be educated.”
Indeed, Blackmon, who started her career before completing her studies at the University of Georgia, eventually received her degree in communication from Fairleigh Dickinson University the same year her daughter Kelly graduated from high school.
In 2002, Blackmon was hit with a potentially crushing blow. Kelly, who was away at college in Virginia, called her mother one day to say her skin was breaking out. “I’m just a Southern mom, so I told her to put some Vaseline on it, it would be fine,” Blackmon says. But the problem persisted. A doctor in New Jersey discovered Kelly had lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage skin, joints, and internal organs, and debilitate the immune system.
Kelly was treated, went back to school, graduated, and married her college sweetheart, Alfonso Ray. Then, in June 2007, the lupus returned. Kelly went into a coma overnight and lay in intensive care for 52 days.
“We literally asked for people to start praying around the world, and the next day she opened her eyes,” says Blackmon. Kelly is now regaining her body movement and is known as the miracle child by her doctors, friends, and especially her mother.
Eager to make a difference, Blackmon became a Celebrity Walk chairwoman for the Alliance for Lupus Research (lupusresearch.org). She has also established the Kelly Fund for Lupus, Inc. (thekellyfundforlupus.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting those affected by lupus, educating the public, and helping to find a cure.
Next spring, Blackmon will embark on another new chapter: teaching a class in broadcasting at Fairleigh Dickinson. Blackmon also operates her own business, Brenda Blackmon Communications Inc., through which she makes public appearances, runs motivational events, and conducts an annual journalism retreat where college students tour the My9 studio and film a live stand-up. “They get a chance to see what it is really like to be on TV,” Blackmon says.
Despite everything on her plate, Blackmon still ponders new frontiers. “Mom McKnight wants me to get a PhD. and to write a book…so that’s what I need to do,” she says.
“I just thank God that I can keep putting one foot in front of the other.”