Former WVUE reporter blazes a trail for others to follow - FOX 8, WVUE,, weather, app, news, saints

Former WVUE reporter blazes a trail for others to follow

Furnell Chatman anchoring the Noon newscast at WVUE Furnell Chatman anchoring the Noon newscast at WVUE

NEW ORLEANS - WVUE is celebrating 60 years of broadcasting. November 1, 1953 marked the beginning of decades of documenting history and at times becoming part of it.

Furnell Chatman came to WVUE in the 1960s for an opportunity, but what he became was a symbol of the ongoing struggle for equal rights.

The year was 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act for Fair Housing, and Furnell Chatman was a Xavier University senior planning his future.

"I was editor of the yearbook, and I worked in the University Relations office. I studied speech and drama and was encouraged to pursue media," Chatman said.

He worked behind the scenes part-time at WVUE Channel 12 during his college days, but reporting was a goal that quickly seemed unattainable.

"I went to every TV station in town and all essentially said, 'I think we have potential in you, but you're not ready.'"

Chatman's skin color was the elephant in the room. An African-American reporter on New Orleans airwaves had been an untapped frontier.

"It was lily white," Chatman said. "The only black people in the newsroom were janitors. Those were the only working people in the newsroom."

Chatman didn't give up. He kept coming back every few months. News director Alec Gifford decided to give the kid from the Seventh ward a shot.

"He brought me into the general manager's office and they sat me down and said, 'We're going to take a big chance with you. We're jeopardizing our jobs and we're putting our audience at risk,'" Chatman said.

They hired him as merely a voice for six months - he was never seen on television, but he was heard.

"Slowly, you'd see a tan hand holding a microphone, or the back of my neck," he said. "Almost every day I'd walk into the news director's office and say, 'Today? Am I going to appear on television today?'" 

He said Gifford always shook his head, and that went on for weeks and weeks.

He said finally one day Gifford walked in the newsroom and told him, "Today is the day!"

That's when Chatman did his first standup and appeared on television for the very first time.

"When I got home that day I was greeted by the neighborhood with hot dogs and sodas. It was a big deal. I look back on that with great fondness," he said with tears in his eyes.
Putting a face with the voice didn't make Chatman's journey any easier. He said the Mayor at the time, Victor Schiro, refused to shake his hand the first time they were introduced. He said the New Orleans Press Club was reluctant to have him as a member. 

"I eventually got in," he said.

What could not be denied was his talent. Furnell Chatman covered the big stories.

"Howard Johnson shootout with Mark Essex - I was there for that and we took a lot of gunfire that night," he said. 

He also remembers the Rault Center fire, and the tragic scenes that stay with him to this day. His reporting was so solid and his delivery so smooth, he became the noon anchor at WVUE after just a few years.

"The audience grew because people wanted to see a black man on television. The African-American community yearned for that," Chatman said.

He was the first African-American anchor  in the state. His career soared from there into one that lasted 40 years.

Chatman settled at KNBC in Los Angeles after a brief time as a network reporter. He was a well-known anchor until his retirement in 2009. 

Now, his only limelight is the sun on the bayou. No deadlines, just time to reflect on the change he was a big part of.

"I look at television in New Orleans today with great pride. Look at what's happened - it's the normal now, and it should have been back then. I feel I had some part in bringing this about, and I'm very prideful about that," he said.

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