Former Philly Mag employee wins NAACP Hometown Champion Award

Posted: March 04, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Magazine got its butt kicked last March after publishing the infamous cover story, "Being White in Philly: Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said."

Mayor Nutter blasted the story, which relied on anonymous interviews with white residents from Fairmount about their run-ins with blacks and the residents' perceptions about race.

Not a single African-American was quoted by writer Robert Huber, who began the poorly conceived story by discussing the safety of his son, a Temple University student. (As if black Temple students don't have similar security concerns.)

At public forums, angry attendees threatened boycotts and blasted the magazine's dismal minority-hiring record. There were moments when I cringed at all the heat that editor Tom McGrath took. But what would make an executive editor sign off on such an unbalanced piece?

When "Being White" was published, Adrienne Simpson was the magazine's sole black full-time employee. As one of the magazine's event planners, Simpson easily could have sidestepped the fracas. Instead, she wrote a scathing letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, slamming her employer.

Last month, Simpson was honored for her bravery when she was named a Hometown Champion in an online contest cosponsored by Radio One, TV One and the NAACP. Her prize? An all-expenses-paid trip for two to the 45th NAACP Image Awards last month in Pasadena, Calif.

"I come from people who have worked hard and opened doors in my community for black people," she told me last week. "So I felt like I had a responsibility as a black person and as a Philadelphian to address what I felt was a poorly constructed piece about race, and it was almost as if I was the only person there to do it."

The only black girl

Simpson is the daughter of retired Rowan University music professor Eugene Thamon Simpson and former Glassboro Councilwoman Ingres Simpson. Simpson grew up in Glassboro, in a neighborhood where hers was one of the first black families.

"I was the only black girl in Sunday school at our all-white Methodist church, the only black girl in my Quaker elementary school class and I was definitely the only black girl in ballet class," Simpson wrote in her Inquirer piece.

After graduating from Seton Hall, in 1999, with a degree in communications, she worked in a series of jobs, some in nonprofit, before landing at Philly mag in 2011.

I first encountered her at a "Being White in Philly" forum organized by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. After McGrath identified her as the sole black full-time employee of the magazine, Simpson stood up and we all turned to look.

Days earlier, her scathing op-ed piece had appeared in the Inquirer with the headline, "The only black person in the room." In it, Simpson pointed out: "The all-white staff of a city magazine, a city whose black population makes up 44 percent of its residents, is ill-equipped to spearhead any kind of enlightened discussion about race."

At the forum that evening, we applauded Simpson as if she were a rock star.

She wept.

"It was a little bit surreal," Simpson told me. "It was emotional having people really respond to what I wrote that way."

Weeks later, Simpson quit the magazine to take a seven-month seasonal job at NFL Films. She emphasized to me that she wasn't fired but had already been thinking about leaving.

Earlier this year, a friend entered Simpson in the Hometown Champions contest.

"I think it was really brave of her to stand up to her employer and say it's not OK to marginalize African-Americans in the workplace," said the friend, Jennifer Braxton, an educational consultant.

And so, apparently, were all the people who remembered the "Being White" controversy and cast votes for her. Simpson beat out 11 other local winners for the Philadelphia prize.

"We stood beside her and said, 'You did the right thing,' " Braxton said.

Few changes at magazine

These days, Philly mag has two black employees - one in accounting, the other a research editor, according to David Lipson, president of Metrocorp, publisher of the magazine.

"We want to have a diverse workforce," he said. "We'll do our best. We're not growing as quickly as we'd like."

McGrath wrote me last week in an email: "I haven't spoken to Adrienne since she left. I thought she was courageous to write what she did, and I told her so at the time."

He also indicated that there would be no mention of the piece in the March 2014 issue.

When I met with Simpson last week, she was still giddy about her Image Awards trip.

She used her $1,000 in prize money to treat herself to a striking black Teri Jon gown from Saks Fifth Avenue, and black-and-white ombre platform stilettos by Jessica Simpson. On her nails, she sported a Rihanna-inspired white and black design.

Simpson, currently between jobs, enjoyed her taste of red-carpet glamour, but her high heels are firmly planted in reality.

Looking back at the "Being White in Philly" controversy, her takeaway is simple: "You need to lend your voice when these things happen, or this very narrow way of viewing life will be the norm, and it's not accurate."


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

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