Sam Fulwood III ’78 – My Carolina Story

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

“I’ve had three careers. First, as a journalist – my true professional love. Second, as a public policy analyst at a Washington-based think tank and, now, as dean of the School of Communication at American University, where I want nothing more than to help make it possible for future generations of journalists, filmmakers and communication professionals to make sense of the world and protect democracy in an increasing multicultural global community.”

Jan. 14, 2023

Listen Now


I’m Sam Fulwood, and I’m a Tar Heel.

My Carolina Story begins when I was 11 years old, living at home in Charlotte, North Carolina, with my parents and younger brother. It was Saturday, March 16, 1968. Being the great Tar Heels that you are, you might accurately surmise that it was a basketball game that drew my attention and affection for the Baby Blue.

Well, yes. And, no. True, a memorable basketball game occurred on that date — Carolina edged Davidson College 70–66 in the East Regional Final, sending the Tar Heels to their first Final Four in the Dean Smith era. But prior to that game, I had no awareness of Chapel Hill or UNC. And if I remember correctly, I watched the game only to be disappointed by the outcome. At that time, so long ago and in my youthful ignorance, I would have claimed allegiance to Davidson only because I was more familiar with the local team, and I was enamored with its bruising center, Mike Malloy.

Truth to be told, I wasn’t all that much of a basketball fan. I was an un-athletic, nerdy Black boy with Coke-bottle glasses. I was more likely to remember something I read in a comic strip than the number of rebounds listed in a box score.

But this game might have been the start of my becoming aware of a world outside my insular life and community. A few weeks after that Davidson game, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on a Memphis, Tennessee, motel balcony. Race riots erupted in Detroit, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, among other U.S. cities. The current events of those days were impossible for me to overlook. I became an avid newspaper reader, including the sports pages.

That’s where I learned about Charlie Scott. And his coach, Dean Smith. I read about the relationship between Scott and Smith. That was enough to make me a Tar Heel for life. In this audience, I don’t have to detail the specifics of that Carolina Story. We all know it. If, on the off chance, you don’t know about the Charlie Scott-Dean Smith connection, quietly whisper to the person to your right or left for a history lesson; I’m certain they’ll be discrete in educating you.

Exactly one day short of a year after that 1968 basketball game, I’d become a true-blue Tar Heel fan boy. Another game. This one played out on Saturday, March 15, 1969, and another Carolina victory over Davidson in the East Regional tournament, sending Coach Smith, Charlie Scott and his Tar Heel teammates to a second, consecutive Final Four. Carolina beat Davidson in that game, 87–85, as I recall, on Charlie Scott’s game-winning shot in the closing seconds.

Though I’ve never met Charlie Scott and would dearly love to someday, my Carolina Story intersects with his because Scott’s trailblazing role at UNC widened my eyes to a universe I’d never known previously. In the year between those two Final Fours, my childhood innocence melted away. As I read newspaper sports pages about Carolina basketball, I was simultaneously exposed to something far more formative in my life. I became aware of the racial realities that shaped attitudes, behaviors and actions in places like Chapel Hill, which now didn’t seem so very far from my home in the McCrorey Heights neighborhood on the Westside of Charlotte.

A bit of biographical context is needed here: My parents had been born and raised in neighboring small towns in rural Union County, North Carolina, during the first quarter of the 20th century. By the time they married in 1950, both had finished college and had begun their careers – Daddy, like his father, was a Presbyterian minister. Momma, like her father and all but one of her six siblings, was an elementary school teacher. These were ideal pedigrees for Southern Black society’s elite.

Black people of means, like the preachers and teachers and doctors and postal workers and small business owners, settled in McCrorey Heights by force as much as by design to work for upward mobility and racial progress. They lived in relative comfort and isolation, beyond the oppressive purview of white people. For my parents and neighbors, success in life meant a college education, a professional job with the government or a business catering exclusively to Black consumer needs, marriage to another employed (Black) person and home ownership. Of course, none of this was expressly stated. It was simply assumed – as it was assumed that I would fall in line, beginning by attending a historically black college, such as Johnson C. Smith University, which was a three-point shot from my front door. That’s where generations of Black men in my family were launched; it’s where my brother would eventually graduate and where my future wife would graduate. But not me.

Instead, I had my heart set on Chapel Hill. By the time it came for me to go to college, I had my entire life mapped out. I’d decided to be a newspaper reporter; Carolina was the only school in the state with a journalism school. It was an easy, slam-dunk decision for me, but one that greatly disturbed my mother.

Momma had never been in favor of my attending UNC, or of my decision to major in journalism. She wanted me to get a teaching certificate, a resource I could always fall back on when this foolish notion of being a reporter faded, as it surely would in her view. Momma tried to warn me that white people had the luxury of going into risky fields like newspapers, but I needed to play it safe.

“You don’t know a single person who has ever worked on a newspaper. What makes you think they will let you?”

“The world is changing,” I told her. This was 1974. “Things are going to be different and better for me than it was for you and other Black people.”

“Different, maybe,” she countered. “But not better.”

My father offered me some different advice. “Boy, there is enough that you don’t know to make a new world.” I’ve never forgotten his saying that because I wanted to know every detail of that new world.

With my father’s and mother’s words bouncing between my ears, I arrived on the Carolina campus in late August 1974. Despite my best effort at appearing confident and assured, I was riddled with doubt. By the midterm of my first year, I began to imagine that I might flunk out. My terror of failure was heightened by the example of a handful of Black students, who after spending a semester engaged in a never-ending card game, disappeared, and were never seen again. Their erasure from campus propelled me to take extra precautions. In most of the huge lecture halls, I made a point of sitting dead center in the front row, where I could hear every word clearly and, more importantly, be seen by the professor.  I wasn’t having academic problems, but I imagined that I was. Sometimes I had night sweats, and a recurring dream replayed in a looping and unwanted reprise. In this dream, I was taking an exam after having never attended the class. The dream always ending with my bolting upright in bed to chase it away. So, I studied harder, setting an alarm clock to ensure arriving on time for every day’s classes. I never missed an exam.

But I took one additional precaution. I made out a budget for my time. I’d been told that I should spend 14 hours in class and double that studying. That left 56 hours in the week for sleeping and about 70 hours remaining in the week for whatever might crop up. I tacked a chart over my dorm room desk, a form of self-imposed discipline to make order out of chaos and fight off fear with military-like precision. That chart stayed on my wall for all of my first semester. I took it down after hearing a classmate – a white classmate in a freshman English class who constantly reminded us that she had been valedictorian of her high school class – argue with a graduate teaching assistant over whether Canada was the 51st state of the Union. That classroom experience convinced me, finally, not only wasn’t I the dumbest kid in the class of ’78, but that the dumbest one wasn’t necessarily Black. I took down the chart and learned to relax as my confidence as a Carolina student soared.

I loved being a student here. I met people who are friends to this day. I helped charter the Mu Zeta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which is the oldest Black Greek-letter college fraternity in the nation and has a reputation for academic excellence on the UNC campus. I worked as a reporter and photographer at The Daily Tar Heel and even went so far as to run unsuccessfully for the editor’s job. And, though Charlie Scott was long gone, I cheered many basketball games in Carmichael Auditorium.

My four years as an undergraduate sailed by in the bat of an eye. In the winter of my senior year, assured of graduation because I’d finally passed the dreaded swimming test and the J-school’s difficult spelling-and-grammar test, both required to earn a diploma, I received a surprising phone call. David Lawrence, then editor of The Charlotte Observer, offered me a job as the night police reporter on my hometown paper.

I was the first person in my J-school class to land a job, and it was with the largest and most prominent newspaper in the state. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This was a dream come true, a validation of everything I’d ever imagined happening in my life.

A bit more context is needed here: I’d set my career ambition shortly after high school graduation and a life-changing encounter with a newspaper editor. I’d been editor of my high school newspaper and thought that was credential enough to be hired at The Observer. Somehow – I really don’t remember how I pulled this off – I marched into James Batten’s office and demanded that he hire me on the spot.  Mr. Batten was the paper’s managing editor and soon would be the top official for the entire Knight-Ridder chain. He advised me to go to Carolina, study hard, graduate and work at a succession of small papers around North Carolina. He suggested I might, one day, be good enough to get hired at The Observer, perhaps by the time I was 30 years old and had won two Pulitzer Prizes. I was so naively earnest; I didn’t know he was pulling my leg. A couple weeks later, Mr. Batten called me back. He said he was impressed that I’d been bold enough to demand a job at his newspaper. He invited me to work as a copy boy for a few weeks before I headed off to college. As it turned out, I was in the newsroom the night President Nixon resigned.

Mr. Batten pulled me aside that night and explained that newspaper reporters and editors worked to find information that would enable people like my parents to be informed citizens and to play a role in help governing the nation. That’s when I decided – come hell or high water – I wanted to be a journalist and I wanted to be at The Observer by the time I was 30.

You can imagine how I felt when I got that call in my senior year. Achieving my life’s ambition was a bittersweet experience. On the sweet side, I’d accomplished something truly big and meaningful to me. But the bitter reality was that I’d set my sights too low. At age 22, I had a more life and career ahead of me than I’d already experienced. I realized this because I wasn’t very good at my job. Very few people emerge from college, even as fine a one as Carolina, fully prepared for the complexities of the real world. I had to learn to report and to write through trial and error. Lots of errors. Journalism is more craft than profession; it has more in common with a musician playing the fiddle or a carpenter building a bookcase than a doctor treating a cancer patient or a lawyer representing a client.

The things that I remember best from my days as a student are the things that I carried into a succession of newsrooms. And, even today, I take them everywhere I go. They are curiosity and tenacity. I learned both here at Carolina, because there was so much to learn, so much I didn’t know, so much I’d never seen and experienced. I knew that I had to work hard to understand and experience those new worlds that my father had told me were out there, waiting for me to discover. I was determined to find as many of them as I could hold in my hands and in my head.

You’ll recall I said I wanted nothing more in life than to be a reporter. Well, I’m no longer among the ink-stained wretches of the world. As hard as it might have been for me to imagine when I was a student some 40 years ago, I haven’t been a “real” newspaper man for nearly two decades. I left that world in 2008, after having worked for papers in Charlotte, Baltimore, Atlanta, Washington, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. My career allowed me to travel to about 25 countries and meet a fascinating succession of people, some very famous and some known only to their families. It was a great ride, made possible by my writing and reporting classes in old Howell Hall on North Campus.

But just as Howell Hall is no longer the home for J-school students, my career in journalism didn’t last forever. The world changed and newspapers, as I knew them, changed. And so did I.

I’ve had three careers. First, as a journalist – my true professional love. Second, as a public policy analyst at a Washington-based think tank and, now, as dean of the School of Communication at American University, where I want nothing more than to help make it possible for future generations of journalists, filmmakers and communication professionals to make sense of the world and protect democracy in an increasing multicultural global community.

This is a safe space, right? So I’ll confess something: In each of my career starts-and-fits, I had no clue what I was doing when I re-invented myself. And, that’s where the Carolina-bred curiosity and tenacity has served me well. I’ve always wanted to learn more and try harder. That’s the Carolina Way. (Again, if you’re a newcomer here, turn back to that person on either side of you to learn what I mean by the Carolina Way.)

I have spoken a good bit here about my parents. That’s because, in their youth, attending Carolina was an impossibility. The order of their day excluded them from the bounty of this place. Yet, their toils and taxes helped make the University of North Carolina a priceless gem and me a proud alum – even a member of its General Alumni Association. There was a time, in my younger years, when I was resentful of how unfair history was to my ancestors. But I’ve come around on such feelings to be inspired by their duty, sacrifice and contribution to pave a better way for me. Anger has morphed into pride. Though they never took a single class on this campus, by birthright, my parents were as much Tar Heels as I am. You could say that makes me a legacy, and I feel a strong desire to pay it forward.

I owe a great deal of whatever professional success I’ve had to the University of North Carolina. And the University owes a debt to people like my parents. I know for sure that they could never have imagined my standing here before you today. But I do so with full awareness and deep appreciation for my father and mother.

My Carolina Story doesn’t end here. It is an ongoing, continuing effort to make the University of North Carolina better for generations to follow. I want Carolina to be a place of pride for all people. That’s also why I consider it an honor and privilege to serve here among you and to say, once again:

I’m Sam Fulwood, and I’m a Tar Heel.