By Barney Blakeney
I’ve been trying to write this story for the past couple of years – something that tells the inspiring tale of two very energetic women who have had profound impacts in our community – a story about media journalists Joan Mack and Tessa Spencer Adams. Joan is Tessa’s aunt. I’ve always been impressed by their work ethics and parallel careers.
I met Joan years ago when I started out with The Chronicle. By the time I came on the scene, she was among a pioneering contingent of Black women in television who included Loretta Mouzone and Audreyole McCants Parker. Since then, the list of Black women who have worked in local television is too long for me to remember. That’s a good thing. But it wasn’t that long ago Black women in the local media were a unique phenomenon. Flo Myers cut a path for Black women in radio at WPAL. I grew up with her during the 1960s, but there were no Black women in television. I was away at college when Joan Mack was hired by WCSC-TV5 in 1972. By the time I came around, several other Black women were on the air. I didn’t know Joan was the first until years later.
I was young, new to the game and had no idea of the responsibility I had undertaken. This thing about “I’m not a Black (fill in the blank), I’m a (fill in the blank) who is Black” is poppycock. When you’re in a field of endeavor – regardless what it may be – that is dominated by others who don’t look like you, you’re not an individual. You represent everyone who looks like you. That’s what Joan stepped into when she became a morning show host at WCSC.
In those days white folks didn’t hire you to just be a Black face on the air – you had to do all the “Black stuff” and I don’t mean that in a negative way. In addition to covering typical news stories, Black folks breaking the ice back then, had the responsibility of promoting the stuff Black folks do. Joan represented. Joan was a solid professional. She was attractive, smart and willing to work. She did several shows that showcased Black folks. She was all over the place.
I was fortunate. As one of the first Black reporters at a mainstream newspaper locally in modern times, I came behind a couple of seasoned journalists, my old high school English teacher Clyde Johnson being among them. I was young and fresh outta school. Those ladies nurtured me professionally, like mother hens. I don’t know that the same kind of mentoring still exists, though I suspect it does.
All those ladies were good at what they did and they taught by example. I was expected to follow suit. There was a lot on the line. We all were homegrown. Not about that ‘cum yah, bin yah’, but we all had grown up in the local community – our parents knew each other, we went to the same schools and churches and had mutual acquaintances. I guess it was a collective effort.
Joan was the proverbial girl next door, a native of James Island who had graduated from Gresham Meggett High School and South Carolina State College. I hated to see her leave the news business when she went to become director of public information at the College of Charleston, though she continued in the business doing an NPR radio talk show for 15 years. Not bad for a Biology and Chemistry major who got into the business at the behest of the local civil rights advocates who recruited her. I ran into her sometimes on campus. Even in passing she’d still push me in one way or another with some encouraging remark.
It was at the Tri-County Women’s Resource Project tribute to teachers three years ago I learned Joan is Tessa Spencer Adams’ aunt. That’s when one plus one equaled two, respective to those women. I’d watched Tessa over the years grow into a hardworking popular media personality. I was writing from a North Charleston apartment in 1999 as she and Baby J did the WWWZ-93FM morning Breakfuss Club. I’ve realized, like her aunt, she’s all over the place.
Spencer Adams is an energizer bunny. After receiving her B.A. degree in Mass Communications from Charleston Southern University she joined the US Army Reserves in 1988 and is a veteran of the first Gulf War. Her 25 year broadcasting career began in radio in 1990 with stops in Greenville, SC and Nashville,TN where she was a cheerleader for the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans. Since 2011 the Bishop England High/CSU graduate has been weekday mornings ABC News 4 co-anchor of “Good Morning Charleston” and the FOX Morning News. She then hustles to the radio station to host the midday show for WMGL-Magic 107.3 FM and can be heard on radio stations 95SX, NASH FM and WTMA 1250. In addition, Tessa is a national voice-over artist serving as the TV announcer for the syndicated “Gospel Stellar Awards Show.”
I was trying to do this story for Women In History Month. Joan’s not so busy now since retiring in 2009, but she’s modest. She asked me to focus the story on her niece. Tessa’s so busy all I could get from her was, “I’m frequently told that I remind people of Aunt Joan. A random couple approached me at Bear E. Patch restaurant in West Ashley just the other day and asked if I was any relation to her. They saw a resemblance and said they watched Joan back in the day.”
Whew! This was a hard one to write. I know I haven’t done true justice to the recognition those women deserve – it would take a better writer than me to get it all in. But no worries. Just keep listening and watching. Those ladies ain’t done yet. They’ll show you what I’m talking about.