News & Politics

Wilbert Tatum, 1933-2009


Photo via the Amsterdam News.

Wilbert “Bill” Tatum, the feisty former publisher of the Amsterdam News who took on everyone from Ed Koch to the New York Post, died today in — of all places — a hospital in Croatia. Tatum, 76, was a world-traveler despite the diabetes that kept him confined to a wheelchair. At the time of his death he was on vacation with his wife Susan, according to his daughter Elinor, who succeeded him as publisher and editor-in-chief.

Tatum bought the paper in 1971 along with fellow investors H. Carl McCall and Percy Sutton, both of whom would go on to become political stars. Tatum at the time was a former community activist from the Lower East Side who served as a deputy Manhattan Borough President and held several posts in Mayor Abe Beame’s administration.

Even as other papers around the country aimed at primarily black readership fell by the wayside, Tatum sustained the Amsterdam as a viable business for more than 30 years. As editor, he used its pages to blast away at politicians with whom he disagreed. In the 1980s, he memorably pounded away at former Mayor Ed Koch in a weekly column that ran on the paper’s front page for more than two years. Week after week, it carried the same headline: “Koch Must Resign.” Years later, he urged Rudy Giuliani to do the same.

Tatum also tangled with then Governor Mario Cuomo over the Tawana Brawley incident, and he made a short and ill-fated attempt to takeover the New York Post in 1993 along with a wacky multimillionaire named Abe Hirschfeld. The staff rebelled and the deal fell through, allowing Rupert Murdoch to retake control of the tabloid.

The paper Tatum built has offered its opinion pages to the angriest voices of black outrage — giving Brawley attorney Alton Maddox a regular soapbox — while filling its news pages with the far tamer fare of social and community life. His Amsterdam never failed to feature searing accounts of the latest examples of police abuse and brutality, not just because they sold papers, but because they endlessly shocked and disturbed him.

A long time resident of the East Village, Tatum’s company was for several years the distributor of the Village Voice. As fierce as he could be on his own editorial page, Tatum had an air of geniality that could light up Harlem, where his paper has long been based.

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