Owensboro’s own Moneta Sleet Jr. (1926-96) was the first Black person to earn a Pulitzer Prize in a journalism category in 1969. He won with his photo from a year earlier of Coretta Scott King, who was grieving the loss of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Sleet, born in Owensboro on Feb. 14, 1926, was a graduate of Western High School, at the time a segregated school for Black students. He received his first camera as a gift from his parents and later joined the camera club while at WHS.
After graduating, Sleet went onto Kentucky State University where he majored in business. During his college years, he briefly served in World War II in an all-Black unit before returning and obtaining his degree. He then went to New York University and received his Master’s degree in journalism in 1950.
Sleet began to grow as a journalist, working at Amsterdam News, Our World Magazine and eventually Ebony and Jet magazines in 1955.
Through the parent company Johnson Publishing, Sleet visited countries around the world including Liberia, Norway, Kenya, the Soviet Union and South America, along with several domestic locations.
After growing his notoriety, Sleet was tasked with covering several moments in the Civil Rights Movement — mostly following King. With the festering relationship with the King family, he took photos of the march from Selma to Montgomery, additionally taking photos of the family.
Following the assassination of King, his widow Coretta Scott King received word that no Black journalists were set to cover the funeral, according to BBC.
Not even Sleet.
Once receiving word, Coretta insisted that some Black media be represented and said that if Sleet was not allowed into the church, there would be no photographers in the location.
The 1968 photo of Coretta and her daughter mourning was chosen to win the 1969 Pulitzer for Feature Photography.
Moneta’s son Gregory Sleet said the legacy that his father built put him at a high level of notoriety around the world.
“We had to understand and my mother had to understand that he was more than her husband and more than just our dad,” Gregory said. “He was a public figure, and someone who had more than made his mark professionally in the world.”
Even with his father in the public eye for being a trailblazer in Black history, Gregory said it didn’t interfere with how Moneta cared for his children.
“As his children, we were just that. His children. We were very fortunate to have the parents we had, in equal measure, my mother and my father,” Gregory said. “For me as a young Black man, he was certainly my role model. The most influential male figure in my life was my father.”
This Wednesday, an Owensboro committee is coming together and unveiling a portrait in the honor of Moneta Sleet and his contributions to history. They also are in the early stages of planning a festival in his honor 2023.
This isn’t his first honor from the city.
Sleet’s childhood home on Seventh Street has a historical marker recognizing the famed photographer.
Gregory said he was thrilled to see the city is celebrating his father. After being in contact with event organizer Emmy Woosley, he feels this is good fit for his father.
While neither Gregory nor his sister are able to attend Wednesday, he said he is excited to see what can come from it.
“My sister and I … are obviously thrilled that our father is being honored in this way,” Gregory said. “I’ve been very pleased to know about dad’s hometown honoring him in several ways.”