Editor’s note: Article submitted by the Owensboro Human Relations Council, with contributions by Owensboro Times writer Danny May.
Black History Month, celebrated annually, honors the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history. Originally celebrated for a week, it became a month-long celebration in February of 1976 to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, according to history.com. Throughout the month, the Owensboro Human Relations Commission (OHRC) will highlight a prominent black figure from Owensboro.
This week, the OHRC celebrates Moneta J. Sleet, Jr. (1926 – 1996), the first black American to win a Pulitzer Prize in photography in 1969. His major contribution to photojournalism was his extensive documentation of the Civil Rights movement.
Moneta Sleet, Jr. was born in Owensboro on February 14, 1926, to Ozetta Allensworth Sleet and Moneta Sleet, Sr. He said growing up in Owensboro was “a real pleasant experience” in the book “Special Moments in African American History 1955-1996: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr., Ebony Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize Winner.”
“Despite the segregated pattern, my school years were a good, wholesome experience for me,” Sleet wrote.
Sleet’s interest in photography began as a child. He pursued photography at Kentucky State College and received his master’s degree in Journalism from New York University in 1950. He later joined Ebony magazine as staff photographer.
As an adult, when Sleet won the Mayor’s Award of Excellence, he again referred to growing up in Owensboro. “Every parent looked out for every child, and every teacher taught every student as if the quality of their life depended on it. And as I have found out many times since I left, it did.”
In 1956, Sleet met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just as he was emerging as the leader of the civil rights movement. He later covered Dr. King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Sleet covered the funeral, resulting in the Pulitzer winning photograph of Dr. King’s grieving widow Coretta and youngest daughter Bernice.
His early career covered the period of African national independence in the 1950’s. Sleet photographed in Liberia, Libya, Sudan and he photographed Kwame Nkrumah at the moment of Ghana’s independence. This gained Sleet an Overseas Press Club Citation in 1957.
Sleet received numerous awards including the National Urban League in 1969, and the National Association of Black Journalists in 1978. Over the years, his work has appeared in exhibitions at museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sleet’s work reveals a warmth of understanding and empathy with the subjects who passed before his camera.
The City of Owensboro declared February 24, 2000, Moneta Sleet, Jr. Day with a celebration at St. Paul AME Church on Elm Street. City officials also unveiled a bronze historical marker at Max Rhoads Park on Seventh Street.