Pioneering journalist and St. Petersburg native Lorenzo Jelks passed away on Feb. 24. He was 83.
ST. PETERSBURG – On Friday, Feb. 24, the earthly journey of Lorenzo Jelks, a St. Petersburg native son and trailblazing journalist, came to an end. His homegoing service was held March 11 in Atlanta, where he resided for decades. Back here in St. Pete, his family held a memorial to celebrate his contributions on April 23 at the Woodson African American Museum of Florida.
Mr. Jelks, affectionately known by family and later in professional circles as Lo Jelks, was born the youngest of seven children – four brothers and two sisters – to Luther and Mamie Weatherspoon on March 25, 1939, in St. Petersburg. He was nurtured in a Christian home by loving parents with a strong and focused work ethic and inspired family values.
The family was faithful members of Second Bethel Baptist Church, where the Rev. Enoch D. Davis served as pastor. It was there Mr. Jelks made a childhood acceptance of Christ and became an active member of the Ushers Ministry.
He received his early education in the segregated Pinellas County School system. In 1955, his interest in broadcast communications was kindled by his first opportunity to be an announcer for a weekly music show on a local radio station. Broadcast communications became and remained his first love and ignited the goal of achieving more than simply future employment but a lifetime of sharing his passion and growing expertise with others.
He enrolled in Atlanta’s Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, graduating in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree. He then served as a communications specialist in the United States Army Specials Forces. After fulfilling his military duty, he ventured north to New Jersey and again found a welcoming post behind the microphone with the local R&B station.
However, Jelks still could not dismiss his longing for Atlanta and found an open option to return as operations manager for WIGO-AM, Rhythm & Blues Radio. While garnering a faithful following of those tuning in to hear his melodious radio voice, he was still enamored with the ultimate goal of launching his own enterprise and cultivating the interest of other Blacks in the broadcast profession. And what better place to begin than with historically Black colleges and universities?
In 1965, Mr. Jelks launched his parent company, the Collegiate Broadcasting Group, Inc., and began creating the highly successful program series, “Campus Spotlight,” highlighting the progressive dynamics of life and education on predominately black colleges and university campuses across the country and offering the program to radio stations in major and smaller cities nationwide.
In 1967, clothed in the make-up of modesty, Mr. Jelks was recruited by WSB-Television to become the Southeast’s pioneer Black television news reporter. He accepted and was on staff for the first year without a visual presence – just his voice and name across the bottom of the screen.
Often his assignments took him into places that had been off-limits to people of color, traveling the burgeoning metro area and sometimes other national locales. His voice and reporting were so excellent that he opened the door of opportunity for other Black male and female reporters in both television and radio.
Jelks took a personal pause in 1970 to get married, and a year later, he and his wife, Jane Sharon Brown, an Atlanta native and Spelman alum, welcomed a son, Kenyatta Lorenzo Jelks.
This was God’s answer to one of the few things that would elicit a smile from Jelks – that was his appeal of wanting two things: “a son and a radio station.”
Intrigued by the footprint of the Atlanta University Center (the largest predominately Black college community in the world), Jelks and his wife attracted the resources and were granted permission by the Atlanta University Center to build a carrier-current radio station. Consequently, in sync with the birth of their son was also the birth of WAUC-AM Radio, housed on the Morehouse College campus to serve the Atlanta University Center community.
A few years later, Jelks greatly supported his alma mater as a member and advisor to the Clark Atlanta University Board of Visitors with the launch of their broadcast medium, WCLK-FM Radio.
With the growing demands of his enterprise, and despite offers to become an anchor at WSB-TV or a reporter for NBC News, Mr. Jelks resigned from his position with WSB-TV in 1976 and became totally devoted to his expanding Collegiate Broadcasting Group, Inc.
Mr. Jelks was committed to providing meaningful opportunities for AUC students to work and learn the broadcasting business. Along with other staffers, he launched “The AUC Digest,” originally a newsletter to promote the radio station.
However, with its unimaginable successful reception, it evolved into a newspaper that began attracting advertisers and new growth opportunities as a sought-after weekly Monday morning read, serving not just the schools in the AUC but penetrating the invaluable market of adjoining businesses and families.
His pursuit of a career as a radio announcer evolved into him being the founder and general manager of a radio station and the publishing editor of “The AUC Digest” for over 47 years. He continued to grow the broadcast experience by launching the National Association of Black College Broadcasters and hosting the annual Black College Radio Convention held in Atlanta for more than 20 years.
Mr. Jelks continued to keep his dream alive and serve as the publishing editor of “The AUC Digest” with the aid of his son Ken until a recent and precipitous decline in his health. How timely and prophetic that during this Black History Month and during a season of much-deserved accolades from colleagues that he would quietly slip away into the marvelous atmosphere in Glory to report his best assignment ever, around the Throne of Grace.
Mr. Jelks’ grandniece, Dr. Kanika Tomalin, explained the characteristics of a trailblazer and how her uncle embodied those qualities.
“It’s an easy oversight for those of us who come after change to look back on the journey of a trailblazer and regard his or her heavy lift as an unavoidable advancement, to regard things as we know them to somehow be a familiar reflection of what has always been. But for the trailblazer — the man or woman mighty in conviction vested with self-determining authority, audacious with imagination for what will be and how they’ll make it happen — for that trailblazer, there’s nothing automatic about the change they usher in.
“They make such change swimming upstream against the current of doubters who stand ready to accept what is as what will always be. They swim up that stream to arrive on the shores of history, ready to write a new chapter in which people who’ve been historically left out will now have a part.”
Tomalin said her uncle worked not only to seize and serve opportunity for himself but for so many other brilliant young minds from the African-American community.
Lorenzo “Lo” Jelks leaves to celebrate his earthly legacy: his son Rev. Ken L. Jelks, senior pastor of the Mt. Tabor Baptist Church in Columbus, Ga., his daughter-in-love Dr. Na’Taki O. Jelks, grandson Kenyatta L. Jelks, Jr., a host of Floridian nieces and nephews, members and co-laborers at Flipper Temple AME Church and a cadre of collogues and well-wishers for work well-done.
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