A fond farewell to a Boston trailblazer

Sarah-Ann Shaw, who died last week at age 91, blazed a trail for Black women who work in television journalism. But her pioneering legacy goes far beyond that medium and includes all manner of civic and political engagement in her hometown, Boston.

When she first appeared on the airwaves as a reporter for WBZ-Channel 4 in 1969, she was truly one of a kind. A native of Roxbury, born at what is now the Dimock Center, she was raised in a politically engaged home and was active at a young age in the freedom struggle for Black Americans as a member of the Girl Scouts and the NAACP. She was a graduate of Girls Latin School in Dorchester’s Codman Square and went on to attend Boston University.

In her college years, her civil rights advocacy focused on organizing her fellow Black Bostonians to tutor other BPS students and help them get into college with the Northern Student Movement. She and Byron Rushing, who later became a longtime state representative, helped her register voters and build political power through the ballot box.

But Sarah-Ann was drawn to another critically important sector of society that also desperately needed to be de-segregated: media. As she said in a 2018 interview: “I thought it was necessary to talk about social issues because they really weren’t being covered. When I went to work at Channel 4 in the late 60s, coverage of the African American community was basically negative coverage. I knew there were other kinds of programs and things happening in the community, and so I thought it was important to try to let other people know about the other things that were going on in Roxbury.”

Her distinguished 31-year career in television news earned her a spot in the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame and other awards in the news industry and a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists. “Say Brother,” a public affairs program that she hosted, was “must-watch” television in an era when personalities who appeared on your living room tube were “considered like family,” says former Boston City Councillor Tito Jackson.

“She was definitely that for our community,” says Jackson, who counts Sarah-Ann Shaw among the top five most influential Black Bostonians of her generation, right up there with Mel King. The only thing she never mastered was retirement, which he says she was constitutionally unable to do.

After leaving the airwaves in 2000, she stayed active in public life and even sometimes ventured into political activism, often supporting emerging leaders of color in Boston. She served on the Democratic State Committee and was a trusted advisor to groups like Central Boston Elder Services, the Friends of Dudley Library, RoxVote, and ABCD— and to political leaders like Jackson.

“And while she was just as willing to pick up the phone and tell you when you did something right, that carrot could turn into a stick real fast,” said Jackson. Jackson was on hand with other leaders as Mayor Wu laid a wreath in tribute to Sarah-Ann last Monday at the Embrace Boston memorial on the Boston Common. Her name is one of dozens emblazoned on the ground around the statue to the Kings – a fitting salute to a Roxbury woman who was, without question, one of our city’s queens.

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