April 15, 2019

Since 1930, 41 people and institutions have been awarded special citations from the Pulitzer Prize Board. On Monday, for the first time, a woman joined that list.

Aretha Franklin, who died Aug. 16, 2018, was given a special award and citation. While past citations have been awarded to institutions that included women, such as The Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Gannett newspapers, the Queen of Soul is the first individual woman, and the first black woman, to be honored with a citation.

Related: Front pages around the world pay tribute to Aretha Franklin: ‘Farewell to our Queen’

“The Pulitzer Prizes, and these special award citations, stand for work of breadth, excellence and consequence in making our society a better place to be,” said Poynter’s president, Neil Brown, a Pulitzer Prize Board member. “Aretha Franklin’s contributions remain deep, inspiring and altogether fitting of such recognition.”

Franklin joins other music legends including Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Others honored with the citation include The Cartographers of the American Press, Alex Haley, E.B. White, Dr. Seuss and Ray Bradbury.

“I’m surprised it’s taken this long,” said Eric Deggans, NPR’s TV critic and author of the book “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.” “She’s been an American treasure for many years, even before she passed. I’m glad they finally got around to it.”

Other women the Pulitzer board should consider in the future: Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton, Deggans said.

“There are lots of women who were pioneering artists who inspired a lot of people who came after them,” he said.

The Pulitzer board first awarded a Pulitzer to a black artist in 1950 with poet Gwendolyn Brooks, said Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, “three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball,” said Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark. “The first African American journalist to win a prize as an individual was in 1969 when photojournalist Moneta Sleet won for his poignant image of Coretta King and daughter at Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral.”

Related: What I learned about writing from listening to Aretha Franklin

It’s sad that, except in the case of Bob Dylan, most of the artists the Pulitzers recognized had already died, Clark said.

“My hope is that this prize to Aretha will accelerate a pattern of recognition by the Pulitzer Prizes. Going back a century, there were countless African Americans and women who had little or no chance to win an award in any category because of their race or gender. The great poet Langston Hughes comes to mind.  What if the Pulitzer folks began a concerted effort to repair such neglect and inequity by looking back every year and honoring those who — against many odds — contributed so much to American culture?”

Related: How one Detroit columnist covered the life and death of Aretha Franklin

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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