Wilbert Tatum, 76, publisher, longtime East Villager


By Lincoln Anderson

Wilbert Tatum, who died Thurs., Feb. 26, at age 76, is most remembered for his tenure as the often provocative publisher of The New York Amsterdam News, the city’s oldest black newspaper. But Tatum was also an East Village resident for nearly 50 years, and, particularly in his younger days, was heavily involved in neighborhood housing issues and local Democratic club politics.

Tatum was vacationing with his wife in Montenegro when he suddenly became ill, according to his daughter, Elinor Tatum, 38. Taken to a hospital in Croatia, he died of multiple organ failure, she said. Exactly what triggered his death is a mystery.

Tatum, known as “Bill,” was from Raleigh, N.C., where his father owned several newspapers, including the Henderson Tribune. His mother was a schoolteacher.

He bought The Amsterdam News in 1971 with other investors, taking control of the paper in 1983. He bought out the last investor in 1996. Elinor became the weekly’s publisher and editor in 1998, though Bill remained board chairman.

In the mid-1990s, he had suffered a devastating injury. A flimsy plastic chair in which he was sitting at the South Street Seaport collapsed, and he struck the back of his head on a table. He was left an incomplete quadriplegic — he had some movement, but little strength, in his arms and legs, Elinor said.

However, she added, “He was still able to travel, and he was healthyish.”

Long before his involvement with the “AmNews,” as it was known for short, Tatum settled in the East Village. For two years in the late 1960s, he was director of the Cooper Square Committee, which, founded in 1959, fought to prevent demolition of affordable housing in the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area. As director, Tatum, a paid employee, ran the group’s office.

According to Elinor, her father and his wife, the former Susan Kohn, who is Jewish, first lived at 65 Second Ave. In the late 1960s, he purchased their present brownstone on E. Third St., with a loan from the Ukrainian Credit Union.

He ultimately owned three buildings on the same block: 36 E. Second St./39 Second Ave. and the adjacent 41 Second Ave. and the Third St. brownstone. The corner building, according to his daughter, was the city’s original Pontiac car showroom, and had been slated for demolition in the 1980s under the renewal plan.

“These two buildings were burned-out shells,” Elinor said of the Second Ave. buildings. “He worked with men from Wildcat to fix them up. He rented these buildings from the city to show that he could save them — and once they saw that they were viable buildings, the city sold them to him.”

She said her father also really enjoyed fixing up the brownstone with his own hands.

The Second Ave. buildings at different times held offices for the AmNews. The corner building now houses residential tenants; the use of its ground floor, recently enclosed behind plywood, is “T.B.D. — to be determined,” Elinor said.

The brownstone is near the Third St. Men’s Shelter, and, in the early 1970s, the men there thought Bill Tatum looked like a judge.

“They’d say, ‘Here comes the judge! Here comes the judge!’ because he always wore a suit and hat,” Elinor said. “Once he had a dispute with a cabbie after he got out of the cab. It was in front of the shelter and the guys were standing there. He said to the cabbie, ‘We can call a cop, or we can let these guys handle it.’”

Tatum’s favorite place to eat was Teresa’s Polish restaurant on First Ave. between Fifth and Sixth Sts., his daughter said. He was friends with, Abe Lebewohl, late owner of the 2nd Ave. Deli.

“He loved Abe,” Elinor said. “My dad used to make these bets — penny bets — but they were $10 bets, and they’d pay each other in pennies, of course. He would bump into him on the sidewalk and they’d hold long conversations in front of the bank where Abe was killed making a deposit.”

Hundreds of neighborhood residents, according to Elinor, were at Tatum’s memorial service Thursday at Provenzano Lanza funeral home — next door to his building at 41 Second Ave. — and his funeral Friday at Riverside Church.

“People knew Bill Tatum in this neighborhood,” Elinor said.

Tatum was also well known to those seeking the nation’s highest office.

“Everyone running for president — most of the Democrats — have come to seek our endorsement,” Elinor said.

Letters from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were read at Tatum’s funeral service, at which Al Sharpton presided. Among those in attendance were Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Governor David Paterson, former Mayor David Dinkins, City Comptroller Bill Thompson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and several city councilmembers.

Frances Goldin, 85, the Cooper Square Committee’s only remaining living founder, recalled Tatum, as the committee’s director, as “very effective, energetic, smart and very charismatic.”

“He got John Lindsay to check out our Alternative Plan and endorse it,” Goldin recalled. “It was an area Robert Moses wanted to take for middle-income housing. Bill made a mark with the city and he went to work with the city. We were merely a stepping stone for him to go on to greater things.”

After a post at the Department of Buildings, Tatum went on to become Manhattan deputy borough president.

As a result of the Alternative Plan, the Cooper Square renewal area now has 450 permanently affordable apartments: Sixty-five percent of the renewal area’s apartments are low income, while 35 percent are market rate. Within the next year, the 450 apartments’ tenants will have the chance to purchase their units for $250 each, and own them as limited-equity co-ops.

Goldin said she recalled that at one point Tatum planned to put an African restaurant in the corner building at Second St. and Second Ave. — which was “very appealing” to the committee — but it didn’t happen.

In the early ’60s, Tatum was a member of the Village Independent Democrats club, which is where he and his wife met, his daughter said.

“He was very strong on civil rights,” recalled Ed Gold, V.I.D.’s president in 1961. “He got in trouble when Stanley Geller was president in 1962, and Tatum wanted to tape some of our meetings. Geller was a very big civil libertarian — but we didn’t want what we said to be used selectively. Tatum got a little upset when we wouldn’t let him tape — he criticized the club and his enthusiasm for the club was sharply reduced.”

Ed Koch was V.I.D. president in ’63. The former mayor declined to comment on Tatum, who, during Koch’s last four years in office, ran weekly front-page editorials headlined “Koch Must Resign.”

“I believe in the old adage ‘Speak well of the dead or remain silent,’” Koch said. “He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him.”

Elinor Tatum declined to comment on Koch.

In addition to his daughter and wife, Bill Tatum is survived by three sisters, Lorraine Grace, of Delaware; Edna Swann and Kali Sichen, both of Georgia; a brother, Herbert Tatum, of North Carolina, and many nieces and nephews.

His daughter said Tatum most likely will be buried in New York City Marble Cemetery, on Second St. between First and Second Aves. — again, on the block on which he lived.

“We want to keep him in the neighborhood,” she said.