fb-pixelSarah-Ann Shaw, 90, a pioneering journalist of color at WBZ, has died Skip to main content

Sarah-Ann Shaw, advocate-journalist who broke barriers at WBZ, dies at 90

Sarah-Ann Shaw (left) was honored at Old South Church in Boston in 2016. After receiving the Open Door Award at the ceremony, she was greeted by Victoria Williams, former civil rights director for Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

When the public affairs program “Say, Brother” debuted on WGBH-TV in 1968, Boston viewers had never seen anything quite like it. Conceived following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the weekly show focused on issues and individuals of vital importance to the city’s Black community yet largely ignored by mainstream media outlets.

Among the show’s on-camera contributors was Sarah-Ann Shaw, a community activist who had grown up in Roxbury and took naturally to the role of advocacy journalist. Young but well-connected, curious and passionate, she would become the first Black reporter hired to work on a local network news show, joining WBZ-TV in 1969.


Ms. Shaw received congratulations for her retirement in 2000 from lifelong friend Jim Roberts in the Dudley Soul Food Restaurant. KREITER, Suzanne GLOBE STAFF

Ms. Shaw, who retired from the station in 2000, specialized in covering stories neglected or marginalized by other media sources. From Dorchester housing hearings and discriminatory banking practices to welfare rights, homelessness, and a women’s rights movement rapidly transforming work and home life, she gravitated toward issues that mattered deeply to Boston’s communities of color.

In the 1970s, during the school busing crisis, she became one of the few Black journalists reporting from the front lines. More important to her than stories of conflict and crisis, though, were ones that challenged stereotypical assumptions.

“I tried to do stories that showed positive events in the Black community,” Ms. Shaw said in a 2007 interview. “I thought it was important particularly for young Black kids to see themselves not on television for fighting, for doing drugs, et cetera, but for doing something positive.”

Equally important, she added, was letting white suburban viewers see that families in urban neighborhoods were “just as concerned about achieving the American Dream as they were.” In that spirit, she was sharply critical of local news trends that emphasized negatives such as crime and violence.

Ms. Shaw, who would serve as a guidepost for a generation of younger journalists, died in her Boston home Thursday. She was 90.


Ms. Shaw was flanked by the Rev. Gregory Groover and Dr. Steven Leonard at the African American Achievement Awards at the Strand in Boston in 1996.GREENHOUSE, PAT GLOBE STAFF PHOT

Liz Walker, a former WBZ-TV colleague and the first Black woman to co-anchor a local newscast, recalled Ms. Shaw as “unapologetically an advocate journalist.”

“She wanted to cover education, not shootings,” said Walker, who left TV news in 2001 to earn a divinity degree and become a Presbyterian pastor. “She did not suffer fools lightly, either. Sarah was not about small talk.”

At the same time, Walker noted, Ms. Shaw took pride in mentoring other young journalists of color, herself included. Said Walker, “Sarah educated you, whether you wanted to be educated or not.”

Ms. Shaw “never, ever, ever let up,” Callie Crossley, host of GBH’s “Under the Radar,” and former longtime host of “Basic Black,” told the Globe in February.

Ms. Shaw was among the civil rights leaders named Boston “heroes” on the 1965 Freedom Plaza that surrounds “The Embrace” sculpture, which the Globe featured during Black History Month.

“She focused on the kinds of things that needed to be addressed, whether people wanted to hear it or not,” Crossley said.

Peter Brown, who worked at WBZ from 1982 to 2004 — 10 of those years as news director — said Ms. Shaw deserves to be recognized as more than an industry trailblazer.

“Sarah really helped write the modern-day history of the city, and she had a lot of contacts throughout Boston, particularly in its communities of color,” Brown said.

Much like a newspaper ombudsman, he added, she spoke her mind freely and let management know if a story’s presentation upset her.


“Every newsroom needs a Sarah-Ann,” Brown said. “An honest voice who will not cower or hold back.”

Ms. Shaw in her Roxbury apartment in 1968. William Ryerson/Globe Staff

Sarah-Ann King was born in Boston on Nov. 6, 1933, one of two children of Norris King Jr., an auto mechanic, and Annie Bell Bomar King. Both parents were active on the civil rights and social justice fronts, her father with the Roxbury Democratic club and her mother working with community activist Melnea Cass. Both were devout churchgoers as well, he a Presbyterian, she a Baptist.

As a child, Sarah-Ann attended lectures at Jordan Hall and Ford Hall Forum, where she once met singer-activist Paul Robeson, and she was active with the Girl Scouts. Working with such organizations as the NAACP Youth Council, she became more heavily involved with the 1960s civil rights movement and was tapped to head the Boston chapter of the Northern Student Movement. In that capacity, she helped coordinate student-led voter registration efforts, working in tandem with the Congress of Racial Equality and Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

After graduating from Girls Latin School, in 1952, she enrolled at Boston University but dropped out three years later when she married Kwame (nee Donald) Shaw, a noted jazz producer. Their marriage ended in divorce, and he died in 2020.

She leaves a daughter, Klare Shaw, a philanthropy professional and former executive director of the Boston Globe Foundation; two grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.


A service to celebrate Ms. Shaw’s life and work will be announced.

In 1968, Ms. Shaw was working for Action for Boston Community Development when she was invited to appear on “Say, Brother” (the show was renamed “Basic Black” in 1998). She would remain associated with the show well into the 1970s, covering such topics as education, school desegregation, prison reform, and the role of Black media in Boston. Meanwhile, her talents caught the eye of WBZ news director Win Baker, who offered her a reporting job.

“My mother had to learn on the job,” Klare Shaw said in an interview. “She always gave a lot of credit to Girls Latin for helping her become an excellent writer. Also, she had spent so much time with community organizations learning the process around mobilizing issues, for her it was almost like taking an informal marketing course.”

What Ms. Shaw had to master, she added, was the technical side of broadcast journalism. “Fortunately, she had a lot of good mentors.”

Ms. Shaw and Charles Austin (left), both retired from WBZ, returned to the station in Allston in 2008 to celebrate the retirement of photographer Richard Chase (center). Rizer, George Globe Staff

At WBZ, Ms. Shaw also hosted “Mzizi Roots,” a public affairs program focused on communities of color. Programming ranged widely from politics and the arts to cooking demonstrations.

During the school busing crisis, her daughter recalled, Ms. Shaw was “pretty fearless,” no matter whom she was interviewing. Her biggest concern was not for her own safety, her daughter said, but for the vulnerable children climbing on and off school buses every day, often surrounded by angry adults.

“She had a lot of empathy for those kids,” her daughter noted. “She was always concerned about the lives of those around her.”


In 2018, “Say, Brother” celebrated its 50th anniversary. Ms. Shaw joined a panel discussion looking back on the show’s history.

“It’s important that ‘Say, Brother’ did shows that exposed people in the community” to topics such as police brutality and public education, she recalled on camera. “The problem for me [is], there are so many things that have been repeated and repeated,” she continued. “I want to live long enough to see us doing things that have more staying power.”

Ms. Shaw volunteered as a tutor in the 1960s. Dan Sheehan/Globe Staff

Ms. Shaw, a member of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame, reaped many awards. She was proudest of two, according to her daughter: an honorary degree from Simmons College, whose College of Media, Arts and Humanities is named after the late Gwen Ifill, another trailblazing Black journalist; and a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists, a distinction she shares with Oprah Winfrey, CNN’s Bernard Shaw, and CBS newsman Ed Bradley, among others.

In retirement, Ms. Shaw remained involved with organizations including Boston Neighborhood News, the League of Women for Community Service, Central Boston Elder Services, and, as a lifelong bibliophile, her local library. In 2015 her papers were donated to the University of Massachusetts Boston. In tribute to her lifelong activism, the 2021 Roxbury Unity Parade organized a special caravan in her honor.

“In her memory, she would want people to do something actively to make the community and country a better place because that’s what she was all about,” Klare said Thursday.

In 1996, upon receiving Boston’s African-American Achievement Award from then-mayor Thomas M. Menino, Ms. Shaw summed up her dual role as pathbreaking journalist and civil rights advocate.

“You can’t be in this world alone,” she said. “You have to stand up for what’s right.”

Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.