May 5: The First Black American Won Pulitzer Prize On This Date In 1969

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By Victor Trammell

Photo credits: Artist K.O. Lewis

On February 14, 1926, Moneta Sleet, Jr. was born. Sleet (pictured) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who was active in the Civil Rights movement.

In Owensboro, Kentucky, he was reared by his parents, Ozetta Allensworth Sleet and Moneta Sleet, Sr. His parents got him a little box camera when he was very young, which he used to capture photographs of his family around the home. This was the start of Sleet’s lifelong passion for photographing.

Sleet went to Western High School (close to his birthplace) where he became a member of the photography club. He went on to Kentucky State University after graduation to pursue his love for photography. Sleet later fought in World War II with an all-black squad before returning to Kentucky State University to finish his business degree. Sleet continued his study after graduating from New York University, where he studied photography at the School of Modern Photography. In 1950, he earned his master’s degree in journalism.

Throughout his career, Sleet contributed to a number of African-American magazines. He started his career as a journalist for the New York City newspaper Amsterdam News and then the magazine Our World. In 1955, Johnson Publishing Company, the Chicago-based parent company of Ebony and Jet magazines, offered him a job.

Sleet toured the globe for his journalism while working for Johnson Publishing, visiting Liberia, Libya, Ghana, Kenya, Norway, the Soviet Union, South America, and various cities around the United States. He combined his profession with his family, which included his wife Juanita, two sons Gregory and Michael, and daughter Lisa, whom he married in 1950.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of Sleet’s numerous tasks. Sleet covered the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964, and the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, as well as being granted access to the King family at home. The friendship between Sleet and King continued until King’s death in 1968.

Following Dr. King’s murder, Sleet captured his burial at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 9, 1968. Sleet’s portrait of a heartbroken Coretta Scott King received the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography on May 5, 1969, according to Sleet became the first black man to win a Pulitzer Prize in any category, as well as the first person to win one while working for a black magazine.

Over the course of his career, Sleet received several honors, including the Overseas Press Club of America’s Citation for Excellence, as well as prizes from the National Urban League and the National Association of Black Journalists. He was also able to display his work at prestigious venues such as New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. His hometown of Owensboro recognized Moneta Sleet Jr. Day on February 24, 2000, and erected a bronze historical plaque in honor of his contributions to the civil rights struggle and journalism.

Moneta Sleet Jr., a Sigma Pi Phi fraternity member, worked for Johnson Publishing Company until his death in 1996 due to cancer. He passed away at 70 years of age in Chicago, Illinois.


Osgood, H. (2018, September 30). Moneta Sleet, Jr. (1926-1996).

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