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Wallace Houston Terry, II (April 21, 1938 – May 29, 2003) was an African-American journalist and oral historian, best known for his book about black soldiers in Vietnam, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War (1984), which served as a basis for the 1995 crime thriller Dead Presidents.
Terry had a wide-ranging and eclectic career that reflected his many interests. Though primarily a journalist, he was also an ordained minister in the Church of the Disciples of Christ, and worked as a radio and television commentator, public lecturer, and advertising executive. He taught journalism at Howard University and The College of William & Mary, where he sat on the board of trustees.
Terry was born in New York City and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he was an editor of the Shortridge Daily Echo, one of the few high-school dailies in America. As a reporter for The Brown Daily Herald, he posed as a waiter to get an interview with Orval Faubus, the outspoken segregationist governor of Arkansas, and gained national attention when a photograph of him shaking hands with Faubus hit the front page of The New York Times on September 14, 1957. Later, at Brown University, Terry became the first black editor-in-chief of an Ivy League newspaper. He did graduate studies in theology as a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Chicago, and in international relations as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
When only 19, Terry was hired by the Washington Post in 1960 and later worked for Time magazine, from 1963. In 1967, Terry left for Vietnam, where he became deputy bureau chief for Time in Saigon and the first black war correspondent on permanent duty. For two years, he covered the Tet Offensive, flew scores of combat missions with American and South Vietnamese pilots, and joined assault troops in the Ashau Valley and on Hamburger Hill. Fellow reporters admired his rescue, along with The New Republic correspondent Zalin Grant, of the bodies of four newsmen killed by the Viet Cong on May 5, 1968, during the Mini-Tet Offensive in Saigon, following directions from ambush survivor Frank Palmos and New Zealand military personnel.
Terry’s 1967 Time cover story, “The Negro in Vietnam”, enjoyed a huge success, and he vowed that he would one day write a book about the sacrifices of black soldiers in Vietnam. His wife, Janice, a former schoolteacher who was his close collaborator, later wrote:
For Wally, getting his book published became an obsession, a shadowy thing that was like another heartbeat in our household. It sat with us at the dinner table. It watched the evening news with us. It went with us to the movies, to church, to the grocery store. After thirteen years, we had sent the manuscript to a hundred publishers—and received a hundred rejections.
Finally, there was a breakthrough. The book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans was published in June 1984 by Random HouseTerry, Wallace (1984). Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. Random House. ISBN 0394530284. (ISBN 978-0-394-53028-4) and became a national bestseller, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. "And that shadowy thing in our lives finally disappeared", Janice Terry wrote.
Wallace Terry wrote and narrated the only documentary recording from the Vietnam battlefields, Guess Who's Coming Home: Black Fighting Men Recorded Live in Vietnam, which was released by Motown in 1972 and re-released independently in 2006 as a CD. He wrote and narrated the PBS Frontline show, "The Bloods of Nam", the Mutual Broadcasting show Marching to Freedom, which won an NEA citation and the Edward R. Murrow Brotherhood Award from B'nai B'rith.
In 1992, Terry became the first J. Saunders Redding Visiting Fellow at Brown University. In 2000, the Brown University Alumni Magazine named him one of 100 graduates who made the greatest contributions to the 20th Century.
Death and legacy
In 2003, Wallace Terry developed a rare vascular disease called granulomatosis with polyangiitis, which strikes about one in a million people. The disease can be treated with drugs, but in his case it was diagnosed too late. He died under treatment at a Fairfax, Virginia hospital on May 29, 2003.
He is survived by his wife of forty years, Janice Terry (née Jessup), and by their three children: Tai, Lisa, and David, and two grandchildren: Noah and Sophia.
At the time of his death, Wallace Terry was working on Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America: An Oral History. The book was published posthumously in June 2007 to wide praise. Pulitzer Prize Winner Cynthia Tucker called it a "treasure trove of history" in the May/June 2007 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.
- Terry, Wallace (1984). Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. Random House. ISBN 0394530284. (ISBN 978-0-394-53028-4)
- Terry, Wallace (2007). Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America: An Oral History. Basic Books. ISBN 0786719931. (ISBN 978-0-7867-1993-8)
- "A Letter From the Publisher". Time. September 19, 1969.
- Terry, Wallace. "The Negro in Vietnam". Time.
- Terry, Wallace & Ewing, Wayne (Producer) (May 20, 1986). "The Bloods of Nam". Frontline. PBS.
- Cynthia Tucker, Columbia Journalism Review, A Place at the Table: Setting the record straight on early black journalists, May/June 2007