Clark Howell was a prominent state politician and, for fifty-three years, an editorial executive and owner of the Atlanta Constitution. A talented and dedicated journalist, Howell served as a bridge from Georgia to the rest of the nation in matters political and journalistic.
Early Life and Career
Clark Howell was born in Erwinton, South Carolina, on September 21, 1863, to Julia A. Erwin and Evan P. Howell, a Confederate artillery captain. After the Civil War (1861-65), Howell’s father cut and sold timber from his own father’s land in Atlanta for two years, then entered the newspaper field as a reporter and city editor for the Atlanta Intelligencer. Leaving that newspaper briefly, he bought a half interest in the Atlanta Constitution in 1876. Evan Howell lured Henry W. Grady away from a new job at an Augusta newspaper, and Grady later recommended that Evan Howell hire Joel Chandler Harris, thus placing the bedrock for the period’s newspaper.
After graduating from the University of Georgia (UGA) in 1883, Clark Howell served a brief apprenticeship at the New York Times before moving to the Philadelphia Press. By 1884 Howell was back in Atlanta, where he worked as night editor at the Constitution under Grady and Harris.
Political Career and Editorship
A lifelong Democrat, Howell embarked on a political career almost simultaneously with his journalistic apprenticeship. Politics ran in the family. His grandfather had served as an Atlanta judge and his father as a state legislator. In 1885 Howell was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, where he served three terms.
In 1887 he married Harriet Glascock Barrett of Augusta. The couple had two children, Clark Jr. and Susie. Howell’s wife died in 1898.
Howell was assistant managing editor of the Constitution in 1889, the year that Grady died. He soon stepped into Grady’s job while continuing to be active in politics. As managing editor he campaigned against the state’s notorious convict lease system, supported Atlanta’s acceptance of evacuees from a yellow fever epidemic in several southern states, and stood with the governor when he vetoed a bill outlawing football at UGA in the wake of a player’s death. In 1892 he became a Democratic national committeeman and in 1896 a member of the UGA Board of Trustees.
Howell was elected to the Georgia senate in 1900 and became its president. The next year he took over a majority of the newspaper’s stock and married Annie Comer of Savannah, with whom he had three sons, Hugh, Albert, and Julian.
Howell’s final foray into public office came in 1906, when he lost a bitterly fought campaign for the governorship. The primary issue of the election was the debate over disenfranchising Black Georgians, and the tensions resulting from these debates were partly responsible for the outbreak of the Atlanta race riot in September of that year. Howell’s opponent, Hoke Smith, one-time Atlanta Journal owner and secretary of the interior under U.S. president Grover Cleveland, was more strident in his opposition to Black suffrage than Howell and won handily. Though this was his last attempt at elective office, Howell remained an active Democrat and presidential confidant.
In 1922 his second wife died. Two years later he married Margaret Cannon Carr of Durham, North Carolina.
In the 1920s Howell served on the National Coal Commission under U.S. president Warren Harding and on the National Transportation Commission under U.S. president Calvin Coolidge. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt was a longtime correspondent, and Howell was involved in the movement to win him the nomination in 1932. After Roosevelt’s election, he was offered ambassadorships to several smaller nations but rejected them. At Roosevelt’s request he chaired the Federal Aviation Commission in 1934 to study problems in the rapidly growing aviation industry. Some of the committee’s recommendations subsequently became law.
Active in press circles, he was on the board of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association and a director of the Associated Press from 1900 until his death. His duties as newspaper publisher didn’t keep him out of the newsroom entirely, and he launched an investigation into Atlanta corruption that won the newspaper its first Pulitzer Prize, in 1931.
Howell may be regarded as several things: a conscientious journalist, a product of his southern upbringing in matters related to racial equality, a devoted Democrat, a bridge between the North and South, and a transitional figure in southern journalism history. It was Howell who hired Ralph McGill in 1929 at the Constitution. A decade later McGill began to provide moral leadership for his region during a critical period and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper editorials.
Howell was said to be working on an editorial congratulating Roosevelt on the November 1936 reelection when he died at his Atlanta home. His papers are housed in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University.