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Sarah-Ann Shaw will leave ‘big shoes to fill’ for Boston journalists, advocates

Sarah-Ann Shaw was presented with The Open Door Award, on May 8, 2016. In 1969, Shaw became Boston's first female African-American television reporter. Here, she is greeted by a friend after receiving the award.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

For Black History Month, the Globe is featuring profiles on the living civil rights leaders who were named Boston “heroes” on the 1965 Freedom Plaza that surrounds the Embrace sculpture.

”To thine own self be true” — this six-word line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet could serve as the living mantra for Sarah-Ann Shaw‘s decades-long career.

Indeed, Shaw shaped the local media and civil rights scene with her fearless advocacy, her care for her community, and most importantly, her commitment to integrity. While Shaw, 90, couldn’t talk to The Boston Globe for this story, her family members and some of Boston’s most prominent journalists reiterated the characteristics that defined her overarching legacy.

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“She never, ever, ever let up,“ said Callie Crossley, host of GBH’s “Under the Radar,” and former longtime host of “Basic Black.” “She focused on the kinds of things that needed to be addressed, whether people wanted to hear it or not.”

Shaw’s deep Boston roots aided and directed her coverage of the city’s communities. Born Sarah-Ann King, she grew up in Roxbury and attended Boston Public Schools. Shaw was one of the few Black pupils to graduate from the Girls’ Latin School, what’s now Boston Latin Academy, in 1952, and she later studied at Boston University.

Growing up, Shaw participated in the NAACP youth league. She jumped into the Northern Student Movement, to battle injustice against Black people in the northern states, and rubbed shoulders with the minds behind the Freedom Schools and Operation Exodus.

In 1968, Shaw made several appearances on “Say Brother,” the African-American focused public television program now calledBasic Black.” The next year, Shaw was hired as a general assignment reporter at WBZ, and became the first Black woman reporter at the TV station. During a career that spanned until her retirement in 2000, she covered pivotal events in the city’s history, from desegregation to Mel King’s historic mayoral race to Nelson Mandela’s visit to Boston.

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When Shaw worked as a TV reporter, everyone leaned on her to tell their story, said Klare E. Shaw, Sarah-Ann’s daughter.

“We couldn’t even go to the grocery store without people coming up and talking to you about a problem they thought was a story,” she joked.

But the community’s reliance on Sarah-Ann Shaw to tell their stories wasn’t without reason; her reputation was that she approached each task with integrity. Klare Shaw said her mom went the extra mile to amplify positive stories about Boston’s communities of color, and to shed light on movements for better welfare payments or criminal justice reform.

Sarah-Ann Shaw also infused her journalism with empathy. When Roxbury students were bused into South Boston during desegregation, Klare Shaw said her mother made sure to be at the scene to look out for the youth.

“She wanted to be there not just to cover the story, but so the students getting off the buses would see a face they knew, and know someone was there watching their backs,” Shaw said.

Despite retiring more than two decades ago, Sarah-Ann Shaw’s impact on local news is still immense. Jon Keller, political analyst for WBZ, sits at Shaw’s old desk in the newsroom, and sees it as a constant reminder of the trailblazer who paved a way forward for many journalists.

“These are big shoes to fill,” Keller said.

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Keller joined WBZ after Shaw retired, but still interacted with the civil rights leader through her constant feedback on his stories, or by analyzing her large body of work in the news archives. As someone who‘s called on to add his perspective to news events, Keller has a special appreciation for someone like Shaw, whose community roots guided her stories.

“I go beyond reporting to offer perspective and analysis,” he said. “Would that even be possible without the groundwork of people like Sarah-Ann?”

Klare Shaw estimated her mother has received hundreds of awards over her 90 years. As recently as 2022, Shaw, along with Mel King and Clementina Chery, received Torch-Bearer awards for their impacts both locally and nationally.

But Sarah-Ann Shaw’s selection as a 1965 Freedom Plaza honoree stood out among the accolades, her daughter said, because of its ability to bring some of the civil rights movement’s biggest contributors together to reflect on their work.

“So many of these people were in the trenches with her,” Klare Shaw said. “We wouldn’t even have a Michelle Wu without these folks; things would’ve been stuck the way they were.“

This story was produced by the Globe’s Money, Power, and Inequality team, which covers the racial wealth gap in Greater Boston. You can sign up for the newsletter here.


Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her @tianarochon.