ORLANDO, Fla. – For someone who spent his 50-year career behind the camera, Tee Taylor is no stranger to the spotlight.
Taylor was hired at News 6 in 1970, becoming the first Black photojournalist at the station. Decades later, he’s considered a pioneer in the Orlando market and is easily recognizable from his appearance in promos and his work in the field.
But he fought hard to earn that recognition.
When he started at the station in 1970, management was glad to have him on board but he didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome from all of his new colleagues.
“It was out of the norm to have a person of color walking around the station. One guy, he said kind of funny, ‘Damn, we got one of them now,’ and it bothered the manager I was walking around with,” Taylor said.
The manager offered an apology but Taylor told him to save it. He knew what he was getting into and he was prepared to take on any animosity that was bound to come his way with patience and a sense of humor.
“I had the right temperament for the injustice that I would face, not so much within the station, but covering different stories where people had never seen a person of color with the camera. And, you know, I was kind of preparing for the reaction I was going to get,” Taylor said.
In fact, most of the time he anticipated encountering hate and ignorance.
“Actually there were times when people didn’t say anything derogatory or racist, I would say, ‘What’s wrong? Somebody’s got to say something.’ But temperament and patience and understanding, knowing, you know, the path that I was kind of creating and the standard that I had set and basically lived by that even though people are going to come at you mainly because the color of your skin,” Taylor said.
Taylor was of course no stranger to discrimination. He was born in Quincy, a small city in Florida’s Panhandle, in 1948 and grew up in segregation.
He got a Social Security card at age 5 and started working in the tobacco fields all the way through high school, first earning $10 per week and later $20. He joked that there were no child labor laws back then but he said ultimately, he views the experience as a positive one.
“When school was out, schools were segregated back then, the Black kids, we always got out a month early before the white kids because we all worked in the tobacco fields. It really wasn’t a negative because we were making money,” Taylor said.
He used the cash to help support his mother and prepare himself for the upcoming academic year.
After he graduated from high school, he spent four years working as a police officer within the U.S. Air Force. While there, he got his first taste of what it was like to be in an integrated society.
“You still had the problems of dealing with people but you found out that there are some people of different colors that was glad to mingle with each other because growing up in segregation for a lot of people, you often wonder what the other side was like,” Taylor said. “Joining the military gave you an opportunity to experience that. And there were good times and bad times just like life period but it afforded me an opportunity to really get out and enjoy the world and mingle with other people.”
When his time in the Air Force was up, he knew he wasn’t “college material” because he had a bit of a “scatterbrain” despite being smart. Instead he set his sights on becoming a police officer.
But that dream was short-lived.
“It was just all in the cards for me out of high school to join the Air Force and then it was still in the cards for me out of the Air Force to six days later to start working in television, which I had no idea what television was all about. But it was all part of a grand plan for me to do that,” Taylor said.
It was by sheer chance that the opportunity presented itself. Taylor said he was watching TV in the early morning hours since that was the only time the Black movies were on when a public service announcement aired letting minority men and women know about available jobs.
He took down the number and applied the next day.
“I basically told them (I came) for the job and I see a career for me and I’m not going to take no for an answer. And the question was, ‘Have you worked in TV before?’ The obvious answer was no, not too many Black people that worked in TV before,” Taylor said. “So no, I hadn’t worked but I’m willing to make it work and I just got a feeling.”
His intuition was right. He initially started in the production department, timing shows with stopwatches and sliding weather maps in and out behind the set. He said he easily mastered the new skills.
Ben Aycrigg, the first reporter ever hired at News 6, saw Taylor’s potential and offered to move him to the news department about two years into his tenure.
He saw the cameras and said, “That’s what I want to do.”
Taylor said he was a natural.
“I had a pretty good eye for just knowing how things should look through the lens of a camera. They said, ‘You’ve got something here, do you want to be a photographer?’ and I said,’ Yes.’ And boom, that’s how cameraman Tee started,” he said.
When asked about the highlights of his career, Taylor can rattle off a laundry list of experiences any journalist would kill for: He’s received advice from Walter Cronkite during an intimate meeting, he’s covered 12 Super Bowls, visited Tokyo for the opening of the Disney park there, covered NBA games in 28 cities, traveled to Paris and Switzerland, covered countless launches, including during the Apollo era, and been all over the world.
Of all those milestones, the one that’s had the most impact is his first trip abroad not long after he started working as a photographer in 1972. While in Senegal, he visited Gorée Island, the home of The House of Slaves.
“This is where 400, almost 500 years ago, they amassed all the slaves to be put on boats and to be shipped to the southeast coast of America. And the history of this island, what my ancestors went through, was very eye-opening and it made me appreciate what I had back here in America,” Taylor said.
He kissed the ground when he arrived back at Orlando International Airport.
“What I saw and heard there made me appreciate what my ancestors had went through. All the horrible, horrible stories I heard they went through,” Taylor said.
Taylor also holds near and dear the memories of the people he’s met and the lives he’s changed. He recalled being followed in the field by young journalists hoping to learn from the best, meeting a police officer who remembered Taylor letting him hold the camera when he was just a boy and Taylor was doing a teach-in at his school and even strangers approaching him because they had seen him on TV.
“I’m very comfortable being recognized now but even doing it for 47 years before the commercials, I took the recognition and wore it as a badge of honor. But when the commercial started that just took it to a whole different level. And like I say, even to this day, I could go somewhere and they go ‘Tee, Channel 6, Getting Results’ and that’s a good feeling, it really is,” Taylor said.
And it wasn’t just the newbies he looked to Taylor for advice. News 6 chief photographer Darran Caudle said he’s picked up some tips and tricks, too.
“Over the years, a few things that I have learned from Tee is that you are as good as your last story, to create your own luck, shoot and edit with feeling and most of all have fun with your craft,” Caudle said. “What I admire the most about Tee is his passion for TV news and mentoring as well as his hard work and dedication. Everyone learns from Tee to keep things simple.”
Even Emily Barr, the CEO of Graham Media Group, knows Taylor’s knowledge and impact is invaluable.
“There is no one more dedicated to his work than Tee Taylor. He has forever understood the connection between meaningful news coverage and the community he serves. A deeply caring and talented photojournalist, Tee has mentored countless reporters, producers and photographers and this lucky CEO who is eternally grateful for having worked with him,” Barr said.
Given his reputation and prestige, Taylor believes he helped pave the way for more Black men and women to break into the industry.
“Well, it really makes me feel good, I always want to be humble about it and say it was gonna happen. If it wasn’t me that was hired, it would have been somebody else. But once again, I was born and that was part of my job description, is to be a role model and to do it right,” Taylor said.
Now, Taylor operates at a much more leisurely pace as he prepares for retirement. Rather than bouncing from crime scene to car crash, he spends his days running errands and getting some much-deserved rest.
He said at 72, he’s had his share of traveling and adventures and just wants to relax.
“The fact that for 50 years, I’ve gotten my applause and when I reached the 50-year milestone, I got my applause. And so now that I’m getting ready to retire, I don’t need the applause anymore,” Taylor said. “I want to be humble about it and just kind of do it quietly.”
News 6 general manager Jeff Hoffman said Taylor will be sorely missed.
“It’s hard to overstate Tee’s contribution to WKMG and to all of Central Florida,” Hoffman said. “Some people are one in a million. Tee Taylor is once in a lifetime.”
Be sure to go to ClickOrlando.com/RealTalk at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 17 to hear more from Taylor and the other panelists during the Real Talk: Obstacles and Opportunities town hall. You can submit questions using the form below.