The power of the Pittsburgh Courier

28 Feb


When I was a kid. The Pittsburgh Courier was the place my father worked.  It was one of several newspapers on the coffee table, albeit the only one that featured people who looked like me or people we knew.  Later, it was the employer that issued rubber paychecks, the company that kept my ailing father on the payroll as long as it could, the source of my mother’s conflicted feelings about black-owned publications. (When I called her from a pay phone in Rockefeller Plaza in 1981, breathless that I’d just landed my dream job at Essence, my mother’s response was, “Will you have health insurance?”)

But the Courier and the people who worked there shaped my personal and professional life far more than I would know.  More importantly, it shaped the history of America, particularly in politics and sports.

The Courier was founded in 1910 by Nathaniel Harleston – a security guard at the pickle factory, H.J. Heinz Company – and several other black Americans. Around that time, African Americans were pouring into Pittsburgh from the South to take jobs in the city’s booming steel mills.

Robert L. Vann, who as an undergraduate at what is now the University of Pittsburgh was the first black man to serve as editor of the university’s student newspaper and later was the first black to earn a law degree from there, started out as the Courier’s incorporating attorney. Shortly thereafter, however, he became its editor, its principal stockholder and its publisher. Vann was key to building the paper’s readership and propelling it into its role as a national leader in national and international politics.

According to an article in Pitt Magazine, the newspaper was the “top-selling and most widely circulated newspaper for blacks nationwide in the 1930s with 14 separate editions delivered nationally every week.” At one point, it also had readers in Europe, Cuba, Canada and the West Indies.

Samuel W. Black, curator of African-American collections at Pittsburgh's Heinz History Center, where "America's Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier" is currently on exhibit until June 2, 2012.

Samuel W. Black, curator of African-American collections at the Heinz History Center, where America’s Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier,  is currently on exhibit, said the Courier was one of the first black weeklies to engage foreign correspondents. Author Joel Augustus “J.A.” Rogers, for instance, traveled to Europe and other parts of the world, covering blacks in the military during the world wars and interviewing such figures as Emperor Haile Sellassi during the Italian Ethiopian war. Other reporters were hired to go undercover to report on the Ku Klux Klan.

Even as Vann built the paper’s circulation to hundreds of thousands, he leveraged his legal and political skills. Before the 1932 presidential election, most African Americans leaned Republican, the party of Lincoln.  But Vann urged readers to “turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall,” and throw their support behind the Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Vann’s influence significantly helped Roosevelt to win the election, and the president appointed Vann a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general.  While in that role from 1933 to 1935, Vann wrote regularly to FDR urging him to establish a standing black unit in the army commanded by an African American. Vann argued that it would provide a basis for black advancement in the military.

“He had been urging Roosevelt to do this for a long time,” Black said. “Two things came out of this, one was the appointment of Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. and the other was the establishment of what became the Tuskegee Airmen.”

According to ExplorePAHistory.com, it was not until after Vann’s death in Oct. 1940 that FDR appointed Davis, Sr. to be the first African-American brigadier general in American history.  And even after Vann’s death the paper continued its legacy of advocacy.  “In the spirit of its deceased editor, the Courier, in the same issue that it ran Vann’s obituary, editorialized that the elevation of Davis and two other African Americans in the Roosevelt administration was ‘too little and too late.’”

Ultimately, though, Davis, Sr.’s son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. would command the legendary all-black flying unit.

During a visit to the Heinz history center last fall, Black offered a fact-filled history of the Courier from its founding to its current iteration as the New Pittsburgh Courier.  My primary interest was in the years leading up to and during my father’s tenure as a printer there.

Here are some highlights:

Dorie Miller Gets His Due.

According to Black, it was the Courier that was responsible shining a spotlight on Dorie Miller.  An African American cook in the U. S. Navy who rescued wounded soldiers during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Miller also took up arms against the Japanese, even though he had no weapons training.

“It was actually the Pittsburgh Courier that made Dorie Miller’s name famous,” Black said, noting that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department filed reports on Miller’s heroics, but never made them public. “In press conferences they mentioned some of the white people, but they never mentioned Miller. The Courier decided to read the report, and it was the Courier who first started talking about Dorie Miller, which forced the Navy to honor him.”
In 1942, Miller was given the Navy Cross, the third highest honor for the Navy at that time, which Black says was a direct result of the Courier’s coverage.

The Double V Campaign

Shortly after the United States entered World War II, The Courier launched The Double V Campaign, under the theme of  “Democracy: Victory at Home, Victory Abroad.”  The campaign’s message was that while blacks were patriotic in their support of the war, they should have full rights on American soil.

When the Courier came out with the Double V Campaign, Black says, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wanted to charge the paper with sedition, accusing it of undermining the war effort.
“The Courier was very open with the FBI and challenged them to find anyone who would say that they were against the war effort because of the Double V Campaign,” Black said, adding that the paper argued that the campaign was in fact an effort to recruit black support for the war. Black said the FBI interviewed everybody on the paper’s staff.  “The FBI never really backed down, but they at least stopped posting agents outside the Courier offices.”

The Integration of Sports

The Courier played a significant role in the careers of boxing’s Joe Louis and baseball’s Jackie Robinson and the integration of the national football league. “I tell people that Joe Louis was in Pittsburgh so often he could have said Pittsburgh was his home and not Detroit. He had friends here, he partied here. The newspaper pretty much took care of him here in Pittsburgh,”Black said

Courier sportswriter and editor Wendell Smith is credited with helping to pave the way for Jackie Robinson’s Major League baseball career.  According to Black, as far back as the 1920s, the Courier’s sports editors advocated for the integration of baseball, even appealing to, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, its legendary commissioner. But it would take another quarter-century of advocacy and behind-the-scenes negotiation before their efforts bore fruit.  Key to this effort was the Courier’s Smith, who arranged for secret tryouts of Robinson and other Negro League players with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Boston Red Sox and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Once Robinson signed on with the Dodgers, the Courier paid for Smith to travel with him in the early, racially charged years.

“Smith was his roommate because no other player would room with him,” Black said. “Plus, in a lot of the cities they went to, he couldn’t stay in the same hotel. So Wendell Smith would make all his arrangements – it’s easier for Smith to do it than some white guy.  So he had to find a boarding house for him in the black community or a hotel. Black says Smith also became Robinson’s sounding board. “After all he went through, he had to vent, and it was Smith who heard all that.”

Black also tells stories about the Courier’s role in the development of black football players beginning in the 1920s and ultimately the integration of a professional football league.  The paper’s sports editors scouted out talent at black colleges and brought them to the attention of the professional leagues.

Just Ordinary Neighbors

Many of the key figures featured in the Courier exhibit were people I thought of as ordinary neighbors. For instance, William G. Nunn, a Courier managing editor from the 1920 – 60s, and his son Bill Nunn, a sportswriter and editor for the paper the 40s – 60s were simply the grandfather and father of our schoolmate “Bubby,” better known as actor Bill Nunn III.  P. L. Prattis, another long-time editor of the paper, was simply the father of my first piano teacher, Patricia.

While some, like the Nunn’s, had fairly long tenures at the paper, many started their careers there as young copy boys, clerks and secretaries before going back to school for advanced degrees and second careers.  Mrs. Edna McKenzie, who by the time I remember her was a mother and teacher, had been a fearless reporter, one of the first females on the paper to abandon the Courier’s “society pages” to expose racially restrictive housing covenants, bias in hiring and accommodations, and lynchings.  In her obituary in 2005, the Pittsburgh Pos- Gazette wrote: “She braved violence and intimidation. Her weapons: a tough spirit, a smile and a pen.”

So, where does my father fit in to all this? That is what I’m exploring.  He came to the Courier in the mid-40s and worked as a printer there for nearly 20 years. I have often wondered why he would leave a culturally rich environment like Harlem for a small steel town. Or why he would the New York Age, where he had his own dedicated column, to work in the Courier’s composing room.

To be sure, the Courier began to decline in the early 60s when it was sold to S.B Fuller, a successful cosmetics manufacturer from Chicago who had less success in the business of journalism. (According to Answers.com, Fuller also became a major shareholder of the New York Age, which began its decline in the early 60s as well.) But in the mid 40s, when my father went to work there the Courier was the gold standard of black newspapers.  I understand why he would want to be a part of it.

Note: In addition to America’s Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier, at the Heinz History Center, there also is an exhibit of the photographs of legendary Courier photographer Teenie Harris at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art. Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story will be on exhibit through April.  

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3 Responses to “The power of the Pittsburgh Courier”

  1. Henrietta J. Burroughs February 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    I wrote the previous post about your informative blog.

  2. Anonymous February 29, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Your posts are always so informative. I can’t begin to tell you how much I learn from each of your posts. Thanks so much for doing what you’re doing. You, yourself, are becoming a part of the history of which you’re writing.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ‘Won’t back down’ in Pittsburgh « My Father's Posts - August 27, 2012

    [...] Hunter. And it also stars Bill Nunn, whose father and grandfather worked with my father at the Pittsburgh Courier. Bill, well, we called him “Bubby,” also is a Morehouse [...]

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