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 Continue reading

No rest for the weary

16 Jan

Riding the midnight train from San Francisco to Palo Alto the other night, a man sat across from me and politely asked if I was expecting anyone to take the seat next to mine.  When I said no, he stretched his legs out, placed his sneakered feet on the seat and proceeded to take a nap.

My blood boiled. Not with the anticipation that I was going to have to wake him up when it was time for me to get off the train (which I did).  Not because he was old enough (50 plus) to know that his feet, no matter how clean they seemed, did not belong on the “furniture.”

My blood boiled because he could enjoy the privilege of resting easy because he was white.

I should add that he was white, apparently middle class and well groomed; no one would mistake him for a homeless person in search of a night’s shelter.

My blood boiled because had he been a black or Latino man of any age, well-groomed or not, had he been a passenger on a New York subway rather than Caltrain, he would likely have been arrested and carted off to jail.

A New York Times article “Relax, if you want, but don’t put your feet up,” published earlier this month, precipitated my rage.  The article chronicles the New York Police Department’s practice of arresting passengers who take up more than one seat, deliberately or inadvertently, or block the movement of the doors. Continue reading

Kaara Baptiste’s first assignment

12 Jan

Last summer when Kaara Baptiste asked for my advice about getting into journalism, I refrained from telling the young Stanford graduate to run as fast as she could from a field that seems to be on life support.

What I did suggest was that she get out there and write, do some freelancing.  I don’t remember whether it was Baptiste or I who first introduced the idea of  contacting  Henrietta Burroughs, a tireless wonder who publishes East Palo Alto Today, a community newspaper.  It was Baptiste who followed up with Burroughs and landed her first assignment: Me.

Here’s a link to the article, “Journalist Elaine Ray finds her roots.”

Great job, Kaara.

‘I have learned to be racial’ and other observations after 11 years in America

31 Dec

In a column my father wrote on the eve of the new year in 1934, he recalls seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time 11 years earlier. He arrived on Ellis Island aboard the SS Fort Victoria on Nov. 1, 1923 at age 26, 48 hours after leaving Bermuda, where he worked as a printer for six months.

His entry seemed relatively easy. From the sound of it, he passed the physical and intelligence tests and the interrogations immigrants were put through fairly handily and headed straight for Harlem.

The biggest tests were yet to come: As he put it, he had to learn to be racial, to understand Jim Crow, both the southern and northern varieties. He had to weather the Great Depression and witness America’s promise and its shortcomings.

Although I lived in New York for several years in the 80s and still often see the city as a second home, it was not until this week that I set out like a tourist and visited the Ellis Island Museum and Liberty Island, where I finally saw the Lady up close.

It was probably divine intervention that kept me from there until now. It has so much more resonance.

Happy New Year, dear readers. Thanks for taking this journey with me.

Continue reading

Langston Hughes, my father, Joseph Stalin and Jesus

23 Dec

I don’t yet know what my father thought of Langston Hughes‘ work in general, or whether their circles crossed in Harlem. But just after  Christmas Day in 1940, Ebenezer had some choice words for one of  Hughes’ most controversial poems, titled Goodbye Christ. Here’s the poem:

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day, I reckon—
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible—
But it’s dead now,
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers—
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s Church,
Even to THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
You ain’t no good no more.
They’ve pawned you
Till you’ve done wore out.

Goodbye,
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all—
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME—
I said, ME!
Continue reading

Not a different government, but a better one

11 Dec

Since Wednesday, Dec. 7, the 70th anniversary of  Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, I’ve been trying to get to the library to see what my father wrote about the bombing and/or the United State’s entry into World War II.

Here’s what he wrote in a column published in the New York Age Dec. 20, 1941:

“The war which has engulfed all Europe for the past two years and brought about the downfall of about five times as many nations, has come to these United States. At times it has been said to be a white man’s war, but more often it has been conceded to be a war which effects all peoples. The latter is especially true at this time.

“Japan, in its tri-partite alliance with Mr. Hitler and Il Duce, is the one to strike the blow; her two partners in crime join the fracas with expected precision. Mr. Hitler has designs on dominating the world in what he calls a ‘new order,’ which is the same old slavery humans have known down the ages dressed up in twentieth century clothes. Mr. Hitler includes all peoples of the world in his new order, and that includes Japan and Italy which, because of its military weakness and Mussolini’s gullibility, is already under Hitler’s heel. He includes the people of the U.S.  because the ultra-freedom they enjoy would have psychological effect on his slaves in Europe.  They would yearn for the same things.”

Ebenezer takes on fellow columnist George Schuyler, who apparently continued to view Hitler as little different from imperialist Britain.  In the early years of the war, many other black journalists had urged America to not throw stones at Hitler while injustice marred its own glass house. Many changed their minds when U.S. Navy ships were  attacked.
Continue reading

Should Negroes be thankful?

20 Nov

In 1934, the United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression. The Scottsboro Boys had been locked up for more than three years. Lynchings were rampant, and many states still denied black folks the right to vote.

Ebenezer was not pleased.

“Three hundred and 11 years ago, a disconsolate group of humans who have since come to be known as the Pilgrim Fathers were facing their second winter of hunger, cold and peril,” my father wrote in his column published Dec. 1, 1934. [In the age of linotype, I suppose it was customary for the Thanksgiving column to come out after Thanksgiving.] “The spring crop of corn had been withered by a long drought; the vegetable gardens had been destroyed by fire. A day of prayers was declared, which was followed by a refreshing rain. Almost simultaneously a ship loaded with friends and supplies was sighted. The Governor proclaimed a day ‘for public thanksgiving.’”

My father went on to add that since that day in 1623, the United States had celebrated other days of thanksgiving in the midst of national crises:

“In the first year of his office, President Washington issued a proclamation making Nov. 26, [1789] [Typo alert! The actual column says 1879] a day of ‘national thanksgiving’ for the establishment of a government designed for safety and happiness. When the Civil War was slowly drawing to an end, President Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as a day of national thanksgiving ‘for the defense against unfriendly designs without and signal victories over the enemy who is of our own household.’”

But what did Thanksgiving mean for black people in America in 1934?

“As another Thanksgiving Day approaches, can the Negro as a race really be thankful for many material blessings? . . . Even the individual materialist may have much to be thankful for – he may be in good health, his family as well, he may even have a job and everyone knows that that is much to be thankful for nowadays. Yet the Negro as a race still needs much to complete his reasons for Thanksgiving Day in this anno domini 1934. He is still the victim of ruthless exploitation by an unyielding capitalist system; he is still being denied many constitutional rights as a citizen, including the right to vote in many states; he is still being discriminated against even under the dome of the nation’s capitol; he is still the victim of brutal lynchings. Nine Negro boys are nearing their fourth year of incarceration in an unsympathetic Alabama prison for a crime they did not commit, while a coterie of lawyers strive valiantly, but almost ineffectively to stave off a legal lynching of them.

“The Negro still needs sound reasons for a real honest-to-goodness Thanksgiving — his winter is still on, his ‘corn is still withered’ his ‘ship loaded with friends and supplies’ still to be sighted; his ‘government . .. for safety and happiness’ has not yet been established.’”

So, as Thanksgiving 2011 approaches, those of us fortunate enough to be employed, to have homes, health and abundance should be grateful. We also should continue the fight for those among us who continue to endure the chill of injustice.

Here’s the column in its entirety:

Continue reading

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