Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

‘Won’t Back Down’ in Pittsburgh

26 Aug

“He went to my high school!” I gestured excitedly in the movie theater last night. It was during the preview of “Won’t Back Down,” a film scheduled for release in late September. The cast includes Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ving Rhames and Holly Hunter. And it also features Bill Nunn, whose father and grandfather worked with my father at the Pittsburgh Courier. Bill, well, we called him “Bubby,” also is a Morehouse grad.

Bill Nunn with Elizabeth Banks in Spider-man. Source: The Pittsburgh Courier

What I hadn’t noticed until I got home to read up on the film, is that it was shot in Pittsburgh.

And it’s about parents who take a stand to make sure their kids get the quality education they are entitled to. Gotta love that.

I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’ll try not to judge it based on the trailer, which seems pretty high on cheese.

I’ll go see it, though, just to see Bubby, who plays the school principal, and the Pittsburgh skyline, which makes my heart flutter.

Lamman Rucker traces his roots

2 Mar lamman_great_migration

My nephew, actor Lamman Rucker was in Barbados last week and was the talk of the town. Several local news outlets and blogs noted his arrival. Nationnews.com did a nice write up on him. Check it out.

He also did a nice video for Amtrak’s Black History month series “My Black Journey.”

Lamman Rucker’s Great Migration Story from MYBLACK JOURNEY on Vimeo.

*Editors note. Lamman mentions in the video that Ebenezer worked for the New York Amsterdam News. He actually spent most of his years in Harlem at the New York Age, the rival Harlem paper at the time. Of course, since this is a continuing journey and we don’t know the whole story, I can’t say definitively that he never worked for the Amesterdam.

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

Happy Birthday, Sis

17 Sep

Today is my sister Malaya’s birthday. She is my parents’ second born, a dancer, storyteller, stage mother, earth mother – an artist in every sense of the word. It was preordained. Before she was Nana Malaya Rucker-Oparabea, the name she uses now, she was Marian, named for Marian Anderson.

Marian-Malaya Rucker-Oparabea

I always knew my mother revered the renowned contralto. My mother  admired Anderson’s quiet dignity in the face of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who refused let Anderson sing before an integrated audience in Washington’s Constitution Hall.  To my mother,  Anderson’s victorious concert on Easter Sunday 1939, before  a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial was a milestone in black history.

But for my father the connection may have been more personal. Marian Anderson was  his contemporary. They were both born at the end of the 19th century.  I believe he was smitten.

“With scores of her elated and admiring auditors standing at the footlights literally drinking the melodious strains which flowed from the fountain of her golden voice, Marian Anderson, internationally acclaimed contralto, sang a farewell number on Sunday evening last, he wrote in a review that appeared on the front page of the New York Age on May 14, 1938. “This was Miss Anderson’s final appearance in America this season and was given at the Carnegie Hall.”

After that concert, my father wrote, well wishers “of both races then repaired to her dressing room to shake hands with her and tender their congratulations. She was presented with a beautiful bouquet of tea roses.”  I suppose he witnessed this firsthand. (Did he offer the roses?)

In a Nov. 13, 1943 review of a Pittsburgh concert, also written for the New York Age, Ebenezer called Anderson the “world’s greatest contralto.”

“Miss Anderson was in excellent voice and charmingly gowned,” he wrote. His only complaint was that the “motley” Pittsburgh audience was too subdued.  Yes, there were plenty of compliments from the audience as they left Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, where the performance was held.

“To this erstwhile New Yorker, however, two things were missing from this recital. There were no shouts of ‘Bravo’ from the ‘peanut gallery,’ which was only two tiers up, and there were no American Beauty roses, nor orchids. In brief, Miss Anderson received no flowers. But this is Pittsburgh!”

Ebenezer would come to love, or at least accept, Pittsburgh. He would fall in love with my mother and out of that love would come three daughters, the second of whom was born on this date.

Malaya is very different from her namesake. She leans more toward classical African and Caribbean beats than Scarlatti or Schubert. Of course, these two women came of age in different times. I can only imagine what Malaya would have told the DAR. She might have even taken over the stage.

I’ve often wondered why the only one of the three of us who was named after a historical figure would change her name. The answer is simple. Malaya always has been, and will forever be, her own person.

Happy Birthday, Malaya!

Black valedictorians: the sound of history repeating?

30 Jul

Kymberly Wimberly

Kymberly Wimberly, a 2011 graduate of McGehee Secondary School in Arkansas,  is suing  her school district and its officials, claiming they violated her constitutional right to equal treatment under the law.

According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit claims that a school counselor told Wimberly’s mother in May that the girl had the school’s highest grade point average in the graduating class, but later the mother, who works at the school,  overheard a conversation in which staff said there would be a “big mess” if a black girl stood alone as valedictorian. A white female student was selected to serve as “co-valedictorian,” and both gave speeches at their May 13 graduation.

(According to reports, the school, whose black population is about 46 percent, has had a black valedictorian before, but not since 1989.)

The district’s superintendent, who is black,  told an Arkansas television station that “the second girl took more classes and that a school rule prevents extra course work from penalizing students when calculating grade point averages.”  After they did the math, the superintendent said, the two students’ GPAs were the same.

Sounds like fuzzy math to me, but now it’s in the hands of the court.

Fannetta Nelson Gordon

This tale brings to mind the story of the late Fannetta Nelson Gordon, who in April of this year posthumously received the valedictory recognition she had been denied for 75 years.

Nelson Gordon, who happens to have been the aunt of my oldest friend, Rev. Melana Nelson-Amaker, attended Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School and in 1936 would have been the school’s second black valedictorian. Her sister, Sophia Phillips Nelson, now in her 90s, was the school’s first black valedictorian in 1934. According to a story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “the principal said the school would not have another black valedictorian. So, he pressured a music teacher to change her grades.”

Ebenezer Ray, The New York Age, Oct. 31, 1936

Both sisters were honored by the high school’s alumni association this spring, and the story made national news. We all felt good that even though Nelson Gordon did not live to receive the recognition, an injustice had been righted.

But now we have the Wimberly case. ColorofChange.org is encouraging those who find this case troubling to write to school district officials. It’s not just about Wimberly, they say:

“McGehee and other school districts around the country should be encouraging all prepared students to challenge themselves academically. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Last year, Black students made up 15 percent of graduating seniors, but accounted for just 9 percent of students taking AP exams. Black students trail far behind White, Asian and Latino students in terms of participation in AP classes, and educators have a responsibility to provide equal access to and preparation for college-level coursework. Kymberly is the rare example of the student whose family believed she could excel in high-level classes, despite what some adults at school told her and students who look like her.”

And however the lawsuit turns out, Wimberly has already won.

Not only did she take   — and ace  — Advanced Placement and honors courses, earning only one B in her entire high school career, according to reports, she had a baby during her junior year and still excelled. (Which, in addition to race, is likely the other elephant in McGehee’s living room.)

“My teachers thought I’d fall flat on my face, but I kept trying to succeed,” she said.

Congratulations, Kymberly, and as they say, “Keep gettin’ up.”

Rethinking my parents’ marriage

11 Feb Mom_rockefeller_ctr

My parents’ wedding certificate

Finding my father’s columns has got me thinking a lot about my parents’ marriage. To be honest, I always thought my mother had been robbed. She was an independent woman, had a career as a social worker. She’d worked her way through junior college, then through Morgan State – the first in her nuclear family to graduate from college. She also was the only one of her siblings who moved beyond Newark/New York area to Pittsburgh. Marriage and babies were the farthest thing from her mind, she one said.
Then she fell in love. And in my mind, that is where it all started to go bad. My mother gave up her career when they started a family. The way she told it, my father told her when she was pregnant with my sister Ellen-Marie, that if she did not quit her job he would go to the YWCA and “quit it for her.” He took his responsibility as a breadwinner seriously.
The only thing was, once Parkinson’s Disease rendered him unable to work, she had to figure out how to make a living. She was mother to my sisters and me; a substitute teacher in some of the most unruly classrooms in the city; and private duty nurse to my father. 24/7. She didn’t complain much, but it looked hard.
I often wondered what she saw in my father who by then seemed an old, sick unhappy man.

Now I know. The man she met and fell in love with was gentleman with an agile mind, a worldly perspective, a love of language, politics and culture and maybe some New York property. A man who had traveled from Barbados, which must have seemed an exotic land, to a New York soon to be in the throes of the Harlem Renaissance. I imagine he wooed her with his stories. He must have been smitten by her spunk and beauty.
I haven’t found many photos of them together. As my mother wrote on the back of this photo he took of her in Rockefeller Center, he was a “camera bug.”

“I was vexed with him. We’d been walking all over New York it seemed. I had on high heels and dressed in my best seersucker suit. Note the gloves and hat. Persons were properly dressed then (smile.) Believe it or not, I was about 26 or 27, well before Ellen was born.”

What a gift to have this memory.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

The black press: A beacon of light in the racial darkness

6 Feb

Credit: Library of Congress

If you plan to be in Pittsburgh between Feb. 11 and Oct. 2, check out “America’s Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier,” which will be on exhibit at the Heinz History Center.  The Courier, where my father worked when I was a young girl in Pittsburgh, is celebrating 100 years of service to the black community.  In its heyday, the Courier had 400 employees and its readership spanned the country.  The Courier was a strong voice against segregation and particularly lynching. Pullman porters were enlisted to surreptitiously “drop” the papers along their Southern train routes.

“These papers were not welcomed in those states and oftentimes were confiscated and destroyed to keep African-Americans from reading newspapers,” Samuel Black, the exhibit’s curator, said in a recent interview with CBS Pittsburgh.

Robert Lavelle, an old family friend, who as a young man was responsible for coming up with those delivery routes,  was interviewed for The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, a film by award-winning  filmmaker  Stanley Nelson.  Lavelle said that even though Pittsburgh was a relatively small city, the Courier had a name well beyond its borders  “because it had tried to reach out to black people, no matter where they were, and we would try to send papers to those people. And as the people in those places became more numerous in terms of circulation, then those people would get a column in the Courier and maybe even on the front page of the Courier,  and pretty soon that place had an edition of the Courier. So the Courier developed 13 editions and we would send papers to these various,  regional places like the Midwest edition, the New England edition, the Chicago edition, the Philadelphia edition, and the Southern edition  . . .  We’d send them down by seaboard airline, Atlantic coastline railroad, down through Florida and all those places.”

My cousin Russell Williams

On a personal note, my cousin Russell Williams recalls a visit his family made to Pittsburgh:
“Back in 1958, as my father finished his Ph.D. at Michigan State, we traveled back to South Carolina (where he taught at SC State), and we stopped in Pittsburgh to see Ebenezer and Mary Ray and their three daughters (Mary was my father’s favorite cousin).  I remember Ebenezer taking us to the Pittsburgh Courier offices to show us how a newspaper was produced, and I carried home with me a souvenir (a piece of type) from that trip — a very interesting keepsake to my just-turned-seven-years-old
mind.  Years later, I came to understand the important role that the Courier played nationally, and was very proud that I had a relative who had contributed to that impact.”

As I was four years old at the time and have no recollection of that visit, I was moved by Russell’s  story.

Well before my father moved to Pittsburgh and joined the Courier, he tipped his hat to the Negro press as well. In 1935, the New York Age celebrated its 50th anniversary.

 

New York Age Nov. 2, 1935

“For fifty years, The Age has lived; for fifty years it has been an articulate voice of the Negro race; for fifty years it has weathered economic storms; for that period it has outlived its own shortcomings, and the shortcomings of the people it set out to serve,” Ebenezer wrote in a column published Nov. 2, 1935. “On the threshold of its new era, it is natural that it pauses to look back on its past on the path it has tread, a path strewn with pitfalls, a path decorated with the glory of achievement; a path nonetheless dotted with journalistic wrecks. Much of the paper’s success must be measured in the friends it has made; much of its power can be measured in the enemies it has made. No man can get very far without creating a few enemies here and there. The man whom everyone loves is insincere. The Age‘s supporters flaunt its greatness; to many it is a beacon [of] light in this — their world of racial darkness.”

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