ABOVE PHOTO: Ira Lewis, editor and later president of the Pittsburgh Courier, back row, far left, at the annual meeting of the Negro National League on January 28, 1922 in Chicago. (Photo / Wikimedia)
By Marylynne Pitz
PITTSBURGH – As a teenager, Robert Lee Vann plowed fields with an ox under the scorching North Carolina sun. But he did not plant seeds of righteousness until he came north for an education.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with bachelor’s and law degrees, the young attorney began writing for a weekly newspaper called The Pittsburgh Courier in 1910. His goal, he wrote, was “to eliminate all remnants of Jim Crowism in Pittsburgh”.
For over 40 years, the Courier’s Crusades laid the foundation for the civil rights movement and at one time had 350,000 readers in the US and overseas. Journalists advocated fairer hiring practices, better housing and health care, and the integration of jobs, including the military and sports.
“The people who worked there liked what they were doing and felt strong about the newspaper’s mission. They believed in the mission they were on – eradicating black inequality, “said Patrick S. Washburn, retired professor at Ohio University and author of The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom.
The newspaper was “one of the best things ever to happen to the black race,” said Ida Grant, the late courier receptionist, to Ken Love in his 2009 documentary, Newspaper of Record: The Pittsburgh Courier.
In barbershops and beauty salons, people passed on expenses and met prominent leaders in their community who were worth emulating, politics, society news, crime, and the paperback problems that were affecting their daily lives. You will read columns by WEB Du Bois, George Schuyler and Frank Bolden, a World War II correspondent.
Edna Chappelle McKenzie and photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris recorded the inability of blacks to enjoy a cup of coffee or a meal in Pittsburgh restaurants. The fashionably dressed Evelyn Cunningham, called “Big East” because she was tall and based in Harlem, covered lynchings and introduced readers to a young minister, Martin Luther King Jr.
In the 1950s, George E. Barbour revealed how few blacks worked in the Pittsburgh and Allegheny Counties government. During World War II, PL Prattis toured separate camps for the military, describing the shameful conditions black soldiers lived in the US while Frank Bolden recorded the conflict overseas. JA Rogers wrote “Your History,” a fun graphic illustration feature on black history.
The Pittsburgh Courier is located in a brick building with tall windows at 2628 Center Ave. in the Hill District and bought its own printing press in 1929. His newsroom led the way in the 20th century, including boxer Joe Louis, baseball star Jackie Robinson, union leader A. Philip Randolph, a future Supreme Court Justice named Thurgood Marshall, and entertainers Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington.
In the 1930s, Washburn said, the two biggest influences on black Americans were ministers, who could reach 5,000 people a week, and the black press. In that decade, The Pittsburgh Courier had an average of 190,000 readers nationwide.
A new deal
Vann was dissatisfied with the Republican Party and President Herbert Hoover’s failure to help black Americans during the Great Depression. In 1932 he acted as a lifelong Republican who worshiped Abraham Lincoln for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and became the New Deal Democrats.
The editorial “This Year I See Millions of Negroes Putting Abraham Lincoln’s Picture on the Wall” influenced many black voters and led them to support Democratic candidates in the 1930s.
When the courier hit the 100,000-copy mark in 1935, staff signed an issue as it rolled off the presses and handed it to Vann. The following year, circulation more than doubled, in part due to the newspaper’s coverage of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Joe Louis’ boxing ring victories, and the Berlin Olympics, which saw a black athletics star, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals.
In the 1940s and 50s, the Courier returned in support of Republican presidential candidates, supporting Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, and Dwight Eisenhower. But it was impossible to support Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Lyndon Johnson endorsed it.
When Vann died in 1940, his widow Jessie took command, relying on managing director Ira Lewis as financial advisor and newsroom veterans such as Bolden and Prattis.
“Women were just beginning to inherit or run their husbands’ businesses. There were still states where women weren’t allowed to inherit their husbands business, ”said Pamela E. Walck, assistant professor in the media department at Duquesne University. She is researching a book tentatively titled “Voices of The Pittsburgh Courier: Ms. Robert Vann and the Men and Women of America’s Best Weekly”. “
A letter from James Gratz Thompson, a 26-year-old employee of the Kansas Black Cafeteria, sparked the Courier’s most successful crusade, his “Double Victory” campaign during World War II. While black soldiers risked their lives in Europe, Thompson declared war on racism and the lack of opportunities at home.
“Should I sacrifice my life to live half-American?” he wrote. “Would it be too much to demand full citizenship rights in return for sacrificing my life?”
The Double-V campaign has caught on nationally, said Earnest L. Perry, assistant dean of graduate studies and research at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
“It helped the Courier oust the (Chicago) Defender as the leading African American newspaper in the country at this particular time,” he said.
“The courier had offices in cities across the country and a dozen special editions for states and cities. His writers were stationed in France and England during the war. They had an international audience, ”said Ms. Walck.
After America entered World War II, national companies began placing more ads for tobacco, alcohol, and automobiles in black newspapers.
“They knew there was a market,” said Perry. “Big Tobacco was one of the main national advertisers that traditionally stayed with the black press.”
The death of courier manager Ira Lewis in 1948 was a blow to the newspaper. With the help of loyal employees, Ms. Vann tried to keep the water afloat in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, she sold a controlling stake in Courier to SB Fuller, a Chicago businessman who made a fortune in cosmetics. His attempt to weaken the newspaper’s advocacy during the rise of the civil rights movement failed.
“We had so many black soldiers stationed abroad during World War II. They suddenly found that the Jim Crow laws that they keep low in the US don’t exist elsewhere, ”she said.
As the movement intensified in the 1960s, mainstream newspapers began hiring black reporters to cover protests, riots, and other events.
“Big mainstream newspapers realized that they needed writers to cover it. They had to compete with television, ”said Ms. Walck.
Meanwhile, major national advertisers shifted advertising dollars back into the mainstream media, and black newspapers failed.
In 1963 Ms. Vann was ousted from the Kurier’s board of directors. Three years later, John Sengstacke of The Chicago Defender bought the paper and renamed it The New Pittsburgh Courier. For another week, the focus shifted to a local audience.
“The Pittsburgh church thought it was Jessie who sold to Sengstacke that she betrayed the black church. That is completely wrong, ”said Ms. Walck.
In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s black newspapers struggled as mainstream media expanded coverage and advertising revenue continued to decline.
“They didn’t have the capital to tune in a dime, like the old media does,” Perry said.
“The National Newspaper Publishers Association has been trying to build a national brand for the Black Press from both a print and digital standpoint, and they are venturing into the cable business.”
Few companies or individuals are willing to get involved financially in print media, regardless of who it belongs to, Perry said.
“To be able to make money in the media, you have to invest in them. Very few people or organizations not only have the resources, but also the willingness to invest in them over the long term. The venture capitalists like Alden Global Capital will not do that. “