University of Pittsburgh

Power in Black and White

During an era of pervasive segregation, discrimination, and even roadside lynchings, a courageous voice arose to speak the truth about hate and injustice. From a modest office on Pittsburgh’s Centre Avenue, that voice spoke forcefully, thanks to a Pitt-educated publisher and his creative staff, many with University ties. Their work was carried by Pullman porters to cities and towns, coast to coast. Week by week, year by year, The Pittsburgh Courier transformed a nation.

Written by Ervin Dyer


A Courier driver appears to give the latest scoop to a reporter.

A Courier driver appears to give the latest scoop to a reporter.

On Sept. 4, 1935, in four short rounds, boxer Joe Louis delivered three lightning-fast left jabs to the jaw of Max Baer, knocking him out before a crowd of 84,000 in New York City. They were punches heard around the world. The win was also a blow to pervasive segregation and widespread discrimination, and positioned Louis, the so-called Brown Bomber, to become a top contender for the world heavyweight championship. The Associated Press would name him Athlete of the Year. Masses gasped at his speed and power. Like some sort of Black Atlas, Louis carried on his muscular shoulders the pride of African Americans everywhere. With his win, thousands poured into the streets whooping in celebration. It was banner news.

Three hundred miles away, in the bowels of a Pittsburgh press shop, a teenage worker sprang into action. It was his first day—and night—on the job. He had just finished high school; his pay was $40 a month. He was employed by a newspaper that prided itself on 14 separate editions delivered nationally every week. The office phones rang nonstop as people clamored for details about the Louis fight. Some wanted 100 papers or more.

The presses—giant, ink-stained steel engines—stood on the first floor and reached to the ceiling. They churned all night. The teenager—who worked as a pressroom mailer—lifted reams of newsprint, he bundled hundreds of papers, and he routed the national editions so that Pullman porters on U.S. rail lines could quickly distribute them to hundreds of thousands of readers East, West, North, and South.

The young man’s workplace was The Pittsburgh Courier, a now-legendary publication that thrived during the 20th century. In the 1930s, the newspaper was the top-selling and most widely circulated newspaper for Blacks nationwide. At one point, it was also distributed in Europe, Cuba, Canada, and the West Indies.

A three-story brick and mortar beacon of truth, the newspaper’s office sat on Centre Avenue, the main artery of the Hill District, central to Pittsburgh’s Black community. It was the first such newspaper to own its printing presses, and its impact on politics, culture, and daily life was wide-ranging. Over the years, the Courier’s influence helped to spark the U.S. civil rights movement.

The Courier's office and pressroom in Pittsburgh's Hill District.

The Courier's office and pressroom in Pittsburgh's Hill District.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of The Pittsburgh Courier’s birth as a legend, when the fledgling newspaper came under the leadership of Pitt alumnus Robert L. Vann as its publisher and editor in 1910. Vann, an attorney, also served as the paper’s treasurer and legal counsel, and he moved the Courier far beyond its tentative beginnings when aspiring writer Edwin Nathaniel Harleston, who worked as a security guard at the Heinz pickle factory, had founded the publication a few years earlier.

Not surprisingly, the stories of the Courier’s success are intertwined with the aspirations and accomplishments of Pitt graduates. Many in the newspaper’s family—the people whose enterprise changed the nation—were also the sons and daughters of the University of Pittsburgh. As long as there are stories to be written, what these alumni accomplished will be a story worth writing about, beginning with Vann, the Courier’s visionary publisher.

Vann

Vann

Born in 1879, Vann rose from poverty in North Carolina, eventually attending college-preparatory school in Richmond, Va. Attending prep school was common for many Whites during the late 19th century, but rare for Blacks. In Richmond, Vann was influenced by the editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, which railed against Jim Crow segregation laws and the disenfranchisement of Blacks. At the time, the nation practiced segregation, discrimination was rampant, and lynchings were a reality.

In about 1904, Vann arrived in Pittsburgh, where he attended the University on a scholarship, established decades earlier through the endowment of a wealthy White Pittsburgh abolitionist, Charles Avery. At Pitt—then known as the Western University of Pennsylvania—Vann deployed the determination and grit that would lift him into history. On campus, he became a debate champion and the first Black man to serve as editor of the student newspaper. He earned a bachelor’s degree and, in 1909, became the first Black man to graduate with a law degree from Pitt. Within a year, he was among those building the legend of the Pittsburgh Courier, and he was soon leading the newspaper.

A dashing figure with café-au-lait skin and coal-black hair, Vann wore three-piece suits and, during his career, befriended presidents and sports champions. He was a fiercely private man, but he glowed at public events, where he handed out $5 bonuses or state-of-the-art appliances at newspaper promotions. Otherwise, he didn’t mingle much with reporters and was aloof with staff, often retreating to his letter-cluttered office on the second floor to plan coverage. From there, he pushed his journalists to find the story behind the story, and he distinguished himself and the Courier as champions of social causes. The paper confronted segregation in the major sports leagues, in the armed forces, and in housing and employment. It made the coverage of lynching prominent, often showing the burned bodies of men strung from trees.  It used White reporters to infiltrate the Klan.

In a segregated Pittsburgh, the Courier also fueled a growing Black middle class, providing jobs to scores of professionals: accountants, writers, editors, stenographers, and ad men. Those who worked at the newspaper were a proud family who came to work dressed in their finest. In the newsroom, they shared big square wooden desks, old black typewriters, and a mission to achieve. Mostly, they were young, some hired right out of high school. They called themselves the “Courier kids,” and they spent time together beyond the workplace: The Courier thespians performed at nearby Wesley Center Church, and the Courier swim team practiced at the local Y. They dated together, and some married each other, too.

“It was the best job I’ve ever had,” says Mary Jane Page. Just out of business college, she began working at the newspaper as a switchboard operator and became a secretary to the editorial department. Inspired by the strivers at the paper, she went back to school at Pitt, eventually becoming one of the city’s first Black principals and one of the first Blacks to serve on the University’s board of trustees. “I learned at the Courier,” she says, “that I could reach for the American dream.”

And, why not? From where she sat in the newsroom, Page (EDUC ’48, 53G) had a front-row view of the celebrated who ascended the Courier’s steps to meet editors and reporters. Those luminaries included Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson. Undoubtedly, too, Page was influenced by some of that era’s literary giants and scholars who attached themselves to the paper—poet Langston Hughes, novelist Zora Neale Hurston, nationalist Marcus Garvey, and anthropologist Franz Boas (whose cutting-edge reports on science refuted studies suggesting differences in brain size among the races).

The newspaper’s courage in tackling issues of human rights and social justice changed the very fabric of America itself. Notably, publisher-editor Vann turned the tide of Black voter participation nationally. In the 1932 presidential election, most African American voters belonged to the GOP, the party of Lincoln. Vann saw a need for change, and he advocated that his readers “turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall.” He favored the New Deal program set forth by Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat. His influence significantly helped Roosevelt to win the election, and the president named Vann as a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general. Today, most Black voters remain Democrats.

Vann died in 1940, but the Courier’s crusades did not. During World War II, the paper challenged the Red Cross. At the time, the humanitarian agency refused to allow integrated blood transfusions. The Courier’s stories on discrimination and the science of blood as neither Black nor White resulted in the Red Cross changing its policies.

The newspaper’s most celebrated campaign began with World War II and soon gained remarkable momentum. The symbol of the Double V—representing victory overseas and victory against racism at home—was promoted by the Courier and became a national movement. It drew in movie stars, homemakers, and steelworkers. At the end of six months, more than 200,000 individuals were part of the campaign to battle hatred at home and abroad. There were songs, slogans, and beauty queens. In the newspaper’s office, a Double V flag was stretched against a wall.

Pitt history professor Larry Glasco underscores that the Double V campaign had a tremendously positive effect on American race relations. Before the movement began, the most vocal critics of racial discrimination had long been Socialists and Communists, which made outspoken, racially fair-minded Whites vulnerable to being labeled un-American and subversive. “The Double V campaign,” says Glasco, “transformed the struggle for racial justice into a patriotic act that would help win the war by setting America morally apart from its racist, fascist enemies.”

thcourier4In its masthead, the Courier promoted “all-American” values: “Work, Integrity, Tact, Temperance, Prudence, Courage, Faith.” These were the values that became embedded in the work of several remarkable individuals who shaped the paper. Among them was Edna Chappell McKenzie, who began her career at the Courier in the 1940s, first as a typist, then a writer. McKenzie, a preacher’s daughter, grew up in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining country. After high school, she sharpened her journalism at a small African American tabloid in Los Angeles, where she covered murder, music, and everything in between.

At the Courier, she became one of the news desk’s first female reporters. She covered fires and stepped over dead bodies to do her job. Her assignments took her into the belly of racism as she sat at lunch counters and walked into small hotels that told her she didn’t belong. McKenzie, a small-framed woman with a head full of dark curls, braved intimidation. She sat through name-calling and being refused service because of her race. A trained pianist and a mother, McKenzie remained stoic on the job, but she described it as a horrible time, “worse than fighting a war.” When a deadline was over, she went home and cried herself to sleep.

She fought back with her pen, meticulously detailing the threats and harsh treatment of racism. In the mid-1940s, she wrote about the “evils” of segregated housing and a Presbyterian community center that was closed to Black children. Her news stories stoked the collapse of restrictive covenants in housing and public accommodations. Her work was groundbreaking, coming at least a decade before the start of the modern civil rights movement.

She left the paper in 1950, but continued her pioneering ways. McKenzie (A&S ’71, ’73G) became the first African American woman to earn a PhD in history at Pitt. She later established the Department of Ethnic and Diversity Studies at the Community College of Allegheny County and dedicated her life to teaching and human rights. She passed away in 2005.

Another keen reporter was George Barbour, a spirited young man from rural Allegheny County who began at the Courier as a photojournalist in 1953. He was 27 when he began working his way into being a well-respected civic affairs reporter. Previously, Barbour (A&S ’51) had been an outstanding journalist for The Pitt News, training that he says prepared him to cover the rough-and-tumble world of city politics.

Barbour tracked which public restaurants would—and would not—serve Black patrons and documented those racial patterns, with the help of another Courier staffer who posed as his wife during restaurant visits. On his own, he investigated discrimination in county home sales. In 1962, he reported on the lack of diversity among city and county staff. He once had a heated meeting with then Pittsburgh Mayor Joseph M. Barr, who worried that Barbour’s stories on discrimination would discredit him among Black voters. In time, Barbour’s articles led to policy changes that allowed more Blacks to seek positions in local government. From 1962 to 1964, Barbour served as the Courier’s first city editor and later joined KDKA radio, becoming the first full-time Black reporter for a major Pittsburgh station.

During his years at the Courier, Barbour’s editor was Frank Bolden, a mesmerizing storyteller who covered the world on his reporting assignments. Bolden began as a stringer while studying at Pitt. His writing was so luminous, he earned $5 a week instead of $3. After graduation, he joined the staff full time and made his mark covering the streets. His beat was Wylie Avenue, a busy stretch that began at the downtown jail and ended at a Hill District church.

Along the way, Bolden (EDUC ’34) delved into the full cultural, political, and social soul of Black Pittsburgh.  He developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Black community, no doubt honed from his nearly 30 years with the Courier. In that time, he interviewed Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, and Count Basie, among many others.

At the start of World War II, the Courier tapped Bolden to tell the stories of Black soldiers. He became one of the first two accredited Black war correspondents, traveling into sweltering jungles to cover Black troops. He called it a “green hell.” On the Burma Road, he saw Black engineering troops die of fever, enemy fire, and cobra bites. Bolden’s stories of their valor changed the way the nation perceived Black soldiers and fueled their movement for equity once they returned home from the war.

Before the conflict ended, Bolden found his way to India, where he sat cross-legged and ate with his hands as a houseguest of famed Mahatma Gandhi. He then stayed 12 days with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His articles on these leaders were well received by the newspaper’s audience as he drew parallels between the Indian struggle for independence from Britain to the awakening civil rights struggle in America.

In the 1950s, Bolden wrote an eight-part series on prominent Pittsburgh African American families, tracing one family’s history back to 1728.  Later, in a documentary on the history of the Black press, Bolden said that at the Courier, “under Bob Vann’s leadership, we made building stones out of stumbling blocks.” The Black press, he said, was “the advocate for all of our dreams, wishes, and desires …. It gave us the inspiration to move ahead.”

Today, another Pitt alumnus is paying homage to the Courier’s legacy. Filmmaker Kenneth Love (A&S ’71) knew a few of the Courier editors and reporters. His new documentary, Newspaper of Record: The Pittsburgh Courier 1907-1965, took root in 2001. That’s when retired Courier editor Frank Bolden invited Love to his home and suggested he make a film chronicling the newspaper’s storied history. Love protested that the story was especially complex; he was concerned that, with such a significant chronicle, he didn’t have the necessary resources. When Love was done, Bolden simply said, “You have me. We’ll start now.”  So, it began; and the creation of the film continued, too, after Bolden’s death in 2003.

This year, on Feb. 1, the film had its world premiere, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh as part of Pitt’s annual K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program. The documentary will soon be telecast nationwide on PBS public television.

The film is a 75-minute retrospective on the “amazing Pittsburgh Courier people” who gave a voice to the voiceless. “Their words are as important and fresh today,” says Love, “as they were when they were first written.” That history includes the essential contributions of Pitt people to the transformative power of truth embodied by the Courier, a forerunner of what became today’s New Pittsburgh Courier.

Robert Lavelle is proud to be one of those people. In 1935, on that famous day when Joe Louis knocked out Max Baer, Lavelle (BUS ’51, KGSB ’54G) was the skinny 19-year-old pressroom worker who helped churn out 14 national editions of The Pittsburgh Courier.

Joe Louis signs autographs at the Courier offices.

Joe Louis signs autographs at the Courier offices.

Leading up to that night, the Courier had published a series of articles on the heavy-hitting boxer, Louis. To much of America, he came to represent an honest, hardworking fighter in a sport riddled with corruption and a world brimming with hate in the form of Mussolini, Hitler, and other power mongers. Courier reporters and photographers—including Charles “Teenie” Harris, whose photos now reside in museums and private collections—practically lived with the rising athlete. Louis’ prominence, the excitement of his fights, and his struggle to defeat prejudice made these stories read like a soap opera. He was on the road to becoming heavyweight champion of the world—and a hero to the entire nation.

On that blue-black night, after Louis knocked out Baer in the fourth round, a boisterous crowd gathered outside the newspaper’s Centre Avenue office, waiting to read about the Brown Bomber’s big victory. It was not just any story—it was a Pittsburgh Courier story, their story. Inside, under the roar of the presses, the teenage Lavelle was lifting, bundling, and wrapping as fast as he could.

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