In 1907, aspiring Black writer Edward Harleston, a security guard at the H.J Heinz plant, began publishing a broadsheet of his writings, which he called the Pittsburgh Courier. Three years later, 100 years ago, Hill District attorney and businessman Robert L. Vann took control of the failing venture to create a newspaper serving the Pittsburgh area in which he formally chartered the paper that became one of the most transformative publications in history. Not only did it report the news of African-American travails and successes locally, nationally and globally, but in doing so, it also made news.
By World War II, the Courier had a circulation of more than 250,000, had offices in 14 cities and published eastern midwest and west coast editions. Vann was determined to have the Courier become a vehicle for Black political empowerment and economic and cultural improvement.
|COURIER EDITORS —Mrs. Jessie Vann with Courier editors.
While Vann, who died in 1940, did not live to see his dreams come to fruition, his campaigns against lynching, the World War II era Double V campaign, his efforts for better education and employment helped shatter the chains of segregation and set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement.
In the 1920s and 1930s, when local musicians like Earl “Fatha” Hines and Billy Strayhorn became international sensations, the Courier was there. When local artists like Romare Beaden joined other stars of the Harlem Renaissance like poet Langston Hughes, the Courier was there.
The Courier was also there to report on the dire conditions of many African-Americans during the Great Depression, which saw Black unemployment at more than 40 percent, and food hunger marches through the city.
JESSIE VANN WITH A TYPESETTER
But instead of merely reporting the strife, Courier editors and staff were there along with the Urban League in passing out baskets of food to those in need.
But more than just reporting on the artists, with reporters like Evelyn Cunningham in the its New York office, the Courier gave its readers an insight into the burgeoning Black middle class of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who were the patrons of the arts explosion.
The 1920s and 1930s also saw the emergence of some of the Courier’s premier sportswriters who benefitted from the city having two dominant teams in the Negro Baseball Leagues—the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays.
And the Courier was there when African-American athletes like Pittsburgher John Woodruff joined Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and defeated Hitler’s “master race.”
In 1932, after years of pleas to U.S. presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover to do something about segregation and the treatment of African-Americans, Vann decided to use the Courier’s influence to force the issue.
In a speech to the St. James Literary Society in Cleveland, Vann told Blacks it was time to “Turn Lincoln’s portrait to the wall,” and join him in voting for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. Nationally, more than 1 million responded, 45,000 in Allegheny County alone, and helped sweep in the New Deal in a landslide.
The 1930s also saw Vann teaming up with A. Philip Randolph, head of the Pullman Porters Union, to insure that Blacks in the segregationist south could receive the Courier after the U.S. Postal Service and the FBI disallowed mailing the paper to the south. The porters took the papers south on trains.
The Courier’s international coverage blossomed in the 1930s with coverage of the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia by correspondent George Schuyler. The outbreak of World War II saw even more international coverage, and also the advent of the Double V campaign, which stood for victory abroad against Fascist oppression, and victory at home against discrimination.
The Courier’s Frank Bolden reported from oversees on African-Americans at war—and secured landmark interviews with Joseph Stalin and Mohandas Gandhi, who refused to speak to the White press.
Others reported on stories of discrimination in the military here at home, like the case of Dorie Miller, a cook aboard the USS West Virginia when it was attacked at Peal Harbor. Miller shot down six planes and became the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross. The Courier lobbied for him to return home to promote war bonds like other heroes. The Navy said no. Miller was killed at the battle of Tarawa in 1943.
After the war, as she had since her husband’s death, Jessie Vann, with the assistance of editors William G. Nunn Sr. and P.L. Prattis, continued to build the Courier’s reach. In 1948, the paper reached its greatest circulation, 450,000 issues.
In these issues throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the Courier led the way with stories of African-Americans making grudging progress against discrimination—President Truman integrating the armed forces in 1948; Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947; a continued battle against lynchings and “separate but equal” education, spearheaded by a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall; the bus boycott in Birmingham, Ala., that launched the career of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Courier photojournalist Alex Rivera covered several of these landmark stories.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the declining fortunes of Black publications. White media realized it needed Black reporters to get stories in African-American neighborhoods—especially after the riots following the death of Dr. King.
In 1960 S.B. Fuller became a major shareholder in the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Co. Later, he became chairman of the board and owner of the Pittsburgh Courier.
The Pittsburgh Courier went bankrupt in 1966, but was quickly resurrected by John H. Sengstacke, owner of the Chicago Defender. He renamed it the New Pittsburgh Courier and moved the paper from the Hill District to the city’s South Side.
“When we came to work and the doors were padlocked it was one of the worst feelings I had ever had,” said Hazel Garland, an employee since 1944. “This was our life, gone. No one knew it was coming. So you can imagine how glad we were when we received the phone call that Mr. Sengstacke had purchased the paper and we would all be back to work again. We hated to leave Centre (Avenue) but it would have cost too much to t
ry to get the building back on Centre.”
Sengstacke said there was no way he could stand idly by and allow one of the greatest newspapers in our history to go under. “We need the Black press today more than ever. To let the Courier fail would be sending the wrong message to people all over the world, both Black and White. The Courier, along with the Defender, are the symbols of freedom. They, more than any other paper, has led the fight for Negro freedom in this country and we still have a long ways to go. So no, I could not, and will not allow this great paper to go under, there is so much more to do in this country when it comes to the Negro,” Sengstacke said in a conversation in the late ’70s.
Behind this new group of leaders—Carl Morris, James Lewis, Hazel Garland, Woody Taylor, Rod Doss and others—the New Pittsburgh Courier was there for the integration of the city’s police force and fire department and for the rise of K. Leroy Irvis to the speakership of the Pennsylvania State House. The Courier was there for Nate Smith’s protests against U.S. Steel and the integration of the building trade unions. The Courier was there as the NAACP protests led to the hiring of Blacks at the Volkswagen plant in New Stanton. The Courier was there to make sure Blacks were a part of the ownership and employees of the first cable Company to come to Pittsburgh.
The Courier was also there to see its former editor, Bill Nunn Jr., lauded by the Pittsburgh Steelers for finding talents like Joe Greene, Joe Gilliam, John Stallworth, Frank Lewis, L. C. Greenwood, Mel Blount and many others where no White scouts bothered to look.
The 1980s saw the end of the steel industry in Pittsburgh and the loss of thousands of jobs for African-Americans throughout the Ohio Valley. It also saw the city lose its position as one of the nation’s’ top corporate headquarters, which led to more job loss and advertising dollars for the paper. While the city reinvented itself as an educational and medical industry center, in the 1990s and 2000s, many Black neighborhoods and communities have not recovered.
The Courier has documented the continued political inroads made by Chris Smith, Sala Udin, Jim Bulls, Bill Robinson, Dwayne Darkins, Valerie McDonald Roberts and attorney Byrd Brown, who very nearly became Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor.
The crusade for the 21st century is the fight to stop the Black-on- Black violence and drugs in our neighborhoods that are devastating our cities throughout the country, and the need for quality education for all African-Americans.
John Sengstacke died in 1997, and after his death Real Times Inc. purchased the Courier along with his other three papers—the Chicago Defender, the Michigan Chronicle and the Tri-State Defender in Memphis, in January 2003.
And under the direction of Editor and Publisher Rod Doss, the Courier was there in 2008, when Illinois Sen. Barak Obama became the first African-American president of the United States. And in the second decade of the 21st century, if it’s happening in the Black community—the New Pittsburgh Courier will be there.
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(This article was contributed to by Ulish Carter, managing editor.)