Former Courier accountant sees rise and fall

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In the 1940s, the Pittsburgh Courier reached the height of its circulation. At its peak, the newspaper’s reach extended to 14 cities nationwide, employing more than 400 people.

Russell Washington had a front row seat in the glory days of the Courier. In his position on the business side of the company, working with the newspaper’s finances, he had a behind-the-scenes view of the paper’s rise and temporary demise.

PieceHistory
A PIECE OF HISTORY—Russell Washington reflects on the 26 years he worked for the Pittsburgh Courier. (Photo by Rossano P. Stewart.)

“We had offices in Washington, D.C., Phila­delphia and New York City. We had contacts in other places around the country,” Washington said. “Everything was printed in Pittsburgh. We did all the printing. All of that was done by our own people.”

 

Washington joined the Courier staff in July of 1941, less than a year after the death of the Courier’s pioneering editor, Robert L. Vann. He worked as an accountant in the advertising department before rising to assistant business manager.

“The Courier had large labor costs. The whole company was unionized. They were given the same wages as the daily papers. We had everything everyone else had,” Washington said. “Every once in a while we would travel to different offices to see what was going on with their books. I liked Detroit. You had a lot of Black businesses.”

As he looked over an old section of the Courier with pictures of the newsroom, printing press and former employees at his Schenley Heights home, he recalled the nearly 26 years he worked for the newspaper. Touching on highlights through the years, he referenced coverage of African-American legends like baseball player Jackie Robinson and Pearl Harbor hero Doris “Dorie” Miller as reasons for the Courier’s largest increase in readership.

“When Jackie Robinson was with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the sports editor Wendell Smith followed him all around the country and circulation really began to grow,” Washington said. “It grew pretty well until 1945.”

At 96, Washington grew up and matured with the Courier. Just as changes have come in his life, he witnessed how the Courier changed over the decades.

“They’re staying in business, but not like they used to. You have all kinds of competition now. You have the radio, television, magazines,” Washington said. “Black people still need to read it because they don’t get all of the information they need from the daily papers. Anytime they get anything in the daily papers it has to be out of the ordinary.”

This same competition is the reason Washington said the newspaper fell into decline. In 1965 he abandoned ship when the newspaper suffered financial hardship.

“When the Courier was in full force, Black people didn’t buy from White people that much but with White people starting to write about some Black people, the White press began to publish some Black people. The competition bothered us more than anything else. Ebony magazine was the competition for all Black newspapers,” Washington said. “During that time there were three big department stores. If we could’ve got those advertisements, that would’ve helped. It was still going for a few years after I left and then it closed up. At the end of my time they weren’t always able to make payroll.”

Some of his fondest memories of the Courier came from working with his fellow employees. With approximately 80 and 90 employees during his time, the Courier was a leading employer of African-Americans, especially for women.

“I liked to work for the Courier for myself, but also for the others. We didn’t make a lot of money but it was the environment. We were like a family,” Washington said. “The atmosphere was good. You knew everybody and some of them were your direct friends. As long as you did your job there was no problem at all.”

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