Centennial Edition 1966-2010 – John Sengstacke: Keeping dreams alive

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“When I came to work and the padlocks were on the doors, it was one of the worst days of my life. No one knew.”

“When I heard the Courier was in trouble I decided that this was not going to happen. We could not, I could not allow this to happened.”

Above statements are from Hazel Garland, a longtime employee of the Pittsburgh Courier and John Sengstacke, the man who kept the paper alive with his purchase in 1966.

JohnSengstacke
JOHN SENGSTACKE
1966-1997

After 56 years of being the most influential, the most powerful and the highest circulated of any Black newspaper in history the Pittsburgh Courier came to a jolting holt when the government shut it down because of its failure to pay taxes and the many other bills it had accumulated. A paper that once employed 350 people in Pittsburgh and hundreds more throughout the country would have come to a crashing holt, if not for the dreamer.

When Sengstacke purchased the Courier he already owned the largest chain of Black newspapers in the country, papers that included the Chicago Defender, Memphis Tri-State Defender, and the Michigan Chronicle in Detroit. He renamed it the New Pittsburgh Courier thus avoiding having to pay the bills and taxes accumulated by the old Courier. Just what the details were, only he knows and he took it to his grave.

“The Courier had a great history. The loss would not only be a big loss for the city of Pittsburgh, but a devastating loss for the entire country,” Sengstacke said. “The Black press is the only true voice Black people have. I’ve worked tireless to make sure that it is heard loud and clear throughout this country. Not just through my papers but through all the Black papers. I’ve worked tireless through the people I know in this industry and out to make sure the Black community is heard, and the only way this is going to happen is through the Negro press being strong.

TransitionTeam
TRANSITION TEAM—The key men in helping the Pittsburgh Courier transition to the New Pittsburgh Courier were, from left: Carl Morris, managing editor of the city edition; Teenie Harris, staff photographer; Ralph Koger, city editor; and Bill Nunn Jr., managing editor of the national editions. This photo was taken in the Courier offices after the 1968 NNPA Merit Awards.

“So I couldn’t allow the Courier to go under. It would have not only silenced the voices in Pittsburgh (and western Pennsylvania) but throughout the country. (The Courier still had several national editions.)”  He said he called some people he knew in Pittsburgh, in Washington D.C. and any other place or person he thought could help him save the paper and get the ball rolling. The results were that the paper never missed an edition, according to Bill Nunn Jr., who was with the paper at the time.

Even though most of the employees, such as Garland, didn’t know, some of the top brass knew, and Sengstacke knew about the serious problems the Courier was having before the collapse. He had started to work to either save the paper through local ownership, through investments or outright purchase himself. When all else failed he chose the latter. The paper was owned at the time by S. B. Fuller also from Chicago, who was said to be the richest Black man in the country during the 1950s. He had purchased most of the stock in the paper to become the sole owner of the paper during the late 1950s and ‘60s. But his lack of newspaper knowledge and even more so was his being out of touch with the masses helped lead to the downfall of the paper.

Who was this man?  John Sengstacke, who when others couldn’t or wouldn’t, he did.

The celebrated “I Have A Dream” of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is now legend.  There have been many others who were fulfilling their dreams and moving out front in leadership in the Black struggle. One such individual was John Herman Henry Sengstacke, publisher of the largest chain of Black newspapers in the world at the time of his death on May 28, 1997, and renowned public servant who also had a dream and had the pleasure of fulfilling most of them.

Sengstacke’s dream was to bring all the Black newspaper publishers together in a unified body as a powerful force to mold the destiny of Black people and minorities they served in the continual struggle for first class citizenship, economic stability, educational excellence, influential religious leadership, and social responsibility.

Sengstacke began the task of making his dream a reality when he founded the NNPA, then known as the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association, in 1940 after inheriting the Chicago Defender from his uncle Robert S. Abbott. He called the organizational meeting that year and was promptly elected its first president. There were 28 publishers and executives representing 21 newspapers attending that meeting. There were some who resisted, but when he called on his friend Mary McLeod Bethune, a confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt, to get the first meeting held in the White House they all came.

Since that time the NNPA has grown by leaps and bounds with a membership reaching more than 200 and has become a powerful force in the nation and the world for the dignity and benefit of Blacks and the poor.

The combined strength of the Black press has commanded the respect and recognition of presidents and other world leaders, as one of the main spokesmen for the people they serve.

An NNPA committee and the Courier called on President Roosevelt in 1944 demanding an end to segregation in the armed forces. Since that time NNPA representatives have called on every succeeding president, Republican and Democrat, demanding a fair shake for their people.

All of this came about because John Sengstacke had a dream of Black unity. He personally gave of his time, boundless energy, finances and know-how to many worthy causes in behalf of the NNPA and the Sengstacke Newspapers, all NNPA members, which he headed (including the New Pittsburgh Courier).  He was chairman of a multi-million dollar drive to raise funds for Chicago predominantly Black Providence Hospital.  Sengstacke was born Nov. 25, 1912, the son of Rev. Herman Alexander and Rose Mae Davis Sengstacke.

He started in the newspaper business as a Printer’s devil on his father’s newspaper in Savannah, Ga. During his teenage years he worked during the summer on his uncle’s nationally known newspaper the Chicago Defender, founded and published by his uncle Robert S. Abbott, who made the Defender one of the nation
s most powerful Black crusading newspapers.

He became chairman of the board of the R. S. Abbott Company upon his uncle’s death in 1940. He had been running the paper during his uncle’s long illness. He was also a member of numerous college, business, federal, fraternal and civic groups, as well as numerous Presidential Committees. But probably his greatest accomplishments was growing the one great paper into a chain that at one time included: the Michigan Chronicle, the Louisville Defender, the Cincinnati News, the St. Louis News, the Toledo Press, the Tri-State Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Florida Courier, the Georgia Courier, the Detroit Courier, the Philadelphia Courier, the National Courier and the New York Age.

During his career he received awards and citations far too numerous to mention. However, two that must be noted are; even though he received 10 Presidential Appointment throughout his career, his most cherished was his selection by President Harry S. Truman to serve on the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces, which resulted in the desegregation of the military. He traveled to several U.S. bases to monitor the status of desegregation. He was an adviser to Presidents Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

He was also very proud of his efforts in helping get the first Negro into the Major Leagues through his and Paul Robeson being able to arranged meetings with the Commissioner of Baseball Judge K. M. Landis and Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He was married to Myrtle Elizabeth Picou in 1939. To that union was born three children: John Herman Sengstacke Jr., Robert Abbott Sengstacke and Lewis Willis Sengstacke.

He finished public school in Savannah and attended Knoxville Institute in Athens, Ga., Brick Junior College in North Carolina, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Hampton Institute in Virginia, which was paid for by Abbott.

The first move Sengstacke made after the purchase of the Courier was to promote Bill Nunn Jr. to managing editor and later that year he brought back Carl Morris from St. Louis and installed him as the managing editor in charge of the City Edition and moved Nunn Jr. to managing editor in charge of the National Editions. His title was editor and president. Having lost the building on Centre Avenue, he moved the Courier office to the South Side, which was to be temporary, but it remains there today.

The Negro newspaper was created to serve the Black community, the entire Black community. Not just some, he said. “If we are to be spokesmen for the people we must speak for them, not ourselves. We must know what their needs are. What they want. And the only way we will know that is by listening to them.”

He said that far too often papers are caught in the two extreme camps. One mostly Democratic and mostly editorial, revolutionary papers who are fighting for the poor with no regards to the need for advertising to stay in business. The other is headed by mostly  Republicans, mostly coming from an advertising background,  who feel the middle class and upper middle class is the target readership to get more ads, with no regards for circulation which is needed for survival.

“Black newspapers are not just for the rich, middle class, or the poor. But for all Black people,” he said. “We too often get caught up in serving the militant Blacks or the wealthy Blacks. Black newspapers are not just good news, or bad news, but all news.

“As long as we (Black newspapers) stay in touch with the Black community, realizing that we serve them, that it’s about them not us, there will always be a place for the Black newspapers. But when we become self serving then we will see our circulations drop.

“The average Black person wants the same as everyone else; a decent job, a good education for themselves and their children, a nice house and a safe neighborhood to live in. Most are hard working people who are trying to keep a roof over their heads, and food on the table for their family. As long as we understand this, there will always be room for the Black press in the Black home,” said John Sengstacke.

Some of the information for this article was taken from a 1974 story by then Courier Managing Editor Woody Taylor entitled “John Sengstacke: The Dreamer.” The rest was through conversation with Sengstacke during the 1970s and early ’80s.

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