America’s Best Weekly: 100 Years of the Pittsburgh Courier

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Included among the thousands of migrants coming to Pittsburgh were two men who would develop a newspaper that would make a significant impact on journalism and African- American life both in this country and the world.

In 1910, three years after publishing a book of poems called “A Toilers’ Life,” Edward Na­thaniel Harleston wanted to expand his small sheet newspaper into a major publication. Harleston was a native of Charles­ton, S.C., and had moved to Pittsburgh from Atlantic City.

DoubleV
DOUBLE V CAMPAIGN—Above photos of Blacks in the military during World War II. The Double V campaign launched by the Courier pushed circulation to a record high for any Black newspaper.

He was employed as a messenger at the H.J. Heinz Co. on the North Side. He was an educated man, with industrial training as a carpenter and a business background as a partner in the Harleston and Wil­son Undertaker & Em­balmer Co. in Charles­ton. But by late 1909, Harleston did not have the capital nor the experience to publish a newspaper alone.

He then employed the help of a few co-workers, friends and even his landlady and her family. He sought the advice of Hepburn Carter and Edward Penman who suggested he talk to members of the Loendi Club, a social elite African-American men’s club. Harleston engaged Cum­berland Posey Sr., Wil­liam Nelson Page, Wil­liam Hance and Samuel Rosemound who would put together an investment team to publish the Pittsburgh Courier. According to Frank Bolden, a former Courier reporter, the postage for the first issue of the Pittsburgh Courier (January 1910) was paid for by Parthenia Tanner a cousin of the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner whose mother was the landlord of Harleston’s on Winthrop Street in Oakland. That first issue listed Harleston as editor,;Reverend Scott Wood as city editor; Carter was advertising manager; and Marion Tanner, nephew of Mary Tanner Miller, Harleston’s land lady, as subscription manager. Soon the committee engaged another Loendi Club member, attorney Robert L. Vann to draw up the papers charter and extended to Vann five shares of the organizations stock as payment.

One of the most important decisions the committee made was to engage the young lawyer Robert L. Vann, a 1906 Western Pennsylvania University (now the University of Pittsburgh) graduate and in 1909 the first African-American to graduate from what is now Pitt Law School. Vann purchased more shares of the company stock and filed the charter for the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company on March 10, 1910. Robert L. Vann was a native of Ahoskie County, N.C. He attended Virginia Union University before enrolling at Western University of Pennsylvania in 1903. While at Western University he became editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the Courant. He immediately set up his law office upon passing the state bar in 1909.

By the Fall of 1910 Vann had assumed co-editorship with Harl­eston while Posey served as president of the company. Within a year Harleston would leave the paper and the city. The visionary Vann had become the editor, treasurer and later publisher of the paper. For years Vann did not pull a salary from the newspaper but was instead paid with stocks and bonds. The company was formally incorporated on Aug. 10, 1910. Vann went about the business of making the paper a first class weekly and the most important African-American paper in Pittsburgh. The first office was located at 1212 Wylie Ave. in Jackson’s Undertaking Co. and by 1914 had moved to Vann’s law offices at 518 Fourth Ave., Downtown.

In 1914 he hired Ira Lewis another Pittsburgh migrant from North Carolina as business manager. Lewis began almost immediately to build a solvent advertising sales and circulation campaign. Vann saw the importance of having talented, industrious and skilled staff and technicians at the Courier. Vann and the Courier executives after him continued to hire skilled people that included 1920 William “Bill” Nunn Sr. as sports writer, and later city editor, then managing editor until he left in 1956; Earl V. Hord, lino-typist and office manager; Wendell Smith, W. Rollo Wilson, Chester Washington and Bill Nunn Jr. as sports writers; Charles “Teenie” Harris, Oceana Sockwell, Luther Johnson and Alex Rivera as photographers; Sam Milai, Jackie Ormes, Ollie Harrington and Wilbert Holloway as artists/cartoonists and columnists and reporters Frank Bolden, John L. Clark, George Schuyler, J.A. Rogers, Jesse O. Thomas, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Julia Bumry-Jones, Toki Johnson, Chappy Gardner, Bernice Dutrieulle-Shelton, Jack Cooper, George Barbour and A. B. Rice. Another important hire was P.L. Prattis from Chicago in 1935. Prattis was an experienced editor serving as president of the social magazine, Heebie Jeebie before coming to Pittsburgh in as city editor and was promoted to executive editor after Vann’s death in 1940, he became Editor in 1956, after Nunn Sr., left, which he remained until his retirement in 1962.

The 1920s was a major turning point for the Courier. Vann had become politically active as a city solicitor and political committeeman. He used his influence on the paper to espouse a greater political piece of the pie for African- Americans. Because of his talented staff he was able to devote more time to political activism and his legal career. But one major event was the building of the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company plant at 2628 Centre Ave., in the Hill District, in 1929. The facility cost $104,000 and included a state-of-the-art printing press able to produce 35,000 copies of the Courier per day. The new plant and its press helped to increase the circulation of the paper from 55,000 to more than 100,000 within a few years. It would reach a peak of between 350,000 to 480,000 in the 1940s.

The Pittsburgh Courier as the leading African-American weekly papers covered the major stories affecting Blacks in­clud­ing: the Dyer anti-lynch­ing bill proposed in Con­gress in 1922. The brutal, inhuman act of lynching, hanging and other atrocities by Whites was picked up by the Courier early and lasted well into the 1940s. The Scottsboro Boys case was another major story that made an impact on all of Black America. The Courier vigorously reported on this trial and its various appeals for almost a decade. In the mid 1930s the Courier began to follow the career of boxer Joe Louis. Sportswriters Ches­ter Washington and Bill Nunn Sr., reported from Louis’ training camps and hosted Louis on his many visits to Courier offices.

Vann more than any other politico were responsible for the shift of African-American political party allegiance from Republican to the Democratic Party. He spoke in Cleveland in 1932 making the famous phrase “Negroes have changed their political philosophy….I see millions of Negroes turning the pictures of Abraham Lincoln to the wall. This year I see Negroes voting a Democratic ticket.” As a result Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Democrat was elected president of the United States.

Vann asked Roosevelt to establish a Black combat unit of the U.S. Army commanded by an African-American. Roosevelt was slow to respond but he did appoint Benjamin O. Davis Sr. as the first African-American general in t
he U.S. Army. After Vann’s death in 1940 the paper continued under the leadership of Ira Lewis. In 1942 the Courier initiated the Double V campaign—for victory at home over discrimination and victory abroad over the Axis powers. This led a big boost in the papers’ circulation.

The Courier had correspondents that covered events, or did investigative reporting of civil rights activities during the 1950s and ‘60s. Alex Rivera, Prattis, Evelyn Cunningham and others covered the southern campaign. Edna Chapelle (McKenzie) and others conducted investigative reporting of western Penn­sylvania communities and businesses that had discriminatory practices and policies, many in Pittsburgh.

The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were the key issues of the ‘60s. Its team of cartoonist and artists made illustrated commentary, and the paper posted photographs and bios’ of U.S. soldiers and the deaths of local men.

The Courier continues to cover the major stories that affect Blacks lives. The current campaign is to stop the senseless violence in the streets which is taking so many Black males lives.

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