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The Pittsburgh Courier

America's Largest Black Newspaper

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Pittsburgh’s newsstands suffered from a serious lack of quality Black papers. Out of the six white dailies in the city, only one included Black news. The Pittsburgh Press’ segregated “Afro-American News” column was far from ideal however, and the little reporting that the Press did offer mostly consisted of sensational accounts of crimes, affairs, and other sordid material which hardly painted the Black community in a favorable light.

This all would change when Nathaniel Edward Harleston, a security guard at the HJ Heinz food packing facility, began a newspaper as a way to publish some of his poetry. With the help of a couple of friends from the Heinz plant, the first official issue of the Courier was printed on January 15, 1910. Just a few years later, Harelston’s new paper would expand to include headquarters at 1212 Wylie Ave (though this would later move downtown), and its own publishing plant at 2628 Centre Ave.

With such deep roots in the largest historically Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, it is no surprise that The Pittsburgh Courier would become one of the most prominent voices in Black America within just a few decades. Not only would the paper go on to provide a rich account of Black life over the years, it would also serve as an instrument of agency in the fight for civil rights.

A Fight for Rights

Much of the Courier’s early reputation as a “crusader” paper for Black rights can be attributed to its first editor, Robert Lee Vann.

One reporter, Edna Chappel, was even assigned to visit businesses in the greater Western Pennsylvania area and write about her experiences of discrimination there because of her race.

Vann was the first African American to graduate from University of Pittsburgh’s school of law, and he was one of only five Black lawyers in Pittsburgh at the time. After helping to find investors and using his law expertise to draw up the incorporation papers, Vann took over as editor of the Courier when Harleston left in late 1910. 

From the very beginning, Vann made his vision for the Courier clear; the paper would serve to “abolish every vestige of Jim Crowism in Pittsburgh”, as he wrote in an early editorial. In the first years, he would use his writing to address pressing issues in the Hill District, calling for a Black building and loan association as well as a Black hospital to combat the housing and health crises there. 

A politician himself, (he would serve as Assistant Attorney General in the Roosevelt administration), Vann called for the readers of his paper to organize in politics. When the Courier began to have national influence in the early 30s, Vann’s writings carried more and more weight in Black politics.  His opinion in one 1932 editorial that “negroes have changed their political philosophy... This year I see them voting a Democratic ticket” has even been credited by some historians with significantly contributing to Roosevelt’s victory later that year. 

This foray into national affairs continued into the mid-20th century, as the Courier began to report more and more on the Civil Rights movement across the country. They covered stories like the Scottsboro Boys, Brown v. Board, and the campaigns of A. Phillip Randolph, while their sports reporters doggedly followed Black boxer Joe Louis as he won victory after victory in the ring. 

The Courier reported on local injustice towards African Americans as well. They frequently covered the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh’s Negro League baseball team, and fought for major league desegregation in their editorials. One reporter, Edna Chappel, was even assigned to visit businesses in the greater Western Pennsylvania area and write about her experiences of discrimination there because of her race. 

The Courier was known for hiring young, Black talent like Chappel who might never have been given a job at another paper. Famous Pittsburgh photographer Charlie “Teenie” Harris was briefly employed at the paper, as well as William Gardner Smith, a novelist who spent time in the company of other great Black authors like James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Other reporters at the Courier are less well known, but their work was foundational for the paper. 

Remarkable Reporters

Frank E. Bolden, for example, was a bright pre-med student at University of Pittsburgh when he began writing as a stringer, or freelance reporter, for the Courier.

As Bolden traveled overseas, he took the Courier’s mission to fight for the representation and rights of Black people with him.

Barred from med school because of his race, and unwilling to find a teaching position in the deep South, Bolden took on a full-time position at the paper when he graduated in 1934. His beat was on Wylie Avenue, right in the heart of the Hill. He wrote about the nightlife there, reporting from clubs where future jazz legends like Billy Eckstine, Mary Lou Williams, and Art Blakey would play every night. He also wrote about the prostitution and gambling that was common on the street.

When World War II broke out, Bolden made history as one of the two African American war correspondents in the nation. As he traveled overseas, he took the Courier’s mission to fight for the representation and rights of Black people with him. In a time when military desegregation was fiercely contested, it was a widely held belief that Black soldiers would prove to be cowardly and untrustworthy on the battlefield. Bolden’s reporting in the Pacific theater and in Italy combated this notion; one division he covered earned 12,000 citations of valor during their invasion of Italy. In Asia, he gave voice to the stories of the Black soldiers and engineers working on the infamous Burma Road. His work in the Pacific Theater led him to interview both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, two leaders in the Indian campaign for independence from Britain, who both expressed support for the American Black civil rights movement. 

After returning to the States, Bolden received numerous offers from major news publications as a result of his prominent reporting during the war. He turned them all down, however, to take up his old beat on the Hill again. His reporting for the Courier in the post-war era often focused on the lack of Black police officers in Pittsburgh, and his campaign for this cause resulted in the promotion of the first Black lieutenant on the force. 

Bolden died in 2003 in Squirrel Hill, just a few miles away from where he did his reporting on Wylie Ave. His work has proved to be an invaluable resource to researchers of the area over the years, and he was not the only Courier writer who has served in some way as an amateur historian.

Joel Augustus Rogers, according to the African American Registry, “probably did more popularize African history than any writer of the 20th century.” Originally from Jamaica, the writer, journalist, and amateur historian’s books and Courier articles became a powerful force in American race relations. In 1927, Robert Vann sent Rogers on an international tour of Europe and Africa for the paper. There he would experience the differences between European, African, and American approaches to race, as well as visit culturally important cities like Rome, Berlin, Casablanca, Paris, Cairo, and more. He recorded his travels in Europe and the knowledge he gained there for his audience back in Pittsburgh, many of whom would have never been able to experience such things for themselves.

It was these international tours that allowed him to continue his research in the history of the African diaspora as well. When he returned to America, he would partner with cartoonist George L Lee to create a Courier column to share his discoveries in African history with its readers. The result was titled “Your History” and ran from 1934 to 1966. The column’s mantra, “Your history dates back beyond the cotton fields; back thousands of years before the time of Christ”, ran at the top of every new installment and preceded the charming illustrations and captions which detailed the role of Black men and women throughout world history. The column was praised for its accessibility to the average person as well as its pioneering spirit in a time when Black history was not widely studied or taught. Lee’s bold, compelling designs confronted the racial stereotyping common in cartoons then, and made “Your History” a perfect example of the kind of representation the Courier fought for. 

Later Years

After the death of Robert Vann in 1940, the paper did not find an executive editor who could match its first in passion and vision until Percival L. Prattis accepted the executive editorship in 1956. Prattis had worked at the Courier for years prior, and had already been instrumental in its development before becoming editor. Vann had originally hired him in 1935 after seeing his impressive work at the Courier’s rival Black paper, The Chicago Defender, where Prattis had been city editor. Prattis used his connections in Chicago to expand the circulation of the Courier in the Midwest, where the paper had previously struggled to find distributors in its competition with the Defender

Before he became executive editor, Prattis reported on reconstruction after the war. He heavily covered the creation of the United Nations, even personally attending the founding conference in San Francisco. He also reported on the conflicts in the Middle East, something which was not often seen in Black papers. 

In the mid 50s, the advancement of the Civil Rights movement was beginning to convince many establishment white papers to take Black news more seriously. As competition with these white dailies increased, the Courier began to struggle financially. Despite this, Prattis increased the circulation to a peak of 350,000 copies, with 14 editions nationwide. This likely is due to his aggressive style; under Prattis, the Courier reported stories of injustice which its competitors were simply unwilling to publish.

Eventually, the Courier’s money troubles proved too much to overcome, however, and the paper was sold in 1966 to John Sengstacke, owner of the Defender. He relaunched the paper the next year as The New Pittsburgh Courier. By then, many of its finest reporters and editors had left, including Prattis and Bolden, and the paper would never again reclaim its previous quality or national influence. 

Over the half-century of its publication, The Pittsburgh Courier went from a two page collection of a Steel City security guard’s poems to a national paper which changed the landscape of Black life in America. As Frank Bolden once said in an interview, the Black press acted as an “advocate of all our dreams, wishes, and desires.” Without that small printing plant in the Hill, dutifully churning out issues week after week, Black Americans would not have had the chance to see their histories, sufferings, and longings given a voice in the work of the Courier.

Images

Pittsburgh Courier newspaper press operator, possibly William Brown, possibly printing Chicago or other Midwestern edition Source: Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. November 1954
Exterior of Pittsburgh Courier building and offices Source: Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1940
Robert L. Vann, Publisher of The Pittsburgh Courier, in the 1930s. Source: Collections of the Pennsylvania Department, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Creator: Unknown Date: c. 1930
Portrait of P.L. Prattis wearing dark double breasted pinstriped suit and striped tie, seated on bench with legs crossed and hands on knee, in Harris Studio Source: Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1950
Portrait of World War II War Correspondent, Frank Bolden, wearing Army uniform and camera around neck, facing right, in front of light colored circular background, in Harris Studio Source: Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1940-1945
Group picture of Pittsburgh Courier staff outside of offices Source: Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1960
"Your History" Column Example Roger's and Lee's "Your History" column ran for decades and was praised for bringing little known stories in Black history to light. Source: ProQuest Black Newspaper Collection Creator: George L. Lee and Joel A. Rogers; The Pittsburgh Courier Date: October 10, 1936

Location

2628 Centre Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

Nolan Cowan, “The Pittsburgh Courier,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/62.