Black Newspaper Helped to End Segregation

Pittsburgh courier
Pittsburgh Courier's Chicago office

Pioneers who remember The Pittsburgh Courier know that it was once the largest and most influential Black weekly newspaper distributed throughout the United States. To commemorate the Courier’s 100th anniversary, the Senator John Heinz History Center mounted an exhibit entitled, “America’s Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier.” An affiliate of the Smithsonian, the Heinz Center, the largest history museum in Pennsylvania, is in Pittsburgh, where the Courier began publication in 1910.

The exhibit, which opened February 2011 and continues until June 2, 2012, provides an historical account of the newspaper’s reach and impact throughout the nation over the past century.

The History Center’s Curator of African American Collections and president of the Association of African American Museums, Samuel W. Black, spent several hundred hours collecting, researching and interpreting the evidence that documents the Courier’s history. Three months ago, I had the opportunity to tour the gallery with him. Of special note is the evolution of The Pittsburgh Courier, with new scholarship related to co-editors Edward N. Harleston and Robert L. Vann.

Early editions began protesting racial segregation by custom and law, including slum conditions where Black people were forced to live, in Pittsburgh and throughout the nation. Simultaneously the Courier encouraged Black people to empower themselves economically and politically.

In the 1940s, the Courier’s Miami representative was John Diaz, a retiree from Philadelphia hired by a local Black newspaper, The Miami Times. Recently Garth C. Reeves Sr., editor-publisher emeritus of The Miami Times, vividly recalled the era when the Courier fought against segregation in the armed services, sports and every other phase of life. According to Reeves, “The Courier designed this double V theme and logo, Democracy: Victory at Home, Victory Abroad, to promote a nationwide effort endorsed by other Black newspapers. One of the Courier’s sportswriters, Wendell Smith, used his column to denounce Major League Baseball’s then-policy of excluding Blacks. Smith’s efforts were a contributing factor when Jackie Robinson broke “the color barrier” and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers 65 years ago. on April 15, 1947.” (In April 2012, a Black former basketball player Irving “Magic” Johnson and partners bought the Dodgers, now in Los Angeles, for $1 billion.)

The Courier peaked in 1948 with a weekly national circulation of 450,000 and 400 employees including reporters, editors, photographers, and foreign correspondents. Bureaus located in Washington, D. C., New Orleans, Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago supplied the news and photos for 14 regional editions assembled at its headquarters in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, without fax or copy machines, scanners or the Internet.

Weekly distribution from Pittsburgh was made through the Pullman Porters, a network of Blacks who worked on trains travelling to the Jim Crow South where papers were frequently banned or destroyed. The Courier set up a relationship with the porters through A. Phillip Randolph, a Black labor activist and organizer. The Stop and Drop campaign was developed using trains running from New York to Miami and Tampa. Whenever the trains stopped a bundle of papers was dropped and sold throughout the segregated regions.

In the 1950s national circulation began to decline, but the paper never missed a week of publication. It was sold in 1965 to the Chicago Defender newspaper and became The New Pittsburgh Courier. The exhibit ends announcing the new era. To view an artifact slideshow