Publisher Robert Lee Vann

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Publisher Robert Lee Vann

The Pittsburgh Courier was once the country's most widely circulated black newspaper with a national circulation of almost 200,000. Established in 1907 by Edwin Harleston, a security guard and aspiring writer, the newspaper gained national prominence after attorney Robert Lee Vann took over as the newspaper's editor-publisher, treasurer, and legal counsel in 1910. By the 1930's it was one of the top selling black newspapers in the country--as widely read as The Chicago Defender and The Afro-American.

From the beginning, The Courier called for improvements in housing, health and education, and protested the slum conditions in which black people were forced to live in Pittsburgh and elsewhere throughout the nation. In one campaign it pressed for an increase of black physicians in the Pittsburgh area and the opening of an African American hospital to serve the community's health needs as white facilities were unwilling to treat African Americans.

The Courier sought to empower African Americans economically and politically. In one instance, it featured a front-page column entitled "The Camera," which counseled African Americans on financial matters. The Courier encouraged the black community to support black organizations such as The National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In an editorial entitled "The Penalty of Unconcern," The Courier stressed the importance of African Americans taking an active role in their political destinies.


The Courier protested misrepresentations of African Americans in the mainstream media. In the early 1930's, the paper began a nationwide protest against the Amos n'Andy daily radio serial.

In 1932, Vann helped influence black voters to shift their political allegiance away from the Republican Party, which was often still thought of as the party of Lincoln, and to support the Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Pittsburgh Courier was one of the first black newspapers to publish both national and local editions. At its height there was as many as 14 editions circulated in states including Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. Many of the 20th century's most well known and influential black journalists and intellectuals contributed articles, columns, and editorials to The Pittsburgh Courier. George Schuyler joined the staff in 1925 and had a weekly column entitled "Views and Reviews." Self taught historian Joel A. Rogers' column "Your History" was a constant source of information concerning the buried or forgotten historical black past. Marcus Garvey, W.E.B DuBois and James Weldon Johnson contributed columns at various times. In later years, Elijah Muhammed wrote a column for The Courier. Zora Neale Hurston was hired to cover the sensational murder trial of Ruby J. McCollum.

The Courier protested misrepresentations of African Americans in the mainstream media. In the early 1930's, the paper began a nationwide protest against the Amos n' Andy daily radio serial. It petitioned to remove the program from the air and published scathing editorials denouncing the program's negative portrayals of black people.

Following Robert L. Vann's death on October 24, 1940, Ira Lewis, who had worked at the paper since 1914 as a sports writer and eventually managing editor, and whom Vann had hand-picked as his successor, became editor. Under his leadership The Courier reached its highest circulation, and gained even greater popularity and scope.

This was due in part to the successful "Double V" campaign spearheaded by The Courier. Beginning in the paper's February 7, 1942 edition and continuing weekly until 1943, the Double V campaign demanded that African Americans who were risking their lives abroad receive full citizenship rights at home. The newspaper printed articles, editorials, letters, Double V photographs, and drawings, and even designed a recognizable Double V sign to promote the campaign. Many other black newspapers endorsed the campaign as well, making it a nationwide effort. Another major battle fought by The Courier was against segregation in professional sports. Wendell Smith, who became the paper's sportswriter in 1938, used his column to denounce segregation in the major leagues. His efforts contributed to Jackie Robinson's signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. In the early years of Robinson's baseball career, Smith traveled and roomed with Robinson on several Dodger trips, and arranged his travel and housing itinerary, because in some cities Robinson could not stay with the rest of the team in segregated hotels. The Courier was one of the few black newspapers to provide coverage of news in Africa as the continent moved towards independence.

In 1948 Ira Lewis died. The Courier's circulation began to decline during the 1950s and '60s, and in 1965, it was sold to John Sengstacke, the owner and publisher of The Chicago Defender. Today The Pittsburgh Courier is published under the name "The New Pittsburgh Courier."

Questions for “Pittsburgh Courier”

1. When was the Pittsburgh Courier founded? Who were its

three main editors? Who were some of its famous writers?

2. List at least five things the Courier wanted to improve

about black life in America in the 1930s and 1940s.

3. Which goal do you think deserved the most effort and

attention, and why?

4. What was the Double V campaign?

5. List at least four tactics used by the Pittsburgh Courier

to fight for the rights of African Americans.

6. In your opinion, which of these tactics was likely to be

most effective, and why?
Questions for “Treason?”

1. Who thought up the idea for the Double V campaign?

2. What did the symbol of the Double V stand for?

3. List at least four of the ways the campaign was publicized.

4. In your opinion, which of these approaches was likely to

be most effective, and why?

5. What injustices did the Double V campaign bring to

light during World War II?

6. What did the Double V campaign accomplish?

7. Why did J. Edgar Hoover call the Double V campaign

an act of treason?

8. Do you think the Double V campaign was treasonous?

Why or why not?

"We were at war, and in war you don't have friendly relationships, you're out to kill each other. That's how it was at the Courier. We were trying to kill Jim Crow, and racism . They didn't seem to understand that we had every right to fight for full citizenship at home if we were expected to give our lives overseas."

Edna Chappell McKenzie, journalist/historian

During World War II, African Americans faced a new dilemma. Thousands of black soldiers served willingly in the armed forces. At the same time, many African Americans wondered how they could support the war effort and even give their lives if called upon to fight, while Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation remained in place. Some black newspapers reflected these concerns, and openly criticized the segregation of the military and other policies. As a result, the black press faced harassment by government agencies. Still, its readership continued to soar, and as the war ended, black troops returned, more dedicated than ever to fighting injustice at home.

In 1941, the United States entered World War II. Most mainstream papers lauded the war effort. Patriotism among black publishers and journalists, however, was tempered by the pressing reality of segregation. While thousands of African Americans served willingly in the armed forces, many others felt that they could not support the war wholeheartedly.

Among the latter was a cafeteria worker named James Thompson. This young man wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, troubled by the fact that he might be called upon to defend a nation in which he was treated like a second-class citizen. He suggested that African Americans espouse a 'double V' campaign. The symbol stood for victory at war over enemies 'from without,' and victory at home against the enemy of prejudice 'from within.' When other readers wrote to congratulate Thompson on his idea, the Courier launched a huge publicity campaign, complete with lapel pins and stickers, 'double V' hair styles and songs.

The campaign kept awareness of the injustices of segregation alive during the war. It also brought attention to Jim Crow-style segregation in the armed forces. The troops themselves were segregated, but black outfits were assigned white commanding officers. Even the military's blood supply for the wounded was segregated by race. White soldiers brutalized black soldiers, and race riots took place in camps where troops of both races resided. The military tried to suppress word of these events, with partial success; only the black press reported discrimination and discord within the troops.

Such controversial reporting, coupled with the double V campaign and the new international mobility and visibility of the few black war correspondents, made those in various branches of the government nervous. The power of the black press to influence public opinion and excite its readers never seemed more threatening. Concerned that the black press would actually discourage its readers from supporting the war (it didn't), the military banned black newspapers from its libraries. It confiscated black papers from newsboys, and burned the papers to keep them out of the hands of black soldiers.

J. Edgar Hoover saw the double V campaign as an act of sedition. With President Franklin D. Roosevelt's approval, he sought to indict black publishers for treason. Hearing of Hoover's intentions, John Sengstacke, who had replaced Robert S. Abbott as publisher of the Chicago Defender, insisted on meeting with Attorney General Francis Biddle. Sengstacke convinced Biddle that it was the black press's duty to print the truth, and that African Americans only sought their due rights and privileges as citizens. Biddle agreed to block the indictments so long as the black press did not escalate its criticism of the war. Without the cooperation of the Attorney General's office, Hoover's plan was foiled.

Attempts, such as Hoover's, to destroy the black press failed. In fact, the papers' combined circulation reached a record high of two million readers each week by the end of the war in 1945. For soldiers stationed overseas, the Allied victory, and news from home instilling hope for the future, bolstered their spirits. African American soldiers returned from the war with redoubled commitment to fight for equality and dignity on American soil.

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