The New Pittsburgh Courier: a history in images

At one time or another, everyone has dreamed of discovering buried treasure. While searching through some old boxes in the back of The New Pittsburgh Courier’s office in the South Side, curator John Brewer found what many would consider the historical equivalent of buried treasure: 750,000 photographs from the Courier’s archives, depicting nearly a century’s worth of African-American politics, personalities, and culture.

“It was — in a word — like a perpetual super-high,” Brewer said. “Every photo has got a story, or multiple stories, to go with it.” Right now, these stories are being told in the lobby of the City-County Building, host to over 80 images from the archives of both the Courier and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Courier Images, which had its opening reception last Thursday evening, will remain on display through the end of the month.

Brewer’s discovery came in 2005, but even two years later, his findings continue to provide a seemingly endless supply of photographs. It’s out of this wealth of options that Brewer, curator to the Images archives, must choose the content of exhibits such as this one, featuring fewer than 100 images out of the thousands and thousands available.

“There’s a whole lot of choices,” Brewer said. “We try to do a balance.” It would be easy to hone in on a specific group of subjects: black athletes, politicians, or entertainers, for example. But the collection is more powerful when boasting a diverse selection of 20th-century faces, Brewer explained. The exhibit features photographs of major-leaguer Jackie Robinson, Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall, and actor James Earl Jones, among others.

For Rod Doss, editor and publisher of The New Pittsburgh Courier, his favorite photo is a close-up shot of singer Billie Holiday. “There’s a lot to be said about what’s happening here,” explained Doss, appreciative of the Courier’s roots. One of the original African-American newspapers, at its peak the Courier covered national and even global news — using Pittsburgh as an anchor, not a boundary. “There are about four or five [newspapers] older than us,” Doss said. “We are perhaps the most prominent.”

Though the Courier grew to be monumental, it had a humble start in 1907. The Courier began as a literary pamphlet produced by security guard Edwin Harleston, who used it to share his poetry and other writings. Originally called The Pittsburgh Courier, the endeavor expanded to include news articles by 1910, though in the beginning, at least half of the content was taken without credit from other publications. That same year, attorney Robert L. Vann took over as the Courier’s primary editor.

In the early 20th century, black newspapers across the country were struggling to find a readership. According to Robert L. Vann of The Pittsburgh Courier, a biography by Andrew Buni, publications like the Courier, which came out on Saturdays, had trouble keeping up with the white newspapers’ daily editions. African-American publications typically included news items concerning social and church events, but avoiding political issues. They were a voice, but not yet one that needed to be heard. As for potential readers, many African-Americans were either too proud or too humble to invest in the Courier. Some felt themselves above the black press, which was always struggling to find enough money and content to print. Moreover, many blacks were illiterate. Others couldn’t afford to spend money on a luxury such as the newspaper.

To attract a greater audience, The Pittsburgh Courier took a risk; it bragged. The editors stretched the truth to make the publication seem more popular than it was. According to Buni’s biography of Vann, the Courier added a masthead claiming a weekly readership of 10,000 African-Americans, which might have been true — that is, counting roughly 75 percent of that number as readers borrowing editions that others had bought. Additionally, after mailing copies of the paper to friends in other states, staff members were so bold as to pronounce the Courier a national publication.

It wasn’t too long until the Courier no longer needed to exaggerate its successes; the newspaper gained momentum as Vann brought important issues into the publication. Primarily, the Courier condemned the housing situation in the Hill District. The Hill District was home to the majority of Pittsburgh’s African-Americans, who had no plausible alternative to living in its worn-down houses, both unclean and unsafe. The situation only worsened as the population of blacks in Pittsburgh continued to grow, rising by nearly 50 percent between 1910 and 1920, according to Buni. Vann stressed the potential benefits of a building and loan association for African-Americans.

“A lot of things were going on back then,” said Michele Jackson-Washington, deputy executive director of the Housing Authority. “[Vann] felt the need for African-Americans to have a newspaper that reflected them.” Though the exhibit is entitled Pittsburgh Courier Images, many of its pictures also come from the Housing Authority, which has an archive of about 2000 photographs. “The majority of the photos are from the Hill District,” Jackson-Washington explained. “There’s a lot of vibrant history.”

Still concerned with living conditions, Vann pushed content in the Courier that addressed the inaccessibility of medical care to African-Americans. Often sleeping in rooms with four or five inhabitants, blacks were the most likely to get sick, and yet the least likely to get help; at that time, hospitals rarely admitted black patients. Vann used the Courier as a platform to encourage the construction of an African-American hospital. Neither the building and loan association nor the hospital was ever constructed, but Vann’s forthright ideas — and the conviction behind them — succeeded in catching the attention of blacks across the country.

“You’re talking about a time when the mainstream media wasn’t that interested in talking about black people,” said Kevin Amos, a program coordinator for Citiparks. “At one time, it was distributed all over the world.” At its peak, the Courier offered 21 editions in cities all over the country.

In 1940, Courier writer Ira Lewis stepped up as editor following Vann’s death. With Lewis in charge, the paper reached the height of its popularity. The Courier soon tackled what would become one of its most famous platforms: the “Double V” campaign. Starting in 1942, the “V” stood for victory, at home and overseas.

The “Double V” campaign demanded equality for the black soldiers fighting in World War II. The Courier printed pictures, letters, and articles; it even developed a custom insignia — two interlocking Vs — to help promote its cause. Probably the most powerful technique was the use of reporters abroad. “Significant coverage was given to black soldiers by way of foreign correspondents,” Doss said. Both victories were finally attained in 1948, when President Truman signed an executive order banning the segregation of troops.

The paper became The New Pittsburgh Courier in 1965, when it was bought by John Sengstacke, who owned another historic black publication, The Chicago Defender. Prior to the name change, the paper’s influence had been waning since Lewis’ death in 1948. Now, Doss explained, the Courier is working to regain some ground. “We continue to go where our community is and seek out the news that fits them best,” he said. “We have new challenges, obviously,” Doss said, speaking of the Internet. Like all newspapers, the Courier is struggling to adjust to a more global readership. Last Thursday night, Doss and others were able to browse almost a century’s worth of photography, representing the distinguished past of The Pittsburgh Courier.

Duane Ashley, the director of Citiparks, considered the opening of Images the beginning of another successful celebration of Black History Month. “This is an annual activity for the city of Pittsburgh,” he said. Every year, the City-County Building hosts a new display in recognition of African-American history. The tradition dates back to 1995, Ashley explained, and the theme varies annually. Past themes include African-American architecture, painting, and fiber art (textiles). “The dynamics of this city are unique,” Ashley added, commenting on the increasingly diverse community of Pittsburgh.

“Photography is images,” Brewer said. “And images penetrate and educate.” Staring at the exhibit, it’s hard to imagine so many of its photographs hidden undiscovered in a stack of cardboard boxes. The City-County Building’s walls could not go bare; the Courier’s legacy could not go unappreciated. Once a treasure is uncovered, it can’t be reburied.