“A Negro seaman whose ship was then in Boston Harbor was the first martyr in the cause of American independence,” wrote Joel A. Rogers in the May 16, 1936 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier. By then, Rogers’s historical vignettes had appeared so often in the Courier that they seemed commonplace, yet they reveal much about the paper’s greater mission to reshape American racial discourse. From the Progressive Era through the interwar years, the Courier stood as a bulwark against the anti-Black rhetorics that had pervaded mass culture. It bolstered African Americans’ sense of self-worth each week by publishing positive accounts of Black life and by celebrating major achievements of Black historical figures. It marshalled powerful arguments against white supremacist racial theories and contested demeaning portrayals of African Americans in the press and popular culture. And it raised consciousness among African Americans about the major issues they faced.1
The Courier began operating in 1910 and initially catered to a local audience. But over the ensuing two decades, under the leadership of the paper’s publisher and editor, Robert L. Vann, it expanded its coverage, grew its circulation, and developed into a national news outlet for Black America. By 1935, the Courier had usurped the Chicago Defender as the largest Black newspaper in the United States, and it regularly featured exclusive essays from such national leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Walter White. Like the Defender, Baltimore Afro-American, New York Age, and other Black news outlets, the Courier provided a vital space for New Negro intellectual discourse where African Americans fleshed out questions concerning modernity, mass culture, and urbanization.2
Despite the Courier’s importance, scholars since the 1970s have tended to emphasize the paper’s shortcomings. Robert L. Vann, for instance, has been characterized as a duplicitous and insincere self-promoter whose editorial campaigns and reform initiatives were motivated not by an earnest desire for racial justice but by a calculated effort to enhance his political stature and increase the Courier’s circulation. This depiction of Vann as an essentially conservative figure determined to boost his status at the expense of working-class African Americans reflects a larger interpretive tradition concerning the nature of Black reform work. While highlighting the grassroots activism of everyday people from the working class, scholars have tended to characterize Black reformers as bourgeois accommodationists singularly committed to racial uplift ideology and incapable of seeing past their narrow class interests.
The result, in general, has been a fairly static portrayal of Black reform work that misses important nuances. Vann certainly was interested in acquiring political power, and there is no doubt that he actively sought out ways to enhance the Courier’s circulation; the paper’s survival depended on that. But he also regularly crossed class, racial, and ideological lines in pursuit of racial advancement. This pragmatic, utilitarian approach to activism has befuddled historians. Like reformers in the Urban League and NAACP, Vann’s efforts included but extended beyond racial uplift ideology, and his class and gender biases informed but did not dictate the direction of his social justice initiatives. Working in a bleak racial climate, he adopted a flexible strategic posture calculated to seize upon changes in mainstream political culture. Thus, Vann changed his political position and party affiliation several times in the interwar years, and the Courier’s editorial stances changed accordingly. For Vann and most of his interwar era colleagues, the racial challenges seemed too great and the available allies too scarce to permit an exclusive commitment to any one ideology or tactical formula.
Perhaps unconsciously, scholars often place ahistorical expectations on Black reformers that fail to account for the extraordinarily difficult environment in which they operated. Throughout the early twentieth century, African Americans of all classes faced overwhelming hostility from whites across the social and economic spectrum. Physicians and psychologists respectively conducted cranial studies and developed IQ tests that alleged to prove the mental superiority of Anglo-Saxons, while the writings of social Darwinists and eugenicists made their way into high school and college textbooks. Outside academia, ordinary Americans attended world fairs that featured exhibits of primitive African and Asian villages alongside Western exhibits showcasing great scientific advancements. Meanwhile, a newly emerging mass culture disseminated crude anti-Black stereotypes nationwide through films, radio programs, books, songs, magazines, and newspapers. The early twentieth century witnessed a surge of racist ideology, and mass culture served as the medium through which it gained expression. For millions of white Protestants who did not personally know any African Americans, it provided a racial education that justified upholding white supremacy. D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, Birth of a Nation, so inspired them that they established Ku Klux Klan chapters in cities and towns from California to Maine.
In this discursive arena, this terrain of racial thought, the Courier under Vann waged battle for three decades, from 1910 until Vann’s death in 1940, fighting doggedly to change the discussion about race, to decry, debunk, and delegitimize racist portrayals of African Americans, and to celebrate Black achievement. For Vann, racial pride and solidarity served as the foundation of political unity. As head of the Courier, he made a special effort to publish inspiring accounts of Black accomplishments in the city and across the country, and in the process, he helped thousands of African Americans feel proud of their history.
The historical vignettes referenced above demonstrate this. In the 1920s, the Courier became the first Black newspaper to dispatch a journalist, Joel A. Rogers, to Africa to conduct historical research. Rogers used his findings to publish detailed columns on the importance of African kingdoms to world history, and this work would later inform an illustrated feature called Your History. First appearing in 1934 and continuing through the forties, Your History included a short historical vignette by Rogers and a corresponding illustration by George L. Lee. Through it, every Saturday, Black parents across the country could read stories to their children about Black heroes in America and Africa. The importance of having an accessible source of information on Black history was not lost on Black educators, either. In a January 1935 letter to the editor, a teacher in New Orleans praised Rogers and Lee “for stimulating a study of Negro History, a subject with which we should all be acquainted and yet, one of which we know the least!” Like Nettie, the fictional character in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, many African Americans learned about their heritage through Rogers’s column. “Africans once had a better civilization than the European,” she wrote to her sister, Celie. “I get this from reading a man named J. A. Rogers.”3
In other sections of the Courier, readers could find articles celebrating the accomplishments of famous contemporary African Americans such as Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, and Joe Lewis. The paper also promoted Black internationalism through its positive coverage of Haiti, Ethiopia, and Liberia.
As the Courier grew, Vann and his staff gained experience mobilizing public opinion around issues that affected African Americans locally and nationally. In 1931, for instance, the paper led a campaign to have the Amos n’ Andy show removed from the air. First broadcast in 1928, the radio show featured two characters, Amos Jones and Andy Brown, voiced by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who journeyed from a farm in Georgia to Chicago, where they started a taxi company. For Vann, the characters’ crude dialogue degraded African Americans and reinforced negative racial stereotypes. Over a six-month period in 1931, he campaigned to remove the show from the air. His national petition decried the show as “detrimental to the self-respect and general advancement of the Negro” and called for a million signatures. The Courier regularly published updates on the petition, indicating the names of signers from each state, whom it praised as “100% Negro Americans.” By the time Vann ended the campaign in late fall 1931, the petition had garnered almost seven hundred thousand signatures.4
The drive, though ultimately unsuccessful, offers another example of the Courier’s commitment to shaping racial discourse. Through thirty years of persistence, Vann’s paper ultimately helped change the moral tone of American race relations for future generations. Dozens of editorial campaigns and thousands of newspaper articles, features, and cartoons slowly chipped away at the edifice of white supremacy and affected the way people discussed race, rights, and human dignity. This collective effort pushed multiculturalism closer to the mainstream of American political culture outside the South and helped make possible the formation of powerful interracial coalitions during the civil rights years.
- Joel A. Rogers, “Your History,” Pittsburgh Courier, 16 May 1936. ↩
- See “Robert L. Vann and the Pittsburgh Courier in the 1932 Presidential Election: An Analysis of Black Reformism in Interwar America,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 141, no.2 (2019): 141-176. ↩
- Peter W. Clark, “History Teacher Acclaims ‘Your History’ Feature as One of the Finest Things in the Courier,” letter to the editor, Pittsburgh Courier, 19 January 1935; Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt, 1982), 129. ↩
- For example, see the petition and names of signers in Pittsburgh Courier, 8 August 1931, and “Engage Comic Pair at Picnic,” Pittsburgh Courier, 22 August 1931. ↩