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Vann, Robert


Pittsburgh Courier publisher Robert Lee Vann (August 27, 1879–October 24, 1940) served as special assistant attorney general to Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1936. Vann was born in rural Ahoskie, North Carolina. After graduating as valedictorian from Walters Training School in 1901, he attended Virginia Union University's Wayland Academy, graduating in 1903. He then received a scholarship to Western University of Pennsylvania at Pittsburgh (now the University of Pittsburgh), where he served as the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper. Vann graduated in 1906 and entered the university's law school. He was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar and opened a small firm, specializing in criminal law, in 1909.

In 1910 Vann became legal counsel, treasurer, and editor for the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper founded three years earlier by Edwin Harelston. Vann's ingenuity in advertising, distribution, reporting, and coverage attracted a devoted readership and increased the paper's circulation from 3,000 in 1910 to 150,000 by the mid 1930s, and 250,000 by the end of the Depression.

Vann's growing stature as Courier editor invigorated his struggling law practice, and enhanced his reputation as a successful criminal attorney, compassionate civic leader, and savvy businessman. Vann's reputation also boosted his standing within the white-dominated Pennsylvania Republican Party. After his 1917 election as mayor of Pittsburgh, E. V. Babcock appointed Vann as assistant city solicitor, a position that whetted Vann's appetite for future political appointments. However, a series of political disappointments in the 1920s and early 1930s—his dismissal as city solicitor, two failed county judgeship election attempts, an unappreciative Republican Party, and white Republicans' refusal to address issues facing black America—soured Vann's commitment to the Republican Party. In 1932, he abandoned the party, denounced its blatant racism, campaigned for Roosevelt, and used his newspaper as a vehicle for cultural consciousness, political change, and social protest. Vann's hard work paid off when a small yet significant shift in African-American votes helped elect Roosevelt in November 1932.

The Roosevelt administration appointed Vann as special assistant attorney general on Negro affairs in 1933. A confident Vann immediately recommended African Americans for federal posts. His suggested appointees included: the National Urban League's Eugene Kinkcle Jones as advisor of Negro affairs in the Department of Commerce; social worker Lawrence A. Oxley, as head of Negro labor for the Department of Labor; and economist Robert Weaver as associate advisor on the status of African-Americans in the Department of the Interior.

Regrettably, Vann's enthusiasm soon waned as he realized his limitations inside the Justice Department. He routinely met hostility from office staffers, and received mundane tasks that hardly challenged his intellect. He mainly worked in the Land Division, examining titles for the Resettlement Administration and reforestation program. Only on rare occasions did Vann receive purposeful reprieves from his duties. He chaired two committees during his short stay in Washington: The Negro Advisory Committee of the Advisory and Planning Council for the Department of Commerce, and the Interdepartmental Group Concerned with the Special Problems of Negroes. While both committees attempted to eradicate racism from government agencies and other institutions, discrimination, in the end, prevailed. Vann was especially troubled by the nonchalant attitude of New Dealers regarding African-American issues. He felt that the Democrats, the administration, and Roosevelt were uncommitted and unconcerned about improving the status of African Americans.

To make matters worse, many Washingtonians considered Vann an anachronism in the Roosevelt administration. Most Washington insiders separated Vann from the up-and-coming intellectuals generally referred to as the Black Cabinet. New dealers considered Vann an outdated career politician or a political patronage appointee rewarded for his loyalty to the Democratic Party. Robert Weaver, Charles Hamilton Houston, Ralph Bunche, William H. Hastie, and Mary McLeod Bethune, however, were prominent government advisors brought into the fold for their potential ability to influence social policy, and for their expertise and academic training in education, the social sciences, and law. These men and women were intellectuals, not politicians with direct ties to the Democratic Party. Vann, on the other hand, had little or no influence in the Justice Department. He found himself in Washington because of patronage politics, and his loyalty to the National Democratic Party. A frustrated and humiliated Vann left his post in 1936.

In his final years, Vann continued to enhance the reputation and quality of the Courier. He also endorsed Democrats in local, state, and national elections. But he realized that neither political party cared much about improving the quality of life for African Americans. A disillusioned Vann died in 1940 of complications from abdominal cancer.



Buni, Andrew. Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier:Politics and Black Journalism. 1974.

"Pittsburgh Courier. " In Africana: The Encyclopedia of theAfrican and African American Experience, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 2000.

Bernadette Pruitt

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