Bolden, Frank E. 1913–2003
Frank E. Bolden 1913–2003
Frank Bolden made history as one of just two black journalists granted access to U.S. combat troops during World War II. The veteran Pittsburgh newshound reported from the Pacific theater and then covered the Allied invasion of Italy, and his stories were widely syndicated in the leading African-American newspapers of the day. They also provided an invaluable glimpse into the last years of a racially segregated U.S. military. Bolden’s death in August of 2003 brought tributes from his successors, who hailed him as a pioneer minority journalist.
Bolden was born in 1913 in Washington, Pennsylvania, where his father became the city’s first African-American mail carrier. Bolden’s grandfather had also achieved a notable first in 1871 as the first Nashville black to sit on a grand jury in that city. Frank Bolden was the eldest of three sons. He entered the University of Pittsburgh around 1930 with plans to become a lawyer. He changed his major to biology with the hopes of enrolling in medical school after graduation. When he learned that members of the marching band earned tuition credit, he applied for a spot as a clarinetist and became the first African-American to play in the band. He also earned extra money by working as a stringer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading black newspapers in America at the time.
Bolden earned top grades during his undergraduate years, but was denied entry into the University of Pittsburgh’s medical school in 1934. The school had no black students at the time (though there was a ten-percent quota on Jewish enrollment at the time). He considered teaching in Pittsburgh’s public schools but was turned down there as well, once again because of his race. When the Courier offered him a job as a general-assignment reporter, he took it in lieu of moving to the South to find a teaching job. Soon Bolden began covering the nightlife on Pittsburgh’s lively Wylie Avenue, which ran through the Hill District, the city’s black neighborhood. The street featured an array of African-American-owned businesses, and it had a lively music scene after dark. Elsewhere in Pittsburgh, the races remained socially segregated, and blacks were discouraged from patronizing bars and restaurants outside of the Hill area. Whites, however, patronized Wylie’s nightclubs to listen to jazz and blues greats. “Wylie Avenue did jump, but it jumped in a segregated way,” Bolden explained years later to filmmaker Stanley Nelson. “It was the only place that white and blacks could meet without havin’ a riot.”
Bolden began writing a column called “Orchestra Swirl” that covered the music scene in the city, and in it wrote about luminaries like Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, and Billy Eckstine. He also delved into the grittier side of Wylie Avenue, interviewing the gamblers, bartenders, barbers, and even prostitutes for his news stories. He was known for being able to turn a colorful expression in his day—his euphemism for the streetwalkers was “sisterhood of the nocturnal order”—but later said of his career to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I wasn’t the best… But I always thought I was the right fellow to be at the right spot at the right
At a Glance…
Born in 1913, in Washington, PA; died on August 28, 2003, in Pittsburgh, PA; son of Frank Bolden Sr. (a mail carrier); married Nancy. Education: University of Pittsburgh, BS, 1934, graduate work in biology, late 1930s.
Career: Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh, PA, stringer, early 1930s, general-assignment reporter and feature writer, 1934-56, war correspondent, 1939-45, citydesk editor, 1956-60; New York Times, reporter, c. 1960-65; NBC News, reporter, c. 1960-65; Pittsburgh Board of Education, assistant director of information and community relations, c. 1965-82.
Awards: George Polk Award; Legacy Award, National Association of Black Journalists, 2003.
time.” Luck indeed came into play when his newspaper wanted to cover black troops when the United States entered World War II in late 1941. The U.S. War Department had an accreditation process for journalists who wished to report overseas from the combat zones, but many of America’s black newspapers had been ardent champions for the desegregation of the military. In response, the War Department played hardball, telling editors of black newspapers that it would only accredit African-American reporters who possessed a college degree.
Thus Bolden and a reporter named Edgar Rousseau from New York City’s Amsterdam News became the first African-American journalists allowed to report on troop movements in the effort to defeat Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. Bolden’s stories were filed with the National Negro Publishers Association, and appeared in black newspapers across the United States like Chicago’s Defender and the Afro-American, which was published in Baltimore. Not surprisingly, he was restricted to covering only the black units, like the 92nd Infantry Division, which took part in the Allied invasion of Italy. The debate over desegregation still raged, with supporters of maintaining the status quo asserting that under duress, black soldiers might desert or otherwise prove unfit. Instead, Bolden reported on a division that earned more than 12,000 citations of valor in the campaign to take Italy. He also traveled to the Pacific, where he met the black Army engineers who helped build the epic Burma Road, many of whom lost their lives in the brutal tropical conditions. His reports bolstered pride back at home in soldiers fighting to uphold democracy, and became part of a meager cache of journalism that chronicled these efforts. The mainstream American press was largely uninterested in covering black troops.
Bolden’s stories caught the attention of one of the leaders of India’s independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, who invited him to his home. Bolden expected a cursory two-hour interview, but instead Gandhi welcomed him to stay as long as he pleased, and for two weeks the two discussed civil rights issues and racism. Gandhi’s rival, Jawaharlal Nehru, heard of the visit, and promptly invited Bolden to visit him as well. Bolden also culled interviews from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.
Bolden returned home from the war in September of 1945, and—grateful to the Courier for giving him his first job—turned down offers from Life, the leading magazine of the era, as well as the New York Times. He continued to write feature stories and cover Pittsburgh’s black community, even penning a series of articles on its leading families, some of whom had roots in the city dating back to the early 1700s. In 1956 he was named the Courier’s city editor. He used its pages to campaign against discriminatory promotion practices in the Pittsburgh police force, and the paper’s crusade resulted in the promotion of its first African American to lieutenant status. Bolden also gave young journalism hopefuls training by hiring them to write a student insert, called the Junior Courier, but with his more seasoned employees he was known as a stern taskmaster.
By the early 1960s the Courier was ailing financially, and Bolden had no pension for his retirement years. He went to work at the New York Times as a general-assignment reporter before joining the NBC News organization, where he reported for The Today Show and NBC’s nightly newscast, The Huntley-Brinkley Report. He covered the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, and managed to gain access to nominee Barry Goldwater, an arch-conservative, after tipping a black bellboy at the hotel. Goldwater allegedly told him, “‘I didn’t know [newspapers] hired you people,’” Bolden recalled once, according to Rouvalis’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report. “He was a bigot through and through.”
Bolden eventually returned to Pittsburgh, where the Courier had since folded, and served as assistant director of information and community relations for the Pittsburgh Board of Education for a number of years. An asthma sufferer later in life—which he believed had been exacerbated by the harsh conditions in wartime Southeast Asia—he tended a greenhouse full of rare orchids behind his house in the city’s Squirrel Hill section and served as the unofficial historian of Pittsburgh’s African-American community. Researchers and reporters looking for source material and background regularly called on him for help. Later in life, he was the subject of a documentary film, and the National Association of Black Journalists Journal interviewed him just months before his death on August 28, 2003. Asked about his work as an unofficial historian of a pre-civil-rights black America, he told writers Ervin Dyer and Monica Haynes, “I’m trying to make the world conscious of what Blacks have done for this country. I’m 12th or 13th generation American. But it’s not where we came from, but where we’re going, that counts. Our ancestors came on different boats, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
Bolden also gave a lengthy interview for a 1999 documentary film called The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. It aired on the Public Broadcasting Service network, and a transcript of Bolden’s segment appeared on the PBS Web site. In it, Bolden explained why black newspapers were so important in mid-twentieth-century America. Not only did they take up the campaign to desegregate the military, but also Major League Baseball as well, he noted. The Courier even urged readers to consider shifting their votes to the Democratic Party—a partisan loyalty that remained some seven decades later after a 1932 editorial calling on them to “turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall,” a reference to the image of the assassinated president that was a fixture in many African-American homes at the time. “The black press was the advocate of all of our dreams, wishes, and desires,” Bolden said in the Nelson film. “It was also our number one fighter for equal and civil rights. It also gave young people, like myself at that time—it gave us the inspiration to move ahead.”
National Association of Black Journalists Journal, Spring 2003, pp. 8-10.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 29, 2003.
Quill, November 2003, p. 52.
“The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords: A Film By Stanley Nelson,” Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/blackpress/film/transcripts/bolden.html (March 17, 2004).
“Frank Bolden, WWII reporter, dies,” Contra Costa Times, www.contracostatimes.com/mld/cctimes/news/6655174.htm (March 17, 2004).
“Pitt Alumnus Frank Bolden Featured in Film Documentary,” University of Pittsburgh, www.discover.pitt.edu/media/pcc011105/boldenfilm.html (March 17, 2004).
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