The Pittsburgh Courier was for several decades among the most influential African-American newspapers in the United States. Founded in January 1910 by Edwin Nathaniel Harleston, a security guard with an interest in literary endeavors, the weekly publication was nurtured into prominence under the guidance of Robert L. Vann. An attorney and acquaintance of Harleston's, Vann was asked to handle the fledgling newspaper's incorporation procedures and to solicit financial investors. By the autumn of 1910, however, Harleston had resigned from the ownership group and Vann was named editor. Vann accepted $100 a year in Courier stock shares as compensation, and by 1926 he was the majority stockholder.
When the Courier 's first issue was published, the black population in Pittsburgh was approximately twenty-five thousand, but only one of the city's six newspapers carried any news concerning the African-American community. That paper, the Pittsburgh Press, carried black-oriented items in a segregated section titled "Afro-American News," but its content was generally of sensational crime and other lurid aspects of black life. Under Vann's leadership the Courier flourished, reaching a circulation of fiftyfive thousand in the early 1920s. This was accomplished by a number of adept strategies that included hiring well-known journalist George Schuyler in 1925 to write his "View and Reviews" column.
That same year Vann sponsored Schuyler on a nine-month tour of the South to write a series of on-the-road observations. This strategy allowed the Courier to build a national circulation among African-American readers, particularly in southern cities with large black populations. At the same time, Vann was increasing the paper's national advertising, hiring additional professional staff, and focusing on national stories.
As the Courier broadened its national coverage, its attention to local events weakened. Still, by the end of the 1920s H. L. Mencken observed that the Courier was the "best colored newspaper published." A significant operational decision was the construction of the Courier 's own printing and production plant in 1929. During the Great Depression the Courier was able to keep and conserve its revenues because it maintained its own production facility.
It was also during the 1930s that the Courier undertook one of its first major campaigns as a national opinion leader for African Americans. At issue was the enormously popular radio program "Amos 'n' Andy." The Courier attacked the racial stereotypes presented in the program and in 1930 and 1931 launched a drive to obtain one million signatures on a petition to remove it from the air. Although the effort fell some 400,000 signatures short of its goal, the Courier firmly established its place as a national forum for African-American expression.
During the 1930s Courier readers could faithfully follow the exploits of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and the paper's increase in circulation coincided with Louis's reign. Journalists such as P. L. Prattis, William G. Nunn, and sportswriter Chester Washington joined the staff, and the paper launched various crusades against Jim Crow discrimination and for civil rights.
Vann died in 1940, and his wife Jessie Ellen (Matthews) Vann succeeded him as publisher. By May 1947 the Courier attained a circulation high of 357,212 readers nationally. It championed the causes of racial equality in the U.S. armed forces and covered black military achievements in World War II. Although it also covered the black baseball circuit, emphasizing the Homestead Grays over the major league locals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Courier fought vigorously for the integration of major league baseball.
During the 1950s and 1960s the Courier experienced steady declines in circulation, and in 1966 it was purchased by the Sengstacke Group, which continued the weekly as the New Pittsburgh Courier.
Buni, Andrew. Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974.
Wolseley, Roland E. The Black Press, USA. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.
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