Pitt Black History Month Features World Premiere Screening Of Newspaper of Record: The Pittsburgh Courier, 1907-1965

Issue Date: 
January 19, 2010
The Pittsburgh Courier press roomThe Pittsburgh Courier press room

During critical periods in our nation’s history, The Pittsburgh Courier weekly newspaper, published between 1907 and 1965, served as an instrument of change in the fight against racial discrimination in housing, jobs, health, education, sports, and other areas. Printed locally but distributed throughout the United States in 14 national editions, The Pittsburgh Courier became the most influential Black newspaper in the nation, with a peak circulation of 400,000. It provided a lens through which Americans could see and read about the gross injustices targeting Blacks, from the Jim Crow era at the beginning of the 20th century through the turbulent years of the civil rights movement. Following the crusading newspaper’s financial collapse in 1965, it soon re-emerged as today’s New Pittsburgh Courier, which continues to serve the community.

A new documentary, Newspaper of Record: The Pittsburgh Courier, 1907-1965, by filmmaker and University of Pittsburgh alumnus Kenneth Love (A&S ’71) tells the story of the newspaper—how it empowered Blacks across America and helped to reshape national policy. The executive producer of the film, which was awarded a CINE Golden Eagle for excellence in the visual arts, is Pitt alumnus Barbara McNulty-Love (A&S ’71, MED ’75), who is married to Love.

The world premiere screening of the film will be cohosted by Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill at 6 p.m.

Feb. 1 at the Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland. The by-invitation-only event is the University’s K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program for 2010.

The Pittsburgh Courier plant and offices were on Centre Avenue in the Hill District.The Pittsburgh Courier plant and offices were on Centre Avenue in the Hill District.

Some parts of the Twentieth Century Club will take on the look of a newspaper operation from a bygone era, complete with a vintage newspaper-delivery bicycle courtesy of photographer Carmon Rinehart, bundled newspapers and crates, and a life-size photographic replica of a Courier delivery truck. To add to the ambience, “newsboys,” reporters, and Rinehart in the guise of legendary Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-98) will be on hand, all dressed in vintage attire.  Enlargements of “Teenie” Harris photos, courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art, will be placed around the ballroom.

Newspaper of Record: The Pittsburgh Courier, 1907-1965 tells its story not only through vintage images and narration, but through interviews with a number of the newspapers’ former editors and reporters. The documentary focuses on the story of how The Courier launched major national campaigns to combat racism, lynching, and race discrimination in education, employment, health, housing, the military, and sports. One of its most famous causes, the “Double V Campaign” of 1942-43, demanded that Blacks fighting for victory in the war abroad win a victory against racism at home as well—through full citizenship rights. The film also includes segments on celebrated Black entertainers, sports figures, and musicians, who were seldom, if ever, covered by the White media; advertising geared specifically to a Black audience; society, style, and fashion columns, which influenced the paper’s women readers; and a range of cartoons, from educational and political to humorous.

The Courier was an important American institution,” says Love, who began working on the film in 2001, acting upon a suggestion from late Pitt alumnus Frank Bolden, a legendary Courier reporter and editor. “The film chronicles a national treasure,” adds Love, who says he is proud, as a Pitt alumnus, to see the University take the lead in “celebrating and preserving The Courier’s story.”

Robert L. VannRobert L. Vann

Central to the story of The Courier is Robert L. Vann (1879-1940), who received his bachelor’s and law degrees from Pitt in 1906 and 1909, respectively, was elected editor of The Pitt Courant student newspaper (now The Pitt News), and played a major role in The Courier’s success. In 1910, he was the newspaper’s counsel and soon became its owner, publisher, and editor. Under Vann, the paper’s circulation rose steadily, reaching 174,000 by 1936. By then, it was the largest Black newspaper in circulation in the nation. Vann also was a longtime assistant city solicitor in Pittsburgh and a former special U. S. assistant attorney general under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A number of other people interviewed or discussed in the film have ties to Pitt, including:

• Frank Bolden, whose assignments for The Courier ranged from covering Wylie Avenue jazz clubs to becoming one of the first accredited Black war correspondents during World War II. Bolden received an education degree from Pitt in 1934 but was turned down for a teaching job in Pittsburgh because of his race. He died in 2003 at the age of 90;

• Edna Chappell McKenzie, a Courier reporter in the 1940s who won praise and made history for exposing racial discrimination in restaurants, employment, and housing throughout Western Pennsylvania. The first Black woman to earn a PhD degree in history at Pitt, in 1973, she went on to teach Black history and serve as a Pitt trustee. She died in 2005 at the age of 81;

• Earl F. Hord, a Pitt trustee who received a master’s degree from Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business in 1977 and had worked as a pressman apprentice at The Courier just after graduating from high school. Hord’s father worked as a linotype operator, eventually became advertising manager and general manager for The Courier, and successfully worked to provide the business with its own printing plant;

• George E. Barbour, whose award-winning 1962 series for The Courier on the lack of diversity among workers on the City of Pittsburgh payroll eventually changed policy and made it easier for Blacks to seek employment at City Hall. Barbour received the Bachelor of Arts degree from Pitt in 1951;

• Robert Lavelle, Pittsburgh realtor and banker who had a 21-year career at The Courier, working in the mailroom, office, and, eventually, the accounting department. Lavelle earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Pitt’s Katz School in 1951 and 1954, respectively. The school’s Robert Lavelle Scholarship is named in his honor;

• Eric Springer, retired Pittsburgh attorney and founding partner of Horty, Springer & Mattern, P.C., who wrote columns for The Courier. He is a former  Pitt School of Law and Graduate School of Public Health faculty member; and

• Vernell Lillie, narrator for the film, who is the founder and artistic director of Pitt’s Kuntu Repertory Theatre and associate professor emeritus of Africana Studies at Pitt.

Kenneth Love has worked as a documentary filmmaker since 1972. His films include Saving Fallingwater; Leon Katz: My Life With and Without Gertrude Stein; One Shot: The Life and Work of Teenie Harris; and Fallingwater: A Conversation with Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. A recipient of two Emmy Awards in sound recording for Serengeti Diary and Realm of the Alligator, Love has contributed to more than 30 National Geographic television specials. After he earned his Pitt Bachelor of Arts degree in 1971, he went on to receive the MFA degree in film from Carnegie Mellon University.

Pitt began its annual Black History Month Program in 2004 with the world premiere of the documentary K. Leroy Irvis: The Lion of Pennsylvania and renamed it in 2008 the K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program to honor the memory of the legendary Pennsylvania legislative leader and Pitt alumnus and former trustee. Irvis, who in 1977 became the first African American speaker of the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania and the first Black speaker of any state house since Reconstruction, sponsored in 1966 the bill that made Pitt a state-related institution of higher education.

Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950)—who earned a Harvard University PhD and was a celebrated African American author, educator, and historian—initiated what he called “Negro History Week” in 1926. At the heart of the annual February observance, which in 1976 became Black History Month, is honoring African Americans who have struggled and achieved in their efforts to advance the mission of social equity.

Newspaper of Record was made possible through funding from the University of Pittsburgh, The Buhl Foundation, the Multicultural Arts Initiative, The Heinz Endowments, the Pennsylvania Council for the Humanities, the Falk Foundation, the Heinz Company Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts.