The Discursive Power of the Pittsburgh Courier and the Black PressRoundup
tags: African American history, newspapers, journalism, Black Newspapers, Pittsburgh Courier
Adam Lee Cilli specializes in U.S. social history from the late nineteenth century through World War II. His first book, Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945 (University of Georgia Press, 2021), illuminates the social justice efforts of journalists, scholars, social workers, medical experts, lawyers, and other professionals who navigated the fraught racial landscape of the urban North during the first phase of the Great Migration.
“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.
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