a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Storied newspaper championed civil rights

A display of a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe from the 1940s near the entrance to an exhibit on the 100th anniversary of the Courier weekly newspaper. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

The robed dummy dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan is alarming at the entrance to a Pittsburgh museum holding a special tribute to a celebrated black newspaper.

Worse yet, upon closer examination, the hooded costume supposedly worn by a Beaver County steelworker appears to be walking on copies of The Pittsburgh Courier, the weekly being honored on its 100th anniversary at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center.

The display reveals there once were nine klaverns in Beaver County in 1920, and that the hooded robe behind the glass case likely had been worn by Earl Long of Hopewell, who worked at Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. in Aliquippa. It's here as a reminder that the newspaper had mounted an anti-Klan campaign as a crusader of America's Civil Rights Movement.

It’s unfathomable to fully comprehend the fear The Pittsburgh Courier’s reporters had to have faced in unraveling their stories when racism was rampant. The job, today, is challenging enough for a white reporter like myself, especially when it comes to dealing with uncooperative police and court officials or politicians who avoid answering questions and then attempt to intimidate you once they are cornered.

Founded by poet Edward Nathanial Harleston in 1910, the newspaper went on to be regarded at the most-widely circulated and best black weekly newspaper in the United States.

Among its more famous journalists were photographer Charles "One Shot Teenie" Harris, who covered President John F. Kennedy's 1962 tour of Pittsburgh, and reporter George Barbour, a winner of 6 Golden Quill Awards for exposing racist hiring practices in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Pittsburgh was "fertile ground for a newspaper" to report on the challenges of the black community in the early 1900s, when blacks in growing numbers relocated to Pittsburgh from the South for work and freedom, the exhibit states. The Great Migration saw the black population rise in the county from 34,217 to 83,326 by 1930.

Yet this newspaper didn't just report on racial problems in the city. It dispatched reporters to wherever there were major problems, and even exposed deep-seated racism in the South when nine young black teens nicknamed the Scottsboro Boys were falsely accused of gang raping two white girls on a train in 1931.

Meanwhile, I had the privilege of interviewing Barbour 14 years ago for a Black History Month feature story in the Observer-Reporter. The Bridgeville man was heralded by Variety as having been the "first full-time Negro broadcast journalist on a major Pittsburgh broadcasting station" after he was hired by KDKA to expose discrimination in the local housing market.

"I got thrown out of a tavern in East Liberty and denied buying a home in a number of areas," the then-71-year-old Barbour said.

Management told him he was doing a wonderful job.

"But when I looked around KDKA, I didn't see any black faces. I was waiting for them to say they wanted to hire me," he said.

He went on to say that young children need to know their history, regardless of their race.

"There isn't one person in this country whose ancestors haven't experienced racism, hatred. America has a long way to go to become mature."

Barbour could possibly have once sat behind the antiquated green steel desk and old manual typewriter in a display near the end of the exhibit, where visitors are reminded of the challenges newspapers have faced in recent years over declining circulation and competition from the Internet.

The display ends with hope because The New Pittsburgh Courier and its online reports, including those on Twitter and Facebook, give it a bigger voice in one day than "it did in a month at its height in the 1940s."

It will run through at least the end of the summer at the museum at 1212 Smallman St.

The colored waiting room in Union Terminal, Pittsburgh, early 1900s, shown at the entrance to the exhibit.

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