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Reflecting on the history of Pittsburgh black media

Written By Lauren Clouser

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In the middle of Black History Month, the Center for Media Innovation (CMI) and the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation are coming together to hold a discussion on the black press.

The event will focus on the legacy of the Pittsburgh Courier, which started in 1907 as a community newsletter and went on to become one of America’s most influential African American newspapers.

The discussion, entitled “A Look at the Pittsburgh Courier’s Impact and Evolution of the Black Press,” will be held in the CMI on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. and will feature four journalists.

The panelists were chosen by Tory Parrish, the president of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, and Letrell Crittenden, the parliamentarian of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation.

Parrish said in a phone interview that she hopes that people will become more knowledgeable about the role that the black press played, particularly in the Civil Rights Movement.

“I think some people forget that the black press was the head of the Civil Rights Movement, and was there every step of the way,” Parrish said.

According to Louis Corsaro, the managing director of university marketing and public relations who helped to organize the event, the panel will focus on the past and future.

“The goal for this event really is to… talk to some of the prominent black journalists of today about the legacy of the old, original Pittsburgh Courier,” Corsaro said. “To say ‘what can we learn from that?’ and ‘what sort of voices do we need to have going forward?’”

The Pittsburgh Courier was created around 1907 by Edwin Harleston, who was originally from Charleston, S.C. No one was quite sure why he made the move to Pittsburgh, but once he arrived he began publishing something that was, according to Samuel Black, the director of African American Programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center, “like a community newsletter.”

The speakers will include Jesse Washington, the senior writer of ESPN.com’s “The Undefeated,” Damon Young, the cofounder of VerySmartBrothas.com, Rod Doss, the editor and publisher of the New Pittsburgh Courier, and Tené Croom, the chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Black Press Task Force, board member of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation and public relations specialist for Alcosan. Andrew Conte, the director for the CMI, will be moderating the discussion.

Croom started her career in her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. as a DJ at a cable radio station. The station was owned by James Brown, who is often referred to as ‘the Godfather of Soul,’ and was the only African-American-owned station at the time. From there she went on to interview presidents and to report the first post-apartheid vote in South Africa. In a phone interview, Croom pointed out the historical significance and longevity of the black press.

“It’s a special time because this marks 190 years of the black press,” Croom said. “It’s hard to believe that in 1827 that the black press’s first weekly newspaper was formed for black people at that time, and it happened in New York City, Freedom’s Journal.”

Two freed black men were the publishers, John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish. Croom expressed amazement and happiness that the black press has been present and strong for so long. She also cited that many of the injustices they wrote about back then are still relevant today.

“I think that the black press will evolve along with new technology,” Croom said, “…that technology is going to bring with it the new ways in which people want to consume the media, or consume their information, rather.”

Tyler Polk, a senior journalism major, is making a short video that will be played at the event, which will cover a bit of the Courier’s history. To learn about the paper’s past, Polk interviewed Black. Polk appreciated getting to learn more about the Courier’s history.

“It’s certainly a great experience to know everything about the Courier,” Polk said. “Considering that I have family that works in the New Pittsburgh Courier, or at least family friends, it’s interesting to figure out the history.”

In a phone interview, Black was able to provide some of the Courier’s 110 year history.

In 1910, Robert Vann, a graduate law student of the University of Pittsburgh, became the co-editor and treasurer of the Courier, and eventually became the majority stockholder and publisher in the late 1930s. In the 1930s and 1940s the Courier became more of a national newspaper. There were 14 national editions of the paper, all of which were printed in Pittsburgh on Center Avenue.

After the passing of Vann, the Courier went into bankruptcy. In the mid-1960s, John Sengstack, the editor of the Chicago Defender, another prominent African American newspaper, purchased the paper. Due to tax issues, the paper was renamed the New Pittsburgh Courier.

According to Black, the Courier had strong editorials, sports coverage and investigative reporting, all of which pushed for equality. Sports writers advocated for the desegregation of Major League Baseball and investigative reporters looked into discriminatory practices in businesses and the government.

The Courier was also one of the first African-American papers to print their comics in color, which Black said gave exposure to African-American illustrators.

The Pittsburgh Courier, along with other black publications, served as an advocate for African-American’s rights and was an outlet for African-American voices to be heard.

Croom recalled her father reading and mentioning the Courier.

“I remember my dad, my late father from Fayetteville, North Carolina talking about the Pittsburgh Courier,” Croom said. “He always talked about the Courier before when talking about civil rights, and then he said, ‘You remember, I love the Courier and all of the great things they would write about, because they always talked about and they always gave me great information about Civil Rights.’”

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