A SEPARATE WORLD

"It didn’t feel bad to be the only woman. When I was in the way of some photographer’s picture, I would challenge him. Sometimes they would say, ‘Well, you didn’t get anything.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, it’s better than what you got, I’m sure!’ We, constantly at that time, were fighting for a certain image, a certain feeling, and we really worked hard at it, to put the best foot forward in every picture."

-Vera Jackson, photographer

In the 1920s and 1930s, the black press provided crucial information to African Americans seeking employment, housing, and places to shop that would not discriminate against them. The black press also, through its society pages, photographs, cartoons, and other aspects, provided positive, uplifting images of African Americans and their communities. While many black newspapers thrived, others failed due at least in part to their difficulty in generating advertising revenue. The papers that survived hired some of the best known black scholars and activists as writers. They introduced new commercial strategies to increase circulation. At the same time, they continued to serve their communities as a sort of printed public sphere, in which issues of the day could be analyzed, discussed, even hotly debated.

Between World War I and World War II, the black press provided its readers with information that they needed to navigate through a segregated world. Black newspapers could be used to identify potential employers, or stores whose doors would not close on African American customers. They also contained sports and society pages, and hard news ignored by the white press. The black press also differed from the mainstream press in the types of advertising that filled its pages, and its uniquely uplifting photographs, illustrations, and cartoons.

Mainstream papers depended on department stores and large advertising accounts for much of their revenue, but white-owned businesses were usually not interested in advertising to black consumers. As a result, most black newspapers operated on shoestring budgets, and all of them depended on circulation rather than advertising for the majority of their income. Still, desperate for revenue, most papers accepted ads for cosmetics, patent medicines, and goods and services promoted by black entrepeneurs with small businesses and little to spend on ads. Some of these products, such as straighteners and skin lighteners, would come under attack in some circles for promoting white standards of beauty at the expense of black self-esteem.

At the same time, newspapers devoted themselves to countering the degrading images of African Americans commonly found in the mainstream press. Grotesque caricatures appeared in comics carried by white newspapers. In the black press, cartoonists such as Chester Commodore and illustrators such as Romare Bearden (later well-known as an artist), created black heroes, rendered to project dignity, courage, and intelligence. "Your History," written by J. A. Rogers and illustrated by Samuel Milai, brought to light little-known facts about black history. From the pages of the widely read Pittsburgh Courier, readers marvelled at the revelations that Rogers unearthed. In this educational comic strip, many heard for the first time about achievements by people of African descent in the governance, arts, and sciences of both the ancient and modern worlds.

Photographs appearing in black newspapers also offered readers uplifting images of themselves and their communities. Photojournalists including Charles "Teenie" Harris and Vera Jackson avoided demeaning sensationalism. They treated their subjects with dignity and respect, whether they were called upon to document a crime scene or a glamorous social event.

The papers also employed many of the most promising young black intellectuals. The Chicago Defender, for example, hired Langston Hughes as a columnist and published Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry. Vibrant in both written and visual content, many black newspapers of the era thrived. The Amsterdam News of New York City, Baltimore’s Afro American, and the Atlanta Daily World were among the most prosperous, long-lasting black newspapers.

The Pittsburgh Courier achieved unprecedented success by introducing a number of innovations to newspaper publishing. While the Chicago Defender was essentially a local paper distributed nationally, the Courier appealed to readers outside of Pittsburgh by basing fifteen different editions in cities across the country. Eventually, the Courier surpassed the Defender in circulation.

Further, the Courier’s publisher, Robert L. Vann, did not use the paper to promote a single point of view. Vann was an astute lawyer and businessman. He hired well-known black scholars and political activists, including the civil rights leader Dr. W. E. B. DuBois and the anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Columns by Marcus Garvey, who led the radical back-to-Africa movement, ran alongside those by the politically conservative George Schuyler. Some critics charge Vann with opportunistically orchestrating controversy only to increase circulation. Others maintain that the Courier fulfilled the potential of the black press as a forum for the exchange of ideas and political debate, through its commitment to representing the true diversity of opinion among African Americans.

Only on rare occasion did Vann use the Courier to put forth his own political agenda. At least once, he did so with astonishing impact. In 1932, he called for black voters to leave the Republican Party -- the party of Abraham Lincoln. African Americans joined the Democratic Party in such large numbers that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after his election that year to the presidency, rewarded Vann with a post as Assistant Attorney General.

The Courier and other successful black newspapers provided forums for political expression and influence. It had helped lead African American communities through over a century of struggle. Nevertheless, the black press was yet to face one of its greatest challenges, which would unfold when the United States entered the second world war.

Witnesses

George Barbour, journalist

Frank Bolden, journalist

Chester Commodore, cartoonist

Phyl Garland, journalist

Charles "Teenie" Harris, photographer

Vera Jackson, photographer

Robert R. Lavelle, Pittsburgh Courier staff

Edward "Abie" Robinson, journalist

Patrick Washburn, historian

Discussion Questions

In the early and mid-twentieth century, many black newspapers struggled financially. How did some publishers achieve economic success? How and why did some of their strategies for building up their businesses differ from those used by mainstream newspapers?

What role did visual representations of African Americans play in the black press?

How does the press benefit its readers by serving as a platform for a variety of political opinions, even radically opposing views?