Edna McKenzie

Edna McKenzie
  INT: Tell me about the first day you ever worked for black newspapers.
EM: I went to Los Angeles shortly after I graduated from high school and it was 1941, ah, and, ah, went to work at The Los Angeles Tribune, a small tabloid newspaper. And, of course, I was a general assignment reporter, had to run all over Los Angeles and do all kinds of stories about music, about murders, about any kind of news. Ahm, it was exciting. I had to come back and, ah, the editor, ah, Almena Lomax, was a very, very hard taskmaster. It -- I worked all day and -- but I loved it.

INT: How did it feel as a young girl to work for the paper?
EM: It was exciting. I -- I just thought I was almost as happy as I needed to be because you met exciting people, famous people, and Los Angeles was always a city where everything happens. And you really didn't need anything else, just the excitement of the city.

INT: Was there a need for black papers in LA?
EM: There was a need, as I see it, from every angle in every place in America, particularly cities. Remember, Charlotta Bass had The California Eagle long before I went there. And it was absolutely necessary in order to get the black story or interpretation of even news out. Remember, it -- there've always been, ahm, situations where we never get our point of view expressed. Without a black newspaper, it was never going the happen. It doesn't happen today. You know that. Therefore, there was a need and black people always filled that need from way back from the beginning in 1827 when you had your first Freedom Journal.

INT: What do you know about Charlotta Bass?
EM: I knew that Charlotta Bass was a very famous woman, not only as a newspaper person, but as a politician. Remember she ran for Vice President, I think, on the Socialist ticket, just about around that time. So, obviously, just the idea of being in a situation where you would run into or meet a person like that, for a young woman like me, a young girl, ah, was exciting and was something that I looked forward to. And it made me more ambitious to do things myself as a journalist.

INT: Did you grow up reading black newspapers?
EM: I grew up reading black history because my father was an AME preacher, ah, and we moved around a great deal. Ah, ended up in West Virginia, where they used Carter G. Woodson's The Negro in Our History, published in 1922. And so quite early I got my, ahm, grounding in -- in the notion ...

INT: Did your family read black newspapers or no?
EM: Well, my sister edited a little paper in Uniontown, Pennsylvania back in the 1930s. When she graduated from Wilberforce in 1936, then her first job was, ah, editing The Courier Digest, a little tabloid in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, not very far from Pittsburgh.

INT: What was the purpose of Freedom's Journal?
EM: Freedom's Journal was a necessity, ah, because there was no way black people were ever going to be able to get their message out to the general public without putting their own spin, as we would call it today, but their -- from their own perspective telling the story of their experiences in America. Ahm, as they -- as -- as we went along, even before the Civil War, we had a 150-odd newspapers that came into being, didn't necessarily last long, but they were getting the message out about what blacks perceived, what they wanted, what they needed, what they intended to do about their own situation. Ahm, I -- I -- I think you, ah, have looked at, say, the copy of the Mystery and at the top it -- ah, the masthead says, "And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," and which was to say that black people were admonished to study, to educate themselves, even though there weren't permitted to go to school. And so the newspaper was the communication vehicle that we had. And it is even today.

INT: Tell about Ida B. Wells as a newspaper woman.
EM: Ida B. Wells started very young, at 16, in Memphis, Tennessee. She had her own newspaper and she, ah, like all of her, ahm, people of her time, knew that black people were not being presented fairly. And so she, of course, set about to tell the story the way she knew it should be told and she was so bold and courageous and she came right out and -- and, ahm, attacked the white press and public for their shameful deeds. Some of her friends were lynched for no good reason and, of course, we know as a result of that, she was driven out of town. She had to come North, where, of course, in Chicago she kept up the fight. Newspapers -- black newspapers have always had only one purpose, and that is to advocate and to fight for the God- given rights of black people and all black newspaper people know that and that's why they exist.

INT: What was the special purpose of the early newspapers?
EM: During the 19th century, before the end of slavery, the only purpose was, ah, for free people who were, of course, the newspaper people, to do whatever was necessary to bring their brethren out of slavery. They refused to leave, as you know, and, ah, they had to stay here and fight and fight for their humanity, which was denied to them and their brethren. That was the purpose and they knew that, ah, ah, no matter what else they did, unless there were, ah, able to make it clear to the public that black people were not satisfied, they were not happy slaves, they were not happy to see their brethren in slavery, and they had every right, ah, to have a -- the pursuit of happiness and the protection of the government for which they were paying taxes and for which they had given their lives in the wars.

INT: What happened after you worked in LA and came her to get a job on the Courier?
EM: I didn't have a lot of difficulty getting a job on the Courier. I simply went in and asked, ah, to be hired. It just happened that at that time the woman's editor, Julia Bumry Jones, had a stroke and they needed someone to go to her house and take her column down. Well, I was a very fast typist, so I went to her house and she dictated her column to me, ah, and I worked there with her until she died. Ahm, during the later months of her life, I really wrote her column because she wasn't able. I opened the mail and she said, "You know what to say." And so I'd just go ahead and do her "Talk of Town", bring it down to the Courier office.

INT: What kind of news did you do?
EM: Oh, well now, in the beginning Julia Jones was known all over the country as the -- the leading columnist. Her "Talk of Town" was as famous as any column you've ever heard.

INT: Did you like doing "Talk of the Town"?
EM: No, I didn't like ... I started working at the Courier for Julia Bumry Jones, who was the society editor. But it was not my intention, ah, to make myself a society editor. I didn't like the weddings, the teas, the parties, but, of course, I had to do that because that was my job. I did it for several years. After Julia died, stayed there a little while until Tokie Shock came in from Boston. And, ah, one day I just got sick and tired of doing it and in the meantime I had been talking to Wendell Smith, who was the city editor, and I just yearned to be over there with the fellas doing the news -- the murders, the all kinds of -- the fires, everything that went on in the community. And he had told me, "Well, you can work for me if you want to. I'd be glad." So one day I was in a terrible mood because I had to sit there and do these weddings and parties, which I hated, and I decided I was not going to do it anymore. It didn't occur to me that I needed permission to move, so I started moving everything out of my desk, which was on the other side of the editorial room, over to the city desk, where Wendell Smith was in charge. And I was -- I was so angry because I had to do this that, ahm, I was -- I was really crying and moving my things. And Mr. Nunn came out of his office. He was the managing editor of the Courier. And he said, "What are you doing?" I told him, "I'm moving my things over to the city desk. I am not going to work over here anymore because I am sick of doing this kind of thing." And he said, "Well, who told you you could move?" I said, "Well, Wendell said I could work for him, so I'm moving." (Laughs) "Come in my office, young lady," he said. And then, of course, he read me the riot act, how I had no business moving myself, I did not give myself a job. Well, the long and short of it was the fact that he looked and he laughed and he said, "Anybody with that much GD nerve will make a good reporter. Go on over there and work," and that was it. (Laughs)

INT: What was their nickname for you?
EM: Well, my name was Chapelle, so they called me Chappie, but most of the time they called be Scoop because I was young and they played tricks on me all the time. But, in fact, they -- they all liked me and they took me with them.

INT: Tricks like what?
EM: Oh, send me lookin' for a left-handed wrench one day or something in the press room and, ah, they gave me -- my assignments were the morgue and they knew I was afraid of dead bodies, but I had to go there and examine and I had to go, ah, with them, with Ted Goldman, Johnny Taylor, that gang, ah, to the murders and I'd have to step over the bodies and it gave them a great laugh 'cause they could see that I was frightened. But I got used to it and became a very hard-nosed reporter. And I did everything the same way the fellas did.

INT: What was it like to be the only woman reporter?
EM: It didn't bother -- working at the Courier with men on the city desk didn't bother me at all because I'd grown up with three boys and I learned to fight for myself and to hold my own all my life. And I'd always then been able, ah, to do whatever I needed to do with no thought of gender. Ah, my parents did not raise us to make special privileges for the girls as opposed to the boys.

INT: Was World War II an opportunity for women at the Courier?
EM: I think it -- ahm, during the war years many opportunities opened up for women in every field. Ah, it was a matter of necessity. Probably because of the demands of the war on the men to be gone, then women needed to fill in the gap. And, ahm, I think that, ah, women brought a different perspective and it was important then to -- to have that done. Then, more important, I had worked a year on a newspaper and I could write when I went to the Courier and I knew I could write. Therefore, it didn't make any difference being a woman if you could write. I sat on the desk for years and wrote the headlines and checked the paper and rewrote everybody's copy and it had -- didn't have a thing to do with being a woman. It was a matter of being competent to do the work.

INT: Talk about how it felt to be in that big news room.
EM: The one exciting thing about the Courier was that every day when you looked up, there was somebody comin' up the steps -- A. Philip Randolph, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanello, ah, Lena Horne, you name it -- Mary McCleod Bethune -- anybody who came to Pittsburgh. And everybody came to Pittsburgh because of Robert L. Vann and The Pittsburgh Courier. Then you saw those famous people all the time. I remember particularly Chief Anderson, who trained the 99 (Unintell.) Squadron, and there was always -- to me, I thought he was just a fine-looking man and "Oh, there's Chief Anderson." And, of course, the fellas would say, "Well, you just get -- just stay away. You're just a little girl, remember." Ah, but it -- it was an exciting time. It got to the place after ten years that you became kind of jaded and I really didn't pay attention if Thurgood Marshall came in or -- or, ah, anybody else that was famous. I thought, "Oh, well, that's every day at the Courier."

INT: Tell about the Double V Campaign.
EM: The Double Victory Campaign was, I think, probably the most, ahm, ah, exciting aggressive program the Courier engaged in during the time I was there. It was because we had always been fighting for victory at home as well as abroad, but when this young fella Thompson came up with the idea of the Double Vs, victory at home and victory abroad, it fit right into all that we lived for and, in fact, at Courier there was so much enthusiasm and loyalty to our cause that we knew that all of us had to engage in that fight every day for Double Victory. We didn't like going downtown paying the same price for a ticket and have to go upstairs in the theater. I had to do that. I didn't like it because I went around to restaurants. In one particular instance I had an assignment to go all over town and on the outskirts and go into restaurants where I knew I couldn't be served, but in fact I had to go through that. Well, that was worse that fighting a war. We were at war all of the time in the United States, not only in Pittsburgh. The Courier was the chief advocate, I think, but, ah, actually it was war all of the time and though our brothers and husbands and, ah, sons ever overseas fighting, we had to fight here.

INT: What were the repercussions of the Double V Campaign?
EM: As a result of the Double Victory Campaign, actually we made many enemies, ah, because, as I've, ah, stated, we were at war and in war you don't have friendly relationships. You're out to kill each other. And so that's the way it was with the Courier. We were trying to kill Jim Crow and racism and the lynching that was going on, that had gone on all during the century, and the unfair barriers that were put up, ah, ah, for our people. We could not go and teach school. We couldn't do any of the things. Now naturally we made a lot of enemies. We lost a lot of advertising. We couldn't get it. There was talk, ahm, in the plant, in among the employees about the FBI investigating all newspapers. They wanted to shut us down because we were doing something which held the whole United States of American government up to the ridicule of the whole world. How can you go somewhere and fight for democracy when you have people that you are oppressing by law at home? Citizens that are guaranteed every right are bein' denied that right on a daily basis.

INT: How serious did the government look at the threat of what the black papers were doing?
EM: Actually during that period when the Courier was pursuing the Double Victory Campaign, it was seen as a great threat to America. And there was effort -- the efforts were made, we know, by J. Edgar Hoover to if they could not, ah, change the -- the stories in the paper, ah, tone them down, they would -- actually would shut them down. And, ah, because, obviously, our people were accused of being traitors. Now what they didn't seem to understand, that we were very -- we had every valid reason to fight for full citizenship at home if we were expected to give our lives overseas. It didn't make sense not to do that. Now I don't see it ever as a -- of a notion of not bein' patriotic. It is certainly patriotic to look after, ah, your own self-interest, which is what everybody in the world does all the time.

INT: Tell me, in brief, about the discrimination series you wrote right after World War II.
EM: After the war we still had many battles to fight at the Courier, the restrictive covenants, the inability of the government to enforce equal rights laws that were on the books since 1935. So I was assigned by P.L. Prattis, the city editor at that time, to go out and do a series of stories on how you were treated when you went to a restaurant to be served. Ahm, I went because I had to, ah, but it was an excruciating experience. Ahm, I -- I would go in a restaurant and try to sit down at the counter and ask for a cup of coffee and I would be told, "Why, we don't serve coffee here. We don't have any coffee." That was pretty hard to take. Ah, then I would go somewhere else, maybe in Clariton in a restaurant or, ah, one of the surrounding towns and be told, "Well, if you lived around here, you'd know better than to come in here because we don't serve black people in here," "negroes", they would say then. And so it continued for several weeks. I'd come back to the Courier and write the story of exactly what happened, what they said to me, and they certainly were never nice things. And when I went home at night, I was just so hurt I would cry myself to sleep. But then I knew to be a hard-nosed reporter and to do my share for the cause, my part for the cause. The cause was the elevation of our people to what they were entitled to. I felt very good about it. I felt I was doing what I needed to do.

INT: Then what happened after you wrote the articles?
EM: Yes. After writing those articles, ah, then people would be called into court and we would take them to court and they would then be held, because they violated the law, and it would hit them in their pocketbooks. We broke down discrimination in Pittsburgh many years before the Civil Rights Movement started in the South, doing the same thing.

INT: Talk about the blood and guts of the black press.
EM: The black press has oftentimes been accused of being sensational, but we were fighting the kind of battle that, ah, could not be clean and pretty. We were dealing with the reality. When you had people being lynched all over the United States, we had to show the bodies hanging from the trees. On the, ah, other hand, when people were brutalized even in the black community, there was no reason that it should be hidden. And, then again, we were competing, ah, and did not, ah, have access to the resources that, ah, white newspapers had. Obviously, we didn't get the advertising from the corporations, ah, until much later and we -- and so, therefore, we had to sell papers. And sensationalism still sells newspapers.

INT: Who advertised in the black newspapers?
EM: Black newspapers had to make their, ahm -- to -- to make their profit primarily off circulation. And, you know, that's not the way it's done. Ah, obviously, the Courier, with its courage and boldness, ah, fighting against what white people in fact were keeping in place -- segregation, discrimination, bias, ah, ah, all kinds of barriers to our people and their progress -- obviously did not like it. And you can understand that. So, therefore, they did not advertise in The Pittsburgh Courier to the extent that we would like to have had -- had happen. Ah, but their, ahm -- I don't know if anyone knows much about it, but they formed their own, ahm, group, consortium.
EM: See, I believe the black press was so precious and important, ah, to our people, ah, because they took the responsibility of trying to lead people, ah, in the right way. That is to say, ah, putting forth always a message of, ahm, of elevation, not -- and responsibility, not only for yourself, but for all those people around you, because we realized we were all in same boat together. No matter if you had a PhD, you were still being treated the same way as the man on the street who was a janitor. And it was the black press that had to bring the community together. It was, ah, the glue, I think, in many cases. With the exception of the church, no institution did more for the elevation of black people than the black newspaper.

INT: Talk about the effect of the black press bringing the community together.
EM: The mission of the black press was primary to inform and to give guidance, ah, to the whole community and to bring the community together. Now there was no way the community could work together unless they understood what their mission was and how they could go about, ahm, achieving their goals together because it was absolutely imperative that we all, ah, felt responsible for the whole community. I know as a young newspaper person, I felt as though I was responsible for every black person in the world, (Laughs) not only in Pittsburgh. So everything we did had to be geared toward what would it do to elevate our people. And the black press, I think only -- only the black church can we see as a more unifying force than that of the -- of the black press.

INT: Talk about the effect of such intellectual people writing for the black press.
EM: Well, there were several reasons that, ahm, we had, ah, such and effect on the population, blacks as well as the white population, because the intellectuals, our great writers like Langston Hughes and George Schuyler and, ahm, all of our historians, our -- our -- our leaders in every phase of life had a way in which to reach the public. Now they weren't given that much opportunity in the white press. You know that. So then there was provided an opportunity for us all to, ah, take advantage of and be blessed really by those great minds and those great artists, ah, like even a Paul Robeson would express himself in the -- in the black press.

INT: Why did the black press decline?
EM: Oftentimes people wonder why the black press, Courier and others, have, ah, not the circulation and do not have the same effect that they used to have. Well, that happens in everything. Once you achieve your goals and you have specific goals as -- as the black press had, was to acquire full citizenship for blacks, and we do have laws now that protect us, then you've outlived your purpose and there's nothing for you but decline. What has happened as that over the years then after blacks got the laws on the books, they got the schools open, they got the job opportunities, then there was not the crying need, ah, for the kind of journalism that -- that the black press represented.

INT: Why wasn't it perfect?
EM: We have to understand that the black press certainly was not perfect, and I, too, think that, ah, we engaged in perhaps too much sensationalism. Ah, the murders were always on the front page and the blood and the gore, but it was the reality and the -- besides the cause, the cause, which was -- which was so important, there was a necessity to make money. And, ah, I -- while the black press, ah, ah, can not be completely excused for that kind of, ahm, sensationalism, and that was, of course, oftentimes, ahm, taken far beyond where it should have ended, ah, but in fact it was understandable given the necessity to gain the resources from the general public and not from advertising sources.

INT: Why did we need a black press?
EM: We needed a black press because there was no way to get out story out to the general American public. We certainly couldn't continue to talk among ourselves. We had a right to get our story out and from our own perspective. Without a black newspaper, it could never have been done.

INT: When you were growing up, how were black people covered in the white newspapers?
EM: We have always been covered in a negative sense in the white newspapers. That's understandable because they're concerned with promoting themselves and their own best interest. We had every right to do the same thing. So we had to have a vehicle by which to do it, and that was the press.
EM: When I went to Los Angeles I was just excited about meeting Charlotta Bass, who was not only a great journalist, but a politician. You remember she ran -- she ran for Vice President. I think she was the first black woman in America to get into national politics in that manner. And, ah, The California Eagle was a very highly respected newspaper. And, ah, my sister, of course, worked for the newspaper first and also for The Chicago Defender as a West Coast correspondent. I wanted to do what my big sister did. (Laughs)

INT: Sounds like there were a lot of women working in the black press.
EM: There were a lot of women in California who - - who just were not bothered by the kinds of barriers that seemed society erected for them. They were courageous women who made their own way and ah -- and lived according to what they wanted to do. They were not at all, ahm, ah, people who were afraid to break down the barriers that other people put in the way.

INT: Why in California?
EM: Well, maybe it's the, you know, "Go West, Young Man, Young Woman", and the spirit of adventure because, remember, in that period, ah, California was just developing. Los Angeles was just growing to be a large metropolitan area. And the opportunities were there and, ahm, that's why, of course, ah, we went West.

INT: What was happening in LA at that time?
EM: When I went to Los Angeles, ah, it was -- ahm, it was a growing metropolis. Actually black people were moving there in droves because they had heard about all the opportunities, to say nothing of the wonderful weather. And, ah, so, ah, I think that I was really fortunate to get there at that time. Blacks were going into business, all kind of business, and, of course, newspapers then were thriving.

INT: Why were so many women in LA in newspaper work?
EM: Los Angeles was, ahm, a new community and I think there was the notion that, ah, women had more opportunity there. Ah, maybe it had to do with the, ah, notion we had in America about the Wild West, go West for opportunity, to seek your fortune and that kind of thing. And I think we were all sort of imbued with that, that kind of idea. And it drew us to the West Coast for new adventure and new careers.