George Barbour
 

INT: Tell me about your experience in the Army in Florida.
GB: Yes. Ah, I was stationed in MacNeil Field, Florida, and it had -- up to then it had been really an experience because of finding that there were two separate, ah -- two separate branches of service, a white and a black branch. But, anyhow, we were put on guard duty and were assigned night sticks, no guns. As of this time, this was a theater of war because the German U-boats just offsh-- offshore would send spies and would surface and, ah -- and we were walking the -- ah, we were walking the patrol on the beaches with a night club. And, Stan, we -- we decided this was stupid. It did not make any sense. And so, as a result, ah, we just, ah, said -- we forgot about the guard duty. And it so happened that particular night that somebody, ah, stole a truck from the -- from the motor pool, took the truck to the PX and put a wrench on it and took the safe out of the PX ...

INT: What was wrong with carrying night sticks?
GB: Well, at that time we felt as though that we were not -- that the government did not trust us, the black soldiers, with -- with weapons, loaded weapons, on guard duty. And, ah, that -- that -- that's what we saw as the reason why. We also had an instance there that pointed up the racism that, ah, the German prisoners of war decided that they were not going to serve the black soldiers at the hospital on the base, the base hospital. And as a result, ah, they went on a strike. They would refuse to serve us. So -- so we went on a strike, too, when we found out about it. And, ah, so we had tied up the squadron, the black squadron.
That was quite an experience for this young guy from -- from this area, who went in with all kind of thoughts of winning the war for his country and went in the first time and I got to the recruiting station, they started dividing us air cadets, the white here and the black there, and so forth. I wondered what the heck was goin' on. Yes, we went in -- we went in to end the war for the country and so forth like 'at, and we found out that there was a black -- a black, ah, army and a white army and that the racism was such that, ah, it seemed that we weren't even wanted in the service. And, ah, it just got worse from that recruiting station, ah, throughout until the time we were discharged.

INT: Tell me about reading the Courier in the service.
GB: The Courier -- the Courier was a friend in the service. The Courier -- we read the Courier and it was somebody who -- it was -- it was a friend. It was a friend who kept us, the -- let us know that they -- they were looking out for our interests in the service and letting people know back home just what we were doing to -- to contribute to victory for our country.


INT: Do you remember the Double V Campaign?
GB: Double V Campaign was victory at home and victory abroad. And that meant jobs at home for, ah -- for the people who are here on the home front and that meant the integration of the -- of the armed forces. Now, incidentally, there were some of my brothers who -- who -- who did not want integration! (Laughs) They were -- they were saying, "Hey, we're okay here and we don't want" -- if they don't want us to fight, we don't want to go over there and fight anyhow. So why integrate," you know.

INT: How did it feel to read the Courier?
GB: Ah, reading -- reading papers like the Courier, it just, ah, gave us, ah, more of that spirit that we were going to make certain we served the country, yes, but when -- whenever we got the opportunity, we were gonna do -- do what we could to make the country better, ah, better. And I -- I have to say, to point this out, there were two of my buddies, ah, who, ah, were Courier readers and all. So we're fired-up persons who -- we had an orientation class and the class was "Why are you, as a black soldier, fighting?" And, ah, ah, the two stood up, one at a time stood up saying, "We're not fighting for a doggoned thing until you, ah, get rid of this -- this discrimination in these armed forces. And, furthermore, if Hitler, Hirohito and Musolini came down the streets of Tampa, Florida, I wouldn't -- we wouldn't pick up a stick to fight them." They were declared -- ah, they were declared -- I think they were some of the first blacks that ever were sent to a psychiatrist. They were sent to a psychiatrist on the white side of the base and, ah, Flemming and Buck Williams, whenever they went up there, ah, while they were waiting to see the psychiatrist, they decided to take the officers candidate test. They took the officers candidate test and they ranked the highest. And they went for an oral interview and they were both turned down because they were too aggressive to become officers. So that's what we were talkin' about.


INT: You started reading the Courier when?
GB: Ah, when I first learned how to read, and I guess I learned how to read around, ooh, three or four or five or something like 'at, but it was always a wonderful time in my country neighborhood, a little, small town. Whenever the -- whenever the Courier -- the fella who delivered the Courier came around. And it was good reading there about blacks who were doing things and especially at that time I was interested in flying and they always had something about some of the black aviators, some of -- some -- some of the guys who were stunt fliers. And then later, in later years, of course, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. So it was a great time in my little neighborhood of Oakdale, Pennsylvania when the fella who sold popcorn and the Courier and so forth came around. It was like -- I think it was usually a Friday of Saturday. Well, anyhow, it was a great time, indeed.


INT: What was the difference between the Courier and the white papers?
GB: Ah, the difference of the Courier and the white paper? Well, at that young age I had no, ah -- ah, I had no, ah -- how could I say it -- I wasn't that much interested in -- in the white papers really.


INT: Why?
GB: ... because -- because it -- it just was a different world, ah, from the world that I lived in. Now I kept up with what was going on, but, however, the Courier -- the Courier was my world, so to speak, with Joe Lewis and -- and Mary McCleod Bethune and -- and, ah, Charles Houston and the civil rights fight, the NAACP and also the flashbacks to black history. Ah, this was my paper. This was my paper.


INT: Do you remember J.A. Rogers at all?
GB: Oh, yes, yes. J.A. Rogers, he usually -- he had, ah -- went into black history. J.A. Rogers was one of the, ah -- one of the, ah -- the pioneers in -- ah, in black history, so to speak. And a lot of persons would doubt J.A. Rogers about the authenticity of, ah -- of saying that Mozart was -- was black and that the Queen of Sheba was black, and so forth like 'at. And also that mankind originated in Africa, but, lo and behold, after those many, many years a lot of those things that looked like stories when we were growing up and people doubted have been proven true. Like, for instance, the origin of mankind, yeah.


INT: I heard people laughed at Rogers sometimes and thought he went too far.
GB: Well, I mean, I -- J.A. Rogers, ah, reportedly thought that everything invented was invented by a black man. But when you look at the origin of mankind and when you trace the theory of evolution and the leakies(?) in Africa, ah, anthropologists, did -- they -- they -- they researched from East Africa ...


INT: What was the importance of the black press to black communities in those days?
GB: The black press let us know that our -- the country in which we lived in and love was a democracy and that we had to fight for our rights and that the black press was in the vanguard of fighting for our rights.


INT: Was there a more powerful institution in the black community?
GB: Generally speaking, there was no other black force, ah, as powerful as -- as the black press in the -- in the black community. Ah, locally there were some churches who were powerhouses, but, generally speaking, it was the black press. Now the NAACP, not taking anything arn-- away from them, they were also a powerhouse, but for specific cases and so forth like 'at. So the black press -- the black press, ah, was -- was -- was -- was that that spirited people.


INT: Talk about when you were a boy reading the article that Van wrote about turning Lincoln's picture to the wall.
GB: Robert L. Vann, ah, told blacks to turn the picture of Lincoln to the wall. At that time, most blacks, ah, were Republicans and this -- and he said turn it because we weren't going to get anything from the Republicans. As a result, my father was one of those who were in that pioneer movement and, ah, it was something that just swelled and just, ah, caught on and, ah, it was just a different -- ah, different -- it broke, ah -- it broke a mold. It broke a mold. Most persons in the little town of Oakdale, black, were Republicans and the surrounding areas, but in a very short time most persons were Democrats and had turned the picture of Lincoln to the wall and were cheering Roosevelt.


INT: Tell about your uncle's newsstand.
GB: My uncle had a newsstand in the heart of Pittsburgh. There, I was able to read The Pittsburgh Courier, The Amsterdam News, and The Communist Daily Worker and other papers and to see -- to see the fascinating people, things were really happening. These were the '30s, '36 on, and -- and there was life and there was protest and there were all kinds of things going on. And, ah, it was just fascinating for this little six year-old or, ah, oh, I was ten years at that time, in '36, to see what was going on. And -- and as a result from that, came that fascination of people to find out what -- what made 'em tick and just to get to know 'em and so forth like 'at that led me into becoming a -- a news reporter.


INT: Do you remember what happened when you told your parents you wanted to be a newsman?
GB: When I told my parents that I wanted to become a news reporter on a daily newspaper, my parents said, "You're crazy." They looked at me and started laughing, said, "Why don't you become a doctor or dentist or a lawyer or -- or some other profession because there are no black daily news reporters." There was only one at that time, Ted Poston with The New York Daily News. And I said, "No, that's what I want to be." And so they said to me, "Well, be the best." Said, "You're gonna starve."


INT: What happened when you went to get a job on the white papers?
GB: At the University of Pittsburgh was an outstanding journalism school, ah, student. At three months before graduation for the outstanding journalism students, ah, students, they were hired by a local newspaper because the assistant professor was the wife of the editor of the newspaper and so, ah, ah, three months and I -- it went by and I was not hired and all my other classmates that were outstanding were hired. And so I said, ah, said, ah, "How about -- how about, ah -- how about looking out for me and getting me a job on -- on the newspaper?" And she said to me, said, "I'll look into it." And she's been looking into it every since that day. Ah, but it was great in the sense that because when I got a job with the Afro-American newspapers, I did obituaries for about one week and after that I was given, ah, just prime assignments, whereas if I had gone to a daily newspaper, I probably might have even relished the rest of my life in writing obituaries.


INT: Did you try to get jobs with other white papers?
GB: I tried, ah -- I had hopes of getting with The New York Times, with The Washington Post, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Washington and The Oregonian and those outstanding papers, daily newspapers. I sent applications though the country and no response, nothing. So, as a result, I had to work because my father said, "You're supposed to work," and I went into the steel mill to work.


INT: Talk about how everything changed after a while. Why didn't you stay with the black paper?
GB: I didn't story with -- I -- the reason why I didn't stay with the black newspaper, the black press, and I loved it -- it was a freedom that a reporter dreams of -- was because of the money, the financial situation. I had a family I had to support and, as a result, I was offered more money from the, ah -- from Westinghouse Broadcasting, yeah.


INT: How important was Joe Lewis to you?
GB: Joe Lewis was very important to me because he was, indeed, a role model and -- and I was Little Joe Lewis, so to speak, standpoint I used my brain to get ahead. I also used my fists to get ahead. Ah, and Joe Lewis was such a hero to me that the night that, ah, Max Schmelling(?) knocked out Joe Lewis, I was selling newspapers in the City of Pittsburgh and there were extras and I was reading. And I was yelling, "Extra! Extra! Schmelling Knocks Out Joe Lewis!" And I was crying as I was yelling the headline. And, ah, one fella, ah, near the -- near the old hotel there, ah, came out and said to me, ah, "Boy, how much did you lose?" I said, "I lost a whole dollar." And, ah -- and, ah, he said, "Here's a dollar. Next time bet on the right guy." But if I -- I told him I bet, but if my parents had even heard of me -- thought I was sayin' the word "bet" or thinking of betting, I would have been killed. But, anyhow, Joe Lewis was -- was a hero, indeed. He was, ah -- we heard what Joe Lewis did on radio. The Courier reinforced what we did -- what we heard on radio.


INT: Why did they call Teenie Harris One Shot?
GB: One Shot Harris. At that time -- at that time, ah, lightbulbs, flash lightbulbs were expensive then. The Courier only gave Teenie a certain amount of money for the lightbulbs. So Teenie said he -- he wasn't going to waste a whole lot of money on lightbulbs and he was going to watch his budget. So he would take, make certain that one shot, that one shot was the shot. And that name was tagged, given to him by a former governor of Pennsylvania who was mayor at that time, Dave Lawrence.
They also called him Teenie Little Lover, 'cause he had a way -- he had a way with the women. And Teenie probably, ah, will laugh when he hears me say this, but, ah, that was his name, Teenie Little Lover. He also was one of the greatest dribblers.


INT: Why didn't you want to work for the black press?
GB: I guess the ... I did -- I wanted to write, ah, work -- I wanted to work for the daily newspaper, for a daily newspaper, ah, to get the excitement of every day, ah. And, as a result, I wasn't thinking of working for a weekly or a black weekly. I wanted to work for a daily newspaper. And if it had have been a black daily newspaper, I would have worked for it, but there wasn't. But then there was a change, a change that took place when I got a job with The Afro-American newspaper. And I thought at that time that, ah -- that, ah, black businesses to a large degree were not -- were not solid businesses. Ah, I went to The Afro- American and I was subject to a battery of tests, ah, and I was surprised, indeed.


INT: Tell me about Mrs. Vann as a publisher.
GB: Ah, Mrs. Vann ... Mrs. Robert L. Van was a fine lady. She was not a business person, however, and as a result was not able to survive, to survive in the -- the business world. Ah, a tragedy, indeed, 'cause Mr. Vann did not want her to be a business woman. He wanted -- he worked to have her as his wife, to take care of her and not to be out in the world of business.


INT: So she wasn't prepared to take over?
GB: No, she wasn't. Mrs. Vann was not a newspaper person at all. She was -- she was a housewife and socialite and a fine person, indeed.


INT: Talk about Prattis telling you to go cover a story and start an NAACP chapter.
GB: Mr. Prattis was a great activist. He believed in getting things done. There was a situation out in the small town of Cannonsburg and -- and one of my first reporting jobs, so Mr. Pradis said, "Go up there, cover the story about discrimination and also establish and NAACP chapter," which I proceeded to do and which -- is alive today.


INT: Talk about the ads in the paper.
GB: As a reporter, it's always good to be able to write a story the way you see it and without it being edited. The fact that we had to depend on -- we did not depend on department store or other big ads, meant that we could go out and-- had -- had a free hand to write stories as we saw them. And this, we were able to do without anybody editorializing or pulling a story. For instance, there was one situation whereby a number of rich kids came up to the Hill District and thought they could run amuck in a -- in a tavern there and they did and they were arrested by a black policeman. The black policeman, ah, no sooner arrested them than they were out. And, ah, the story wasn't reported by the other papers, but the Courier learned about it and reported it and, ah ...


INT: Talk about the ads and how they were freeing.
GB: We had our freedom as a newspaper to report things as we saw it, and the reason is because we did not have any, ah, dependence on big advertiser, corporations, what-have-you. The ads we had were -- were ads about skin ads or hair, ah -- hair ads, if you're impotent, you ought to increase your -- how to increase yourself as -- as a man and so forth like that. And these were small ads. We depending mainly on circulation, not the ads. And the ads - - this fact allowed us to have a free -- a free hand in reporting.


INT: Explain why that gives you a free hand.
GB: Advertisers to a large degree control what comes out in newspapers. We did not have a big advertiser. We had the small ones. As a result, we could -- we could, ah, report and publish just what we saw as the truth, and that, we did.


INT: What do you see as the major reasons for the decline of the black press?
GB: The main reasons for the decline of the black press, in my humble opinion, is a lack of black Yankee ingenuity. I mean being able to find a way when there's seemingly no way, being able to compete, being able to give a -- a newspaper that the people -- that the people -- that appealed to the -- to the desires of the people, the wants of the people.


INT: Do we still need black newspapers, black media?
GB: If ever we needed a black press, we need the black press today, because things are so muddled when it comes to racism. We need the black press to be able to sharply divide, define that "This is racism, pure and simple," that -- that -- that regardless of what form it is, it is still racism. We do need the black press very seriously.


INT: Tell me about the importance of these black papers back then from your heart.
GB: I'm alive today because of the -- of the black press. If it were not for the black press, I don't know what my fate would be today. The black press fought discriminations on all fronts, segregation on all fronts, bigots on all fronts. And, ah, if it weren't for the black press, we would be in a sorry state today.


INT: Talk about turning Lincoln's picture to the wall again.
GB: Robert L. Vann saw that the -- that blacks -- the Republicans were giving the blacks nothing. And as a result, he told blacks to turn the picture of Lincoln to the wall and register and vote Democrat. And that led to a new era for blacks in the country, including me in the little town of Oakdale, in which I saw my father become involved in politics and in that politic -- in that involvement, see the election of a black legislator from the City of Pittsburgh.


INT: Does that show the power of the black press?
GB: When Robert L. Vann said turn the picture of Lincoln to the wall, it dramatized the power of the black press. It was able to galvanize the black people and to, indeed, make the difference in the political climate not only then, but even today.
(END INTERVIEW)