Evelyn Cunningham
 


INT: What was the role of the black press during the period between the two wars when you were growing up?
EC: Ah, I have no idea what the role was as I was growing up. I had, an idea about how it affected me and my family, but what it was supposed to do, I'm not certain. Ah, I know the black newspapers in my home with my family, ah, was very, very important. Also the daily press was very, very important. The white press, as it were, was very important. The black press, however, represented dessert, dessert. There, we knew the names of people. Ah, there in the black press we found things that we -- we, ah, knew lots more about than in the white press. The white press was a means of, ahm, just a -- a tome of information. It kept us in touch with what was happening, what's going on in the world and in our immediate communities. But the black press was -- was, ah -- was just so much more important to us because, as I said, there were people that we knew and people and experiences that we understood. So they -- they both were quite important.


INT: Who was Robert L. Vann?
EC: Robert L. Vann was the publisher of The Pittsburgh Courier, at that point in the '40s and '50s it was probably the most powerful and the most important black newspaper in the world. Ah, I never met him. When I came on board with the Courier, his wife was the publisher, Jessie L. Vann. Ah, Robert L. Vann, from all the stories I've heard, was a very powerful man. He was politically astute. He was a shrewd businessman and, ah, whether or not he started out in life wanting to have a newspaper, I'm not certain, but I am reasonably certain that any business that he got involved in would have been a success. He had the drive, he had the money, the ambition, and, ahm, I often thought that Robert L. Vann finally decided on publishing because, ah, perhaps he wanted a voice, a black voice to be heard and, ah, the competition was not out there for a newspaper, a black newspaper. And I -- I'm certain that he felt publishing a newspaper was more exciting, was more meaningful, more rewarding than, ah, openin' a bank, for instance, or, you know, creating a special kind of farm or whatever. I think it was really in his blood.


INT: Did people believe what was in the black papers?
EC: Absolutely. Absolutely.


INT: Why was there strength in the fact that people believed in the black press?
EC: Ah, they had no reason not to believe it, to begin with. You know, the black press had not let them down. Ah, let's contrast it -- no, no, we won't contrast it. Ah, the -- the black press said at that point during those years most of the time that black people wanted to hear. I think one of the most impressive things to me when I was working for 25 years with the Courier was the stream of letters that came to the paper. Black people traditionally do not write letters, whether for or against. You don't find large percentages of black people writing letters. They don't respond that way. But the Courier had -- there were just hundreds and thousands of letters that came, letters that said, "I like your stand on so-and-so," or "I like this project," or "I like this," ah, ah, whatever the lead story might have been. That was, ahm, very unusual to me at the time. I had come out of New York, ah, moved to Pittsburgh to work with the paper. Ah, it was new to me to see so many positive responses from readers, I think far more proportionately than you do today.


INT: Talk about how black papers talked to black people. Who was the audience in those years?
EC: Just about all black people. It -- it was, ahm ... let me take Bootsy, which was the cartoon in The Pittsburgh Courier. Bootsy was a brilliant cartoon done by Ollie Harrington. Ah, Bootsy was the funniest cat in the world. Every black person in the United States and abroad related to Bootsy. He was a black caricature. He was -- he -- he remind you -- reminded you of some of the people that Langston Hughes wrote about, and, ah, he was very, very laughable. It -- it was not, ah, in bad taste ever. It was not degrading ever. It was just a very, very funny thing. And, incidentally, ahm, one of the things that bothers me, ahm, is the -- the lack of humor in most black newspapers either now, then, or at any other time. But, ahm, the Courier bought (sic) a kind of integrity, and I don't think anybody sat around at an editorial conference and said, "Let's have integrity in our paper." It was there. It was inherently there. We had probably some of the best news people in the world, ah, some of the best editors anywhere. Certainly most of us did not have too many options about where we could work, but, ah, there -- there -- cream -- the cream of journalists were there. And, ah, they understood all about what blackness and what negroness meant from all parts of this country -- from Florida to California, to New Orleans, to New York, all over. We all understood and we all -- we all also understood that we were going to do everything we possibly could to always project positiveness. We were always going to let our readers, our constituencies, know about our heroes and our heroines. They were never reflected at that time in -- in, ah, the daily papers, hardly ever reflected in the daily papers. And we felt that as a responsibility, to let people know more about themselves, to give them feel-good news, to give them senses of pride and, ah, unity. Ah, it -- it -- it -- people went out and rushed to buy The Pittsburgh Courier every week. We came -- it was a weekly paper. Every Thursday we're dying to read the Courier to see what George Schuyler said, to see what, ahm, ah, Bootsy was saying, to see what even sometimes I was saying. (Laughs)


INT: Why were these images so important?
EC: It's -- it's a voice. It's a voice. We --we're always needing a voice. We will always need a voice. We don't have one now. Ah, well, we have many kinds of voices, many kinds.


INT: What was turn Lincoln's picture to the wall?
EC: Oh, Robert L. Vann, publisher of The Pittsburgh Courier, ahm, politically sophisticated, ah, knew his way about Washington, no matter -- about the White House no matter who was President, but he began to feel that there was a change coming. He began to feel the -- the influence of Franklin D. Roosevelt and he also was well aware of the fact that most black people in the country were Republicans, were still, ah, ah, Abraham Lincolnized, ahm, and, ahm, he -- he said, well, to himself and now I'm thinking this is what he said to himself, "We've got to do something about this. I think we're on the wrong team right now, we black people." Ah, so he created a very subtle kind of campaign at first to get black people interested in -- in two parties, ah, in both parties. So ... as a kind of symoli-bolic gesture, he publicly said at one point -- I was not there, but I've heard about it many times and I know people who were there -- he said, "It is time that we negroes turn Abraham's Lincoln's picture around on the wall." And, in truth, I'm told many, many negroes turned that picture around and many of them replaced it with Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was a very dramatic kind of thing. Ah, I think that was reported in the daily press, too, at the time, ahm, but, ah, he -- he was very important in that -- in making that move and -- and making black people, or negro people at that point, ah, aware that, ah, there were options, there were options.


INT: Talk about that excitement of working at the black press.
EC: Well, the excitement for me personally was, ah, it's what I wanted to do with my life, ah, from the get-go. You know, I just wanted the be a journalist and it was terribly exciting just to be able to have a job. But, ah, the excitement at that time, long before a computerized society, ah, we -- it was so hands-on and I learned how to fool with the tape. I learned how to work with linotype men and I learned how to make up pages and decide, ah, what kind of print would be on a cer-- given page and what emphasis would be given. It is, to me, the most exciting, fulfilling thing, ah, that life could offer. And on press day we worked our -- had our own press. Ahm, I -- I was always there, watching the run of the press, watching the papers roll off and touching them and smellin' them and feelin' 'em and knowing that part of me was there.


INT: What did you mean by you never covered a wedding?
EC: Yeah. I -- I never covered a wedding or a fashion show or the woman's type thing. I never worked at the women's desk. Ah, I -- I did hard news from the very beginning, always hard news. As a matter of fact, when our women's editor of the Courier would go on vacation and they would look to me to take the women's desk, and I said, "No way, Jose. No way." Ah, it -- it was my arro-- my own personal arrogance, you know, in thinking that anybody can cover a wedding, anybody can do a fashion show. You use the save verbs over and over again, the same adjectives, ah, which is not fair at all. But that was my perception at the time and I wanted to get there where the action was. I wanted to get down there with Martin Luther King and wanted to get down there to the lynching scenes. In fact, for a while I was covering so many lynchings in the South, they called me "the lynching editor", a very -- was not a joke at the time, but, ah, I did get to do all of that because I --I begged for it.


INT: Talk about how you ended up Down South.
EC: I -- hell was breakin' loose Down South. This young man, this young preacher in Montgomery was beginning to appear in the papers and I wanted to get down there. So they sent me Down South to cover Arthur Rayne Lucie. Arthur Rayne Lucie was the first black girl who tried to get in the black college. I think it was the University of Alabama. And while I'm down there covering Arthur Rayne Lucie, I am in one of those sad little hotels in Montgomery, ah, just an awful place -- everything is awful down there -- when I heard a bomb and I rushed to the -- downstairs. The man at the desk told me they were --they had bombed Dr. King's house. Ah, so I dashed over to Dr. King's house and, sure enough, the front of the house was demolished. Ah, he was not hurt. His wife was not hurt. There was only one child at that moment, but, ah, you have no idea the impact of standin' there watchin' this young man plead with these hundreds of people who were standing in front of his house with Coke bottles and pipes getting ready to go into town and beat up somebody, to watch him tell them to be calm, to be calm, that was not the way, it was a no-win situation to take the bottles and the pipes and go start a fight, you could not do it that way. Ahm, so I wasn't about to leave the South with my introduction to Dr. King that way at that point. But, ahm -- and -- and the paper back home, the editors were realizing that our male reporters were getting shot at, run out of town. One was killed. So I said, "Okay. All -- they're killin' all the men. Let me stay down here. You know, they didn't know how to kill me," you know. "They don't know how to" -- they did not know how to insult a black woman. They didn't like you, there's no question about it, but they really did not know how to vent violence on me. I had a number of experiences with those crazy people.


INT: Talk about how the Southern black press reacted to the Civil Rights Movement.
EC: Ah, it's -- it's my very personal opinion that the black press in the South really did not give as much to those struggles in those days as they might have. I -- I don't think they sent their best reporters. Ah, I think the basics of it was, ah, a kind of a regional embarrassment. I -- I think most of the Southerners -- and Southerners are terribly proud -- ah, you find even -- you find the tendency to deny that there's a problem. And at that point I think they were very, very embarrassed that these ugly things were happening on their turf, in their territory, ah, which is -- which is, ah, one way I think of, ahm, pretending that it wasn't as bad as it was, in some instances to the extreme that it doesn't exist, these problems. But, ah, the coverage was not what I would call first rate reporting.


INT: Do you think that affected the black press as a whole, their not covering these seminal events?
EC: I don't think so. No. Uh-uhm.


INT: Why was the Double V Campaign important?
EC: The Double V Campaign was just great. It's so easy to do and everybody understood exactly what it meant, victory at home, victory abroad. While The Pittsburgh Courier was fully supportive of the war effort and, ah, it tried its best to instill super patriotism among blacks, ah, it also was aware that blacks were not being treated fairly, you know, on the war scene. So this -- this campaign, "Victory at Home, Victory Abroad", it kept -- it -- it caught on and, ahm, everybody was proud of it. And it in no way diminished what I always feel is an inherent patriotism in black people. It was very, very successful. The Courier was very good at campaigns and -- and -- and the Double V Campaign was not a negative campaign, as I see, you know, other papers do, but, ah, it was more positive. "Okay. We're gonna do this and we're gonna do that, too." It was great. The Courier was very good at that.


INT: Why did the government see that as such a threat?
EC: Ah, because, ah, prob-- I don't think the government saw it as a threat, not a threat. Ah, I think the government or people in the government, some people in it, saw it as getting too cute. "Those black people are getting a little bit too cute," you know, out of line type thing. But I don't think they seriously saw it as a threat because a threat they knew what to do about. You know, threats you can squash. And we could have been squashed in a minute during that era. But I thought it -- it was an indication of our bein' a little aggressive, ah, being a little, ah, on the edge of something that could develop into anti-government.


INT: How did the government exert pressure on the Courier during World War II?
EC: I -- I have no idea.


INT: What do you think was the main difference between the coverage of World War II by the mainstream press and the black press?
EC: The black press coverage was for more, ah, personal. Ahm, I was down there most of that time and I would find stories that should have been interesting to any press, stories about who -- who was financing the movement and, ah, to my joy, to my great joy, I found out, and I really dug deeply -- found out that blacks themselves were financing the movement. There was no tricky outside --there were no liberals making contributions. They were black people who were -- who were successful, who had money, the bankers, the undertakers, the teachers, the principals. Ah, but that -- that, I had never read in a daily paper. That didn't have too much interest, I guess, but, to me, it created again a sense of great pride and a sense of participation.


INT: What was the major short-comings or the problems with the black press in that period?
EC: Yeah, I can only speak for the Courier. I didn't work -- never worked for any other paper, any other black paper. Ah, during my time at the Courier we didn't have any major problem. Maybe -- maybe -- maybe a problem was beginnin' to develop in that the local -- the dailies in Pittsburgh began to hire some of our best people. And that, in a sense, is not a problem. In a sense that's great progress, but it left us without those really good reporters and editors. But I -- I never saw any real, real, real problems during the time I was there.
INT: Do you think that you were an exception as a woman doing the kind of journalism you were doing?
EC: But -- yeah, I do, ahm, feel I was an exception during that time because, ahm, women just were not doing hard news. They just were not. And I had -- I had really begged for, you know, hard news coverage. I begged for it and, ahm, they took me seriously. And then, you know, they found out I could do it and I knew I could, you know, but, ah, I -- I wound up getting the choice assignments really, all the trouble spots, and I guess I've been all over the world doing stories for the Courier, yeah.


INT: Did the black press at that time act responsibly in putting women into positions of doing hard news and have choices?
EC: No, I don't think they were acting responsibly. (Laughs) I don't think, ah, most of the papers gave women the kind of latitude they gave me. Ah, Ethel Payne was an exception. Ethel Payne was with The Chicago Defender. She -- she did hard news and she was the first black and the first woman to become a White House correspondent. She was an excellent, excellent, newspaper person. She really was. She would be an exception, but, ahm, most of the other women never got a break, never got a chance. I got the breaks maybe 'cause I screamed. (Laughs)


INT: Tell me about clipping the stories from the Times.
EC: Oh, one of my first duties during my early years -- my first years with The Pittsburgh Courier, at that point I was working in the New York office and I was a gopher and, ah, after about a week I got the responsibility of clipping the New York Times, big deal, looking for stories that had a negro angle or stories that could be interpreted as having a negro angle. Once I would clip these stories, the editor would then ask me to re-write them, write them a little differently than what they appeared in the Times, ahm, which was kind of fun. They were usually small stories. They were positive stories. Ah, we never got into the real negative kinds of reporting, but, ahm, that was kind of fun, a little bit frustrating because it was not original and I couldn't get a byline for rewriting something. But, ah, that was among my first responsibilities. I think ...


INT: Do we still need the black press today?
EC: Do we still need one? Ahm ... we don't need the kinds of papers that we have today, in -- in my opinion. Ah, black press today seems to react only, react to a -- an issue or a situation or react to something that's in the white press. We very rarely in our bra-- black press today initiate, dig up stories of our own or create heroes and --and tell us lots more about our own heroes and our heroines. We -- we just seem to do counter-reporting. We feel defensive and that, to me, is not reporting and it's not inspirational and it doesn't -- it doesn't make me feel good and it doesn't make me feel proud. Ah, and so, ah, I'm saying, and I'm criticizing the press today, but I also -- I quickly want to add that I think we do need a black press today, very, very much so. We have no voice out there's positive, consistently positive. We have no voice that tells us about our own lives. There is nobody, no -- no publication that really truly speaks for us and our aims and our objections. Colin Powell will pop up for a minute. Ah, Tiger Woods will pop up for a minute, and that's great. That's great, but a good solid responsible black press would tell us lots more about these two men.
(END OF INTERVIEW)