When I was a teenager growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I spent a lot of time in the famed halls of the Carnegie Library in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Oakland is truly a nerd’s paradise since that is also is where the main campus of the University of Pittsburgh is located. As soon as I was permitted to travel on my own, I would choose to visit this library to conduct my own selected “research” projects.
One day, I visited the Pennsylvania room in the library to find out about some of my relatives, who had performed in various nightclubs around the city in the early 1950′s. My repeated requests for information from newspapers exasperated the librarian, who finally burst out “There are no such resources about black people because no one cared to write about black people in those days!”
Well, that response put me off of pursing that kind of research for several years. And it wasn’t until years later, after my undergraduate education, that I found out that her statement was not entirely true. The librarian didn’t know enough, and I was born too late to know firsthand about how the existence of black journalism and the role that they played in The Great Migration. Black newspapers, like The Pittsburgh Courier functioned as an education system for Southern Negroes and served as a valuable outlet for news and information.
The Pittsburgh Courier was one of the biggest and best black newspapers during the course of the early part of twentieth century. This important newspaper had advertisements and carefully placed news articles that lured migrants northward for jobs. The Courier was not just distributed to Pittsburghers, but also spread into the deep south by Pullman porters who wanted the folks in the South to know where there were better opportunities. The far reach of this nationwide newspaper diminished in the 1960’s after changes during the civil rights era forced all city newspapers to include coverage of everybody, regardless of race.
My Bledsoe family characters would convene to read the words of journalists in the newspapers, which allowed them to see a different life for themselves. Asa Caldwell, the hero of A Daisy Chain of Love, is a journalist for the Courier who struggles to understand how his words have stirred the hearts and minds of Negroes, like the Bledsoes, in the south. Asa’s character is based on the powerful real-life example of Robert L. Vann who ran The Pittsburgh Courier for years. Asa’s quest to rediscover his writing voice is a reminder to me that there are many stories of an entire people that must be told. The fact that The Courier existed and motivated so many is tangible proof that there were journalists who cared to write about black people in the early twentieth century. It was one of many black newspapers that performed this very valuable function.