Robert L. Vann and the heroic face of Black journalism

The recent slippage in standards of The New York Times brings to mind the hero of my upcoming release, A Most Precious Pearl. Asa Caldwell, the hero of my story,  is a journalist and is heroic because he was relentless in bringing across a story from a diverse point of view–something we are sorely in need of today.

Asa is based on the many intrepid reporters who sought to get a story to publish a differing point of view in his newspaper. I situated Asa at  a real newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier.   In the first decades of the twentieth century, The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender were not just local–they became national newspapers.  Pullman porters on the railroad disseminated them to towns all across the South so that people would stay informed know that there were struggles going on everywhere and not just in their small towns.

Editor Robert L. Vann (pictured here), who helmed The Pittsburgh Courier for many years, who sought to let Black people in the south know of other working opportunities elsewhere and sowed the seeds for The Great Migration.  In Robert L. Vann of The Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism,  Andew Bunie puts forward a Robert Vann who wanted journalists like Asa Caldwell, to go to the front lines of World War I and cover the story of the poor and demeaning treatment of the Black soldiers who were sent there.  W.E.B. DuBois expressed the same point of view in The Crisis as well. Telling this story directly lead to the soldiers understanding they deserved better treatment when they returned to the United States.  Too many people think the seeds of the Civil Rights movement were sown in the 1950’s, but the insistence on better treatment started a long time before that–just after World War I. Journalists played a key  role in conveying this story–heroic indeed.

The insistence of Vann and his fellow editors that reporters “go out and get” the story makes me think that too many journalists are now too content to sit behind a computer screen.  Without diverse points of view the “danger of one story,” as Chimamanda Adichie discussed, increases. Without more diversity, esteemed newspapers like The New York Times will continue to slip in their standards and will continue to write half-hearted apologies and explanations for how they messed up.  I have many students who are still interested in entering journalism as a profession, despite the many changes in the field.  I hope to expose them to editors like Vann, who would surely encourage them to keep telling their stories and to get out from behind the computer to see the world for themselves–to confirm the necessity for multiple points of view.