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Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson’s Pittsburgh story

New book ‘Smoketown’ illuminates city’s impact on black history

Black athletes have always been an integral part of Pittsburgh’s identity, from Negro League slugger Josh Gibson to Franco Harris and his Immaculate Reception to the modern exploits of pass-catcher Antonio Brown. Now, a new book about Pittsburgh’s unrecognized influence on black America connects the city with two more giant personalities: Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.

That’s one of many revelations in Smoketown: The Other Great Black Renaissance, by journalist Mark Whitaker. The book details how from the 1920s to the 1950s, Pittsburgh’s influence grew to rival Harlem and Chicago as the city’s athletes, artists and journalists helped navigate black America through an era of fierce racism.

The engine of that influence was The Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly black newspaper. Incorporated in 1910 by a group led by an ambitious young lawyer, Robert L. Vann, and Cumberland Posey Sr., a business titan whose son would become the only person inducted into both the baseball and basketball halls of fame, the Courier became one of the most important black publications in the country.

The Courier built its name on crusading for equal rights. Two of the paper’s biggest causes were promoting Louis and Robinson, recognizing in both men an opportunity to advance the concept of black humanity.

“There was this crusading spirit,” Whitaker said in an interview. “It was a business strategy, it helped sales, and it was an editorial strategy because it really set the Courier apart.

“The Courier’s Joe Louis coverage was about embracing him, elevating him, protecting his image,” Whitaker continued. “When it came to Jackie Robinson, the issue of integrating pro baseball had been a crusade for the Courier well before Jackie Robinson. This idea that it all happened because of Branch Rickey … the Courier had been out there trying to make it happen for a decade.

“I give them a huge amount of credit for what happened with Jackie Robinson.”

By the early 1930s, the Courier had grown from a small local publication to challenge The Chicago Defender for the title of the country’s largest black paper. When Courier staffers encountered Louis, who began his pro career in Chicago, they recognized an opportunity to steal the Defender’s thunder and ride the popularity of an athlete they predicted would be a world champion.

Louis came to Pittsburgh for a 1935 fight, and the Courier promoted him like a native son. “Louis would say he had never shaken so many hands before,” Whitaker wrote in Smoketown, “and that the week in Pittsburgh was his ‘first test of being a public hero.’ ”

Soon afterward, the Courier began publishing a series on Louis’ life story that ran every week for five months. The Courier burnished Louis’ image as morally upright and respectful — mindful that the first black heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson, was run out of boxing and into prison for being the opposite.

“The Courier’s Joe Louis coverage was about embracing him, elevating him, protecting his image.”

By the time Louis won the heavyweight title in 1937, the Courier was deeply embedded with the champ. In 1938, as Nazi troops moved through Europe and black Americans still seethed at Adolf Hitler’s snub of Olympic champion Jesse Owens, Louis avenged an earlier defeat to Germany’s Max Schmeling. “It was as if each [black person] had been in that ring himself,” the Courier wrote. “It was more than the victory of one athlete over another, it was the triumph of a repressed people against the evil forces of racial oppression and discrimination.”

Riding Louis’ heroic feats, the Courier printed 200,000 copies per week and surpassed the Defender as the country’s biggest black paper, Whitaker wrote.

That would turn out to be small potatoes. Jackie Robinson was coming.

When sportswriter Wendell Smith arrived at the Courier around 1937, Pittsburgh was home to two of the greatest baseball teams of all time, both of them all black: the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays.

The Grays were owned by Cumberland Posey Jr., the upper-crust son of the Courier‘s founder. The Crawfords belonged to numbers kingpin Gus Greenlee, who used his illicit cash to open his own stadium in Pittsburgh’s black Hill District. Smoketown describes how their ruthless competition created dueling dynasties featuring legends such as Pittsburgh native Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston and Smokey Joe Williams.

Yet Smith saw the future as integration, and he began crusading for white baseball to admit blacks. Barred from interviewing players at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ stadium, he went to the hotel for visiting teams and asked players and managers whether they had seen black ballplayers who could play in the “major leagues.” The Courier published the results of these interviews over several weeks and kept a running tally that showed 75 percent of respondents favored allowing black players into their all-white game.

Smith went on to arrange a meeting between the white baseball commissioner and the black press, and he brought Robinson’s name to the attention of Dodgers general manager Rickey. Smith and Rickey continued to talk as the Dodgers scouted Robinson and finally signed him to a minor league contract in October 1945. The Courier was rewarded with exclusive interviews from Robinson and Rickey and launched a long-running Robinson diary ghostwritten by Smith.

One of the jaw-dropping pieces of history uncovered in Smoketown is a letter from Rickey to Smith about the sportswriter serving as roommate and chaperone during Robinson’s entry into white baseball. “This whole program was more or less your suggestion,” Rickey wrote.

Smith had imagined that the Negro Leagues might benefit from big league integration, by selling players for top dollar and serving as an unofficial farm system.

No one knew this marked the beginning of the end for black baseball. “In his early crusading columns, Smith had imagined that the Negro Leagues might benefit from big league integration, by selling players for top dollar and serving as an unofficial farm system,” Whitaker wrote. But Rickey refused to compensate the Kansas City Monarchs, which owned Robinson’s Negro League contract. It was the start of a talent exodus that would strike the Courier and other black institutions decades later.

The popular narrative of Smith and Robinson’s relationship, as in the film 42, emphasizes the writer helping the ballplayer survive during this historic period. One of Smoketown’s surprises is that their relationship soured when Robinson thought his autobiography, written by Smith, was too “rose-colored” and Robinson then began to complain about how he was covered in the press.

“If it had not been for the press,” Smith wrote in a 1949 column, “Mr. Robinson would not have been in the majors today.”

Robinson was far from the Courier’s only crusade. It fought lynching and urged blacks to eschew blind loyalty to the Republican Party and consider the Democratic Party and its New Deal. In its legendary “Double V” campaign, the paper demanded that America deliver equality in exchange for black support of World War II — victory for the Negro abroad and at home.

The paper also championed the city’s thriving artistic scene. Earl “Fatha” Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Roy Eldridge, Kenny Clarke, Erroll Garner and Ray Brown were among the Pittsburgh natives or residents who helped shape American jazz and pop music. Playwright August Wilson and artist Romare Bearden also called Pittsburgh home.

Coverage of Robinson, as well as dispatches from World War II, helped the Courier reach an all-time circulation high of 466,000 copies per week in 1946. After the war, realizing that equality was not forthcoming at home, the Courier crusaded against segregation, ferreting out injustice from the North to deepest South. Courier reporters were at the Supreme Court for the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and in Montgomery, Alabama, when a bomb exploded at Martin Luther King Jr.’s house in 1956.

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The end of Pittsburgh’s black Renaissance arrived with a city plan for a new Civic Arena. Business leaders worked behind the scenes to locate the project in the lower Hill District, the heart of Pittsburgh’s black community. One by one, the city’s black landmarks fell to the wrecking ball: Gus Greenlee’s Crawford Grill; the black Loendi Social And Literary Club, where Posey Sr. discussed founding the Courier with Vann; and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by freed slaves 40 years before the Civil War. As the 1950s gave way to the ’60s, few of the city’s Hill redevelopment promises panned out. The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team now plays where Paige, Louis, Horne and Strayhorn once walked.

White newspapers covering the civil rights movement hired top black journalists from the Negro press, including the Courier. It went bankrupt in 1966, then was bought by the owner of the Defender — “a turn of fate that would have appalled [founder] Vann,” Whitaker wrote.

The newspaper is now published weekly, on paper and online, as the New Pittsburgh Courier. Its modern crusade is against violence in the black community. And in a twist of technological fate, the Courier’s crusading spirit lives on the internet, which has reinvigorated the concept of black publications, from Pittsburgh native Damon Young’s VerySmartBrothas to The Undefeated championing the black athlete.

Whitaker said in the interview that some people tell him it’s amazing that a city like Pittsburgh produced so many influential African-Americans in sports, the arts and journalism.

“I always say, it wasn’t despite the fact they were from Pittsburgh. It was because,” Whitaker said.

“There was such a high level of sophistication and ambition and competition and inspiration in that community during that period. They had very high goals for themselves. They knew where the bar was.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.