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It All Began in 'Smoketown' & at The Pittsburgh Courier

A new book. "Smoketown," by Mark Whitaker, talks about the black community in Pittsburgh, PA, its contributions to music, the arts, sports and the overall Pittsburgh community. It also spends some time talking about The Pittsburgh Courier, for which I believe I was the first white reporter ever hired.

It was 1962. My journalism class at Point Park Jr. College toured The Courier, where students talked with reporters and editors, visited the composing room where the newspaper was laid out and the press room where we saw the massive printers that rolled out each edition.

It was an incredibly fascinating experience for me and I guess it showed. George Barbour, who had been a reporter for the newspaper and had recently become city editor, spent some time talking with me, asking about my career goals and what I hoped to achieve.

By the end of the visit, I had agreed to take a job at The Courier. My pay was $54 per week and we had to go to a local drug store to cash the check, for which we paid one percent.

The Courier was located in Pittsburgh's Hill District, just the mention of which struck fear in the hearts of most white people my age. It was the black section of town and was known for violence and crime. Most white people just didn't go there.

But that did not bother me. Not a bit. This was my chance to be a real reporter and I was going to make the most of it.

I covered everything. Murder trials at the courthouse. Stories about crooked politicians. Stories about contributions blacks were making in the fields of health, science and technology -- beyond the stereotypes of music and sports.

I recall one murder trial when an elderly man was charged with killing a friend during a barroom argument over his claim to be a master mechanic. His friend said there was no such thing. So the defendant went home, got his Luger and shot the man dead. Can't remember his sentence, although he was certainly convicted.

I also recall doing a story on the one-armed politician who had been accused of some sort of shenanigans. He wouldn't talk to me, but I learned he would be in a certain drug store at a certain time, so I went there. When he saw me, he started running up and down the aisles. I finally caught up with him, asked him my questions, got his "no comment," and wrote my story.

One of my favorite assignments was doing man-on- the-street interviews for a feature called "Pittsburghers Speak Up." Photographer "Teenie" Harris drove us into various sections of the city and I would stop people walking by, mostly blacks, and ask them a question given to me by Barbour. It was great fun and a terrific experience. Barbour had previously done that column, so I was honored to be doing it.

The Courier began publishing in the early 1900s and became one of the most influential and successful voices for the black community in Pittsburgh and even nationwide, as it eventually published editions in several other cities. But. by the time I got there, it had fallen on hard times and within six months even my paltry $54 per week was too much. So I was laid off. But I quickly found a job on a small daily newspaper just outside of Pittsburgh, and my career was on its way.

The Wall Street Journal just did a review of Smoketown, which was sent to me by my pal, Kit Dietz. That brought back memories and prompted me to write this blog. Because it was at the Pittsburgh Courier that my career was launched, and I will never forget -- and always appreciate -- that experience.

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