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Porters' 'underground railroad' carried Pittsburgh Courier into the South

Sunday, February 24, 2002

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

During the 1930s and '40s, the Pittsburgh Courier covered news from around the world. It was one of the nation's most widely distributed and most respected black newspapers.

A network of Pullman porters helped to make it so.

"Without them, we would have had no circulation in the South," said Frank Bolden, a former city editor and foreign correspondent for the Courier.

The porters' role was central to the paper's growth and progress.

Distributed in 14 major cities, the nation's largest black newspaper had trouble getting into the South.

Because the paper advocated equal rights and campaigned against lynching and discrimination, sheriffs in the Jim Crow South tried to ban the paper's distribution and would frequently destroy and burn stacks that made their way into town.

To get the papers through, the Courier launched what it called "stop and drop."

The campaign was a clandestine relationship with the porters. It began in 1936, when the paper's management began to look for connections to ferry the papers South, and ended in the mid-'40s, when society opened up for blacks after World War II. During that time, porters helped to get 100,000 papers a week into the South.

The Courier trusted the porters because its editorial staff supported A. Philip Randolph, the labor activist who had organized the men, and it had a good rapport with the workers who provided the service on the rail lines.

Camouflaging its trucks, the Courier would smuggle small bundles of papers to the Pittsburgh railroad station, and porters would hide them aboard or under the trains, said Bolden. The papers were wrapped in a special weather-proof paper to prepare them for shipping.

Once they arrived in the South, the porters would drop the papers off about two miles outside major cities such as Chattanooga, Tenn.; Mobile, Ala.; and Jacksonville, Fla.

Black ministers would gather the papers and hold them until Sunday, distributing them to the children in their congregations who served as newsboys and newsgirls.

The porters distributed the Courier for free, although from time to time the paper would tip them $25 or $50.

The distributions were so successful, other black newspapers called on the porters to smuggle their papers into the South quietly. One notable paper was the Chicago Defender.

For the expansion of the black press, said Bolden, the porters deserve credit.

"They were the guys on the front lines. They were foot soldiers."

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