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Reporter, raconteur Frank Bolden dies at 90

Friday, August 29, 2003

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Frank E. Bolden, a legendary reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier whose stories stretched from the nightclubs of Wylie Avenue to the ballfields of the National Negro League to the black soldiers of World War II, died yesterday at the age of 90.

Frank E. Bolden

A street reporter in the Hill District heyday during the 1930s and '40s, Mr. Bolden shunned officialdom and instead interviewed Wylie Avenue's musicians, barbers, bartenders, gamblers and the "sisterhood of the nocturnal order" -- a Bolden-ism for prostitutes.

He earned a national reputation by becoming one of the first two accredited black war correspondents during World War II. In the sweltering, bug-infested jungles of Burma, Mr. Bolden wrote stories about the black engineering troops who died working on the Burma Road. He also covered the black soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division in Italy, debunking the claim that blacks would flee from combat.

Mr. Bolden was a house guest of the Indian leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who found a parallel between their struggle for independence from Britain and the civil rights struggles of blacks in America.

His three fingers would fly over the manual typewriter as he banged out such expressions as "from the pot liquor flats to the scotch-and-soda highlands" -- references to the Lower Hill and the more affluent Upper Hill. His nickname for small music joints was "upholstered sewers."

Yet despite wide acclaim, Mr. Bolden downplayed his considerable talent.

"I wasn't the best," he said. "But I always thought I was the right fellow to be at the right spot at the right time."

As an elder statesman, he became an historian of black Pittsburgh, and would field many calls each week from reporters and scholars from around the country.

"Frank Bolden was really the living history book of black Pittsburgh," said Larry Glasco, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. "He had in his one memory bank more knowledge, understanding and details of the history of black Pittsburgh than anyone else will have. He was a real treasure."

And the man was a talker, weaving together his stories in mesmerizing monologues that lasted for hours, rarely coming up for a breath.

"He can't stay on the topic," Glasco said. "It is like going up a tree. He will branch off and you never know where you are going to end up. He is always on a new branch. You are always exploring new parts of him. And it is always interesting. He always has a twinkle in his eye. He can always see the irony and humor in a situation."

Despite his many fans, there were some people who dismissed his stories as apocryphal. "Some people say I am lying," Mr. Bolden said. "There are people who are jealous -- whites and people of my own race."

So that is one reason he kept all his clippings and records and scattered them in piles in his living room, dining room and every corner of his Squirrel Hill house, a messy museum of his life. "He can not throw anything out," his wife, Nancy said.

Though Mr. Bolden wrote hundreds of stories about other people's lives, he never wrote one about his own. When asked why, he would shrug and say: "I feel like a mosquito in a nudist camp. I don't know where to begin."

Indeed, it would have been hard to get it all down.

Kept out of med school

Mr. Bolden didn't set out to be a famous scribe.

Born in Washington, Pa., he was the eldest of three sons of the city's first black mail carrier, Frank Bolden Sr., who told his son, "When you're average, you are just as far from the bottom as you are from the top."

In 1930, Mr. Bolden enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, first studying to be a lawyer and later switching to biology. He played clarinet and became the first African American in the Pittsburgh marching band, shaving $50 off his $300 a year tuition. He also made extra money by stringing for the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most influential black newspapers in the country.

A friend asked him to write a few sports stories for the Courier while he was in college. He started out at the customary pay of $3 a week, "but my writing was so good they paid me $5."

He graduated from Pitt as an A student, and applied to the university's medical school but was turned down because Pitt, like many medical schools, did not admit blacks then. He wasn't surprised by the discrimination. At the time, he said, blacks were commonly refused service at restaurants in Oakland and could not rent a room there.

Mr. Bolden also applied to be a public school teacher, but was turned down for that job, too. He was advised to move down South and teach.

"I was not going South behind the Cotton Curtain," he said.

So he went back to the Courier and became a general assignment reporter and feature writer. It was just something to do at first, but then he got hooked on being a reporter. Plus, he had a great beat: Wylie Avenue, the heart of an influential black neighborhood with a thriving cultural and social life.

An arts writer with a column called "Orchestra Swirl," he wrote about Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie and other music greats.

"I had good habits," he said. "I didn't drink. I didn't chase women. You had a lot of sin in lower Wylie Avenue. The drinking. The place was crowded with the nocturnal sisterhood."

He befriended whites who came to the Hill District to hang out at the music clubs, even though he wasn't allowed in their world. "You see, in the 1930s, Negroes could not go Downtown to the nightclubs. You couldn't try on clothes and you couldn't eat. Yet whites could come up to Wylie Avenue to hear Billy Eckstine."

He also wrote about baseball stars such as Satchel Paige of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays. Of boxer Joe Louis, he wrote, "He was a mortician, and he carried a calling card in each mitt."

Perhaps his most famous articles were in a series tracing the complete histories of eight prominent African-American families, including the Smith-Simmons family who had come to this country in 1728. He tracked down all their living relatives and told their stories.

"It was a magnificent piece of history," says Edna Chappell McKenzie, a fellow Courier staff writer in the '40s and '50s and a retired history professor at the Community College of Allegheny County.

Reporting in Asia

When World War II broke out, Mr. Bolden wanted to tell the story of the black soldiers.

"White America was convinced that Negro soldiers under fire would be cowards and turn and run," Mr. Bolden said. "That is why I went over."

The Courier submitted Mr. Bolden's name and he was chosen as one of the first two accredited black correspondents. He filed his dispatches for the National Negro Publishers Association, whichdistributed them to black newspapers nationwide.

In 1944, he wrote about the valor of the black soldiers of the 92d Infantry Division. "There were 12,096 citations of valor for the 92nd Infantry Division," he recalled.

The following year, he headed to the China-Burma-India theater to write about the black troops helping to build an airstrip and doing work on the Burma Road. He watched the troops die of fever, cobra bites and Japanese sniper fire.

In one dispatch dated May 9, 1945, he wrote: "In a remote corner of the heat-ridden and pestilential jungle now feeling the full fury of the monsoon rains, I lived awhile with the Engineer Construction Battalion, whose feats in this section of the 'green hell' earned it citations and letters of commendations."

Later, in India, Gandhi invited the young black reporter to his house in the countryside. Mr. Bolden expected a three-hour interview, but Gandhi told him to make himself at home. He ended up staying 15 days.

Gandhi opened up, according to Mr. Bolden, after the Pittsburgh newspaperman sat cross-legged in his house, ate without silverware and otherwise embraced his customs. During one of their daily chats after prayer, Gandhi told him, "We are going to have racial conflict for generations. Do you know why? God in his infinite wisdom made the white man a smaller race numerically but with a majority complex, which he will try to inflict on the world."

Not be outdone by Gandhi, Nehru invited Mr. Bolden to his house in Agra, where he stayed 12 days.

The same year, Mr. Bolden also interviewed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Madam and General Chiang Kai-shek.

Mr. Bolden came home from his heady but exhausting experience in September 1945. He turned down offers from Life Magazine and the New York Times and returned to the Courier, the preeminent black paper in the country, with a circulation of 400,000. He thought he would have less impact on civil rights at a white publication than at a black publication. Plus he felt a debt of gratitude toward the Courier, a weekly paper.

"Without the Courier, there would be no Frank Bolden," he said. "They gave me a chance to meet all those famous people."

He returned to the paper as a feature writer, and was city editor between 1956 and 1960. Mr. Bolden lobbied for the promotion of black police in the Hill District who were being relegated to being beat cops. The result was a black policeman being promoted to lieutenant.

He also started the Junior Courier, an insert edited by promising high school students and written by youths from all over the city. He was kind to young reporters, but tough on some of his veteran reporters, recalls Phyllis T. Garland, who worked for him first on the Junior Courier in the 50s and then later as a staff writer.

"He would ride his reporters at deadline time," said Garland, a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "He would prod them, like a rider with spurs on a horse. He could be very strict and insistent. Sometimes the women would cry. He almost got into a fistfight with one reporter. He said, 'You can't write anyway.' The reporter jumped out of his seat. It was never boring at deadline."

In 1962, when the Courier ran into financial problems, Mr. Bolden left to go to the New York Times, where he had a short stint as a reporter. He quickly moved on to become a reporter for NBC-radio, and then NBC-TV, before joining the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" in 1962 or 1963.

Mr. Bolden reported on the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1964, and he tipped a black bellboy to lead him to the hotel room of Barry Goldwater. Mr. Bolden sat on the edge of the bathtub, scribbling away, while Goldwater talked as he shaved. The reporting coup earned him a $1,500 bonus.

He said Goldwater told him, " 'I didn't know [newspapers] hired you people.' He was a bigot through and through." But still he talked to Mr. Bolden.

Mr. Bolden returned to Pittsburgh to become assistant director of information and community relations for the Pittsburgh Board of Education, under Superintendent Sidney Marland. He retired there after 17 years.

Mr. Bolden served on the African American advisory committee of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. He was honored for his volunteer work with Cerebral Palsy Institute, and Family Services of Western Pennsylvania and the Early Learning Institute, a nonprofit agency serving special needs children.

He received many awards including the George Polk Award, a Lifetime Achievement Golden Quill Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, the Legacy Award of the National Association of Black Journalists in 2003, and was named a Distinguished Alumni Fellow by the University of Pittsburgh.

Funeral arrangements, being handled by White Memorial Chapel, are incomplete.


Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.

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