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undercover: I was a Negro in the South for 30 Days

Sprigle's secret journey

By Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. -- No one in the small country church 50 years ago had any reason to suspect that their visitor was not who he said he was.

It was true that James R. Crawford - the light-skinned Negro man from Pittsburgh - was a complete stranger. And a Northerner.

But Crawford had come to their black fraternal group's district meeting and picnic with C.D. Haslerig, who was a prosperous dairy farmer and one of the leading black citizens in the rural northern Georgia cotton mill town.

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Willie Haslerig, 76, knew Ray Sprigle as James Crawford when he drove "Crawford" around Chickamauga, Ga., 50 years ago. He was 26 when Sprigle spent the weekend at the home of his father, C.D. Haslerig. One of Sprigle's stops was the A.M.E. Zion Church, behind Haslerig. (Photo by Bill Steigerwald/Post-Gazette)

What's more, he was staying the weekend at Brother Haslerig's home. And he was traveling with none other than John Wesley Dobbs, the Grand Master of the state's black Masonic lodges and the most important Negro civic and political leader in Atlanta, maybe in all of Georgia.

Yet Crawford - who stood up in front of them and politely declined a request to tell them about the status of the Negro back in Pittsburgh - was a total impostor.

The unassuming, friendly bald gent with the glasses and checkered cap - conspicuous only for his curiosity and lusty appetite for fried chicken - was not really a fellow Mason learning organizing tips from Grand Master Dobbs.

He was really a nationally famous journalist. And though none of the 150 black men and women gathered in the old Midway A.M.E. Zion Church that pleasant Sunday afternoon in 1948 knew it, "Brother Crawford" was not really a Negro at all. He was a white man masquerading as one.

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As only J.W. Dobbs knew, "Brother Crawford" was actually the famed Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper reporter Ray Sprigle, a full-blooded Pennsylvania Dutchman who had disguised himself as a black man as part of a secret, ambitious - and dangerous - journalistic adventure.

Sprigle had decided he wanted to see for himself how the South's 10 million mostly poor, mostly uneducated black people endured the petty humiliations and legal oppressions of Jim Crow, a system of enforced racial segregation that the then-quickening civil rights movement would spend the next 20 years working to destroy.

Though he was a lifelong friend of the underdog, Sprigle was no softhearted liberal. He was no moralist, no precocious civil rights crusader, no longtime champion of the cause of the Negro, North or South. He was a staunch conservative Republican who hated FDR and the New Deal. All he had wanted his Southern investigation to do, he said later, was to see "that justice was done to a group that is grossly oppressed."

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Ray Sprigle as he looked for  investigative stories on Mayview State Hospital.

As a newspaper man, Sprigle ranked among the country's elite. A front-page star at the Post-Gazette since the late 1920s, he had won a Pulitzer Prize and national acclaim in 1938 for uncovering proof that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

A lively, excellent and prolific writer, he was known as a great investigative reporter who mixed facts and his own strong opinions. A colorful character whose everyday trademarks were a Stetson hat and a corn cob pipe, he loved doing crime stories and exposes and was always in search of his next big story - whether it was in Pittsburgh's criminal underworld or in pre-World War II Europe.

He had donned disguises and used the pseudonym James Crawford many times before to write first-hand accounts of conditions in state mental hospitals and coal mines and to investigate illegal gambling operations. His expose of Pittsburgh's thriving black market in meat during World War II, for which he posed as a butcher and bought and sold meat for a month, won him another national prize, the 1945 Headline Club award.

In May 1948, with the blessing and personal help of the national executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Sprigle was a week into his greatest - and final - undercover mission.

To darken his skin, he had tried various chemicals and things like walnut juice. All were unsuccessful. So, after drawing up a fresh will and kissing his wife Agnes and 12-year-old daughter Rae Jean goodbye, he went to Florida, where he shaved his head and mustache and spent three weeks acquiring a deep tan that would allow him to pass for a light-skinned Negro.

Sprigle was 61, five years younger than J.W. Dobbs, his trusted, Shakespeare-quoting guide, protector and "cover." Dobbs, the son of a freed slave, was known as the honorary mayor of black Atlanta and in 1948 was near the peak of his political and civic power.

Dobbs lived near Auburn Avenue, Atlanta's black main street, a few blocks from a preacher's teen-age son named Martin Luther King Jr., who used to play Monopoly on Dobbs' kitchen floor with two of his six daughters. Dobbs had no sons. But his first grandson, Maynard Jackson Jr., would become the city's first elected black mayor in 1973.

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Ray Sprigle as he investigated the conditions imposed on miners.

For 30 days and nearly 4,000 miles, the unlikely pair of senior citizens traveled the South's primitive back roads to places like Dalton and Americus, Ga., in Dobbs'1947 Mercury.

From the Mississippi Delta to Georgia's white-only Atlantic beaches, Sprigle "ate, slept, traveled and lived Black." His true race was detected only twice. He dined with dirt-poor sharecroppers and middle-class black farmers and dentists, and with principals of ramshackle black schools and the families of lynching victims.

The Post-Gazette presented Sprigle's findings in a heavily promoted series of Page 1 articles that began on Aug. 9, 1948, as Jackie Robinson was in his second year of breaking baseball's color barrier. A month before, Sen. Strom Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats bolted from the Democratic National Convention in protest of their party's newly hewn pro-civil rights plank.

Titled "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days" and running for 21 days, the series provided a detailed, impassioned and frequently bitter inside look at a parallel black universe most white Americans knew virtually nothing about.

Eleven years before John Howard Griffin wrote "Black Like Me," the best-selling book describing his experiences as a white Texan pretending to be an itinerant black man in the South, Sprigle reported what it felt like to use the "For Colored" entrances at railroad stations, to ride in Jim Crow taxis, to sit in Jim Crow parks. Sprigle also described what it felt like to know that your "rights of citizenship ran only as far as the nearest white man said they did."

Sprigle's series was syndicated to about 15 other newspapers, including the New York Herald Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and the mighty Pittsburgh Courier, which in those days enjoyed wide readership among black people throughout the Deep South.

It appeared in no white paper south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Yet the South's fierce reaction to Sprigle's vivid dispatches and his undisguised moral outrage at "the iniquitous Jim Crow system" would ignite one of the country's first national media debates about racial segregation in the South.

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"That's him," Willie Haslerig said confidently three weeks ago, standing in the living room of the farmhouse near Chickamauga that Ray Sprigle slept in half a century ago.

The 76-year-old retired dairy man was looking for the first time at a 50-year-old Time magazine photo of the stocky, bald "black" man he had known as James Crawford.

Haslerig remembers him well. He was 26 when Sprigle spent the weekend at his father's 65-acre farm, where he and his wife, Dorothy, were living at the time. He gave the undercover reporter the grand tour of his relatively progressive corner of northern Georgia, where black people were segregated and subjected to the rules of Jim Crow but could vote and did not suffer serious injustices and intimidations so common in counties in southern Georgia.

Haslerig, who is a distant relative of ex-Steeler Carlton Haslerig, drove Sprigle around the farms and cotton fields. He also dropped him off in town, where for several hours Sprigle strolled Chickamauga's sidewalks, talked to the local folk, visited the segregated train station and continued, without detection, to play the part of a visiting Northern Negro.

Dorothy Haslerig recognized "Crawford's" picture, too. She said Sprigle and Dobbs slept in the front guest bedroom - in the same double bed. Sprigle was active, well-mannered, quiet. He did a lot of writing in a swing on the front porch. "He didn't really look white," she said. "He did a really good job of disguising himself."

The Haslerigs, who never saw Sprigle's newspaper series in 1948 or the articles describing it in Time or Newsweek, discovered their gentlemanly visitor's true identity only when Dobbs told them several months later. But even if they had known Sprigle was a white journalist when he visited, it wouldn't have mattered, Dorothy said. "If he was with Mr. Dobbs, he was all right."

Dorothy's attitude illustrates why NAACP executive secretary Walter White had recruited Dobbs to help Sprigle. Dobbs, a pioneering civil rights activist who had been doggedly encouraging black Americans to register and vote for years, was quick to accept the proposition.

Like his friend White, Dobbs foresaw important PR benefits from a project like Sprigle's.

Dobbs assured White he would protect Sprigle, as long as he was "willing to endure the hardship of accommodations that we will face in cheap hotels and private boarding houses." Dobbs, whose mother's father was a white man, said he could easily pass Sprigle off as a distant relative or friend.

His only concern was that "this matter must be kept a profound secret until over." He needn't have worried. His role as Sprigle's guide was never revealed in the Post-Gazette or any other publication. It was first reported in 1973 in a doctoral dissertation by Carnegie Mellon University history student Alan Guy Sheffer, who is now a teacher at North Allegheny High School.

Dobbs' help was priceless to Sprigle. He inserted him into a world no white reporter could otherwise hope to see in 1948. In addition to putting him in touch with local black leaders like his good friend C.D. Haslerig, Dobbs introduce d Sprigle to the poor, and far more typical, black residents of the South, like John Henry and Hannah Ingram.

The Ingrams were living deep in the cotton and peach country of Macon County, about 100 miles south of Atlanta, when the old duo turned off Route 49 and stopped at their homestead. Former sharecroppers, the Ingrams and a couple of hundred of her indigent black people had been given a chance by a federal farm project to move out of their two-room shacks and buy their own homes and land at subsidized rates.

Much has changed on the Ingrams' old street since Sprigle and Dobbs dropped by. The road is still stuck all alone in the middle of hundreds of acres of cotton and soybeans. But today, Post Office Route 2 consists of a dozen tidy brick and mobile homes. The few original homesteads have been remodeled - and given indoor plumbing, a feature that only white-occupied government houses got when they were built in 1940.

The Flint River Farms School at the corner of Route 49, still new when Sprigle talked to its young principal, John Robinson, in 1948, is long gone. So too is most of the Ingrams' old place across the street. The two-bedroom house, like e most of the road's 20 or so other original government-issue homesteads, has been lifted from its foundation and moved to a lot in the nearby town of Montezuma.

Only a few small piles of red brick, some rotting lumber and a rusting old water pump mark the spot where Sprigle and Dobbs stopped by for a drink of well water and a bite of corn pone half a century ago.

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The heated rhetoric in Sprigle's syndicated 21-part series would be inflammatory even today. Needless to say, in 1948, as the drive for racial equality in America was starting to become a burning political and social issue, it create d quite a stir. The series brought Sprigle hundreds of letters (70 percent of them critical) and quickly got the attention of the Southern press.

Sprigle's leading press opponent was Hodding Carter Sr., the editor of the Democrat Delta-Times in Greenville, Miss. His six-part reply, "The Other Side of Jim Crow," which immediately followed Sprigle's series in the Post-Gazette and elsewhere, ran in many Southern papers that never carried a word of "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days."

Carter had won a Pulitzer Prize himself for editorial writing in 1946 and on the matter of race was considered a Southern liberal. Yet he believed "it will be tragic for the South, the Negro and the nation itself if the Government should enact and attempt any laws or Supreme Court decisions that would open the South's public schools and public gathering places to the Negro."

Carter, the father of PBS journalist Hodding Carter III, was on firmer ground when critiquing Sprigle's deliberate lack of objectivity. Among dozens of other complaints, he accused Sprigle of painting an unfair, overly bleak and distorted picture of the South and of ignoring the many recent improvements in the political, economic and legal lives of black Americans. He essentially charged Sprigle with committing a crude hatchet job on the South and its culture while conveniently ignoring the North's racial problems.

On Nov. 9, 1948, Sprigle and Carter met face-to-face as part of a debate on "What Should We Do About Race Segregation?" on ABC's national TV and radio discussion show "America's Town Meeting of the Air." A transcript of the debate shows that Sprigle was a spirited speaker as well.

He refused to accept the quaint idea that segregation was merely a way to physically separate the races in public spaces. He indicted segregation as "the whole vicious and evil fabric of discrimination, oppression, cruelty, exploitation, denial of simple justice, denial of rights to full citizenship and the right to an education, which the white South imposes upon the Negro."

Sprigle rejiggered and recycled his 21-part newspaper series to produce a 1949 book for Simon and Schuster called "In the Land of Jim Crow," which didn't sell well. And though the Post-Gazette campaigned hard on it s behalf, the series did not win Sprigle a second Pulitzer, which many thought he deserved.

Sprigle, who began his newspaper career in 1912, wrote hundreds more stories and columns for the Post-Gazette until 1957, when he died in Pittsburgh as a result of injuries suffered when his taxi was hit by a car. His old friend J.W. Dobbs died in 1961, on the day Atlanta's public schools were integrated.

While Sprigle's life and deeds are immortalized in millions of his own words, Dobbs' have been immortalized on the downtown streets of Atlanta. Today there is a J.W. Dobbs Avenue and Dobbs Plaza, an urban parklet on Auburn Avenue centered around a huge black brass sculpture of Dobbs' head.

Dobbs is also a major figure in "Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn," a book about the making of modern Atlanta by Gary Pomerantz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It's a heavily researched biography of the city , told through the histories of its two most illustrious white and black families. It tells Dobbs' remarkable life story in rich detail. But it makes no mention of the secret mission he shared with Sprigle 50 springtimes ago.

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