Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Born in Ahoskie, North Carolina, in 1879, Robert L. Vann moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1903 to earn a Bachelor’s degree. In 1910, he became both a lawyer and the chief editor of the influential African American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier. Under Vann’s three decades of leadership, the Courier grew from a local paper to an international voice for the African diaspora. Vann and the Courier also influenced national politics, and he is credited with securing the African American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. He died on October 24, 1940, from abdominal cancer.
Robert Lee Vann was born on August 27, 1879, in Ahoskie, North Carolina, to a single mother, Lucy Peoples, who instilled in her son a strong sense of dignity and pride. When he was a teenager, his mother married a farmer and Vann quickly discovered that he loathed manual labor. So, like many young Black Southerners in the twentieth century, he migrated north in search of better opportunities. Vann arrived in Pittsburgh in 1903 to study law at the University of Pittsburgh. He passed the state bar in 1909 at the age of thirty, but could not overcome Pittsburgh’s color line, which was enforced by custom rather than law. Vann was one of only five Black attorneys in Pittsburgh, and neither white nor Black clients wanted to hire him because Black clients worried Vann’s race would further prejudice a white jury against them.
One of the few businesses willing to hire Vann as legal counsel was Edwin N. Harleston’s newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier. In 1910, Vann also agreed to serve as chief editor/publisher because he had worked on the University of Pittsburgh’s student paper the Courant. By 1914, however, running the paper and his own law firm proved too time-consuming, so he hired Ira Lewis as the Courier’s managing editor to handle the business side of the paper while Vann focused on content. According to historian Adam Cilli, Vann was more ambitious and willing to take risks than his new partner. It was Vann who “provided the editorial energy and spearheaded some of [the Courier’s] most controversial, popular, and innovative campaigns” (Cilli, "Robert L. Vann" 154).
Under Vann’s guidance, the Pittsburgh Couriergrew in just two decades from a local paper to an influential cultural touchstone for African diasporic communities. By 1936, the Courier was publishing a twenty-page paper in fifteen editions for forty-eight states—including several Jim Crow states where a network of Pullman porters helped smuggle the paper in—as well as Canada, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. Subscriptions peaked at the end of the decade at three hundred thousand, making the Courier the most successful Black newspaper in the United States (Cilli "Robert L. Vann" 153 and Muhammad). Vann used his popular paper to center Black voices and concerns. He published essays from W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. He hired eighteen regular contributors including Wendell Smith and Cumberland Posey to cover Black sports. Joel Rogers started writing a column called "Your History," which educated readers about African cultures to help Black Americans reconnect with their heritage. Vann also contracted George Schuyler, an investigative reporter who focused on exposing injustices African Americans faced in the South. Schuyler was impressed with Vann as an editor. He told a friend, "I am personally acquainted with all of the editors in Aframerica and it seems to me that Vann is by long odds the ablest of the lot ... I know that he has been more willing than the others to experiment’” (Cilli "Robert L. Vann" 154).
Many of Vann’s experiments took the form of activist campaigns. He wanted to foster a sense of racial pride among African Americans, so he started a national protest against the popular radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy and its negative stereotypes. The Pittsburgh Courier also covered the Scottboro Boys’ trial, and in 1935, Vann sent Joel Rogers to cover the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. In fact, the Courier was the only Black newspaper to send a correspondent to Africa.
Most impressively, Vann used the Pittsburgh Courierto help turn Black voters away from the Republican Party. Before 1932, African American loyalty to the GOP was almost unshakeable. The Republican Party was after all Abraham Lincoln’s party, and Lincoln was often called the “Great Emancipator” for his role in ending formal chattel slavery in the United States. The Democrats, on the other hand, had historically opposed Lincoln. “When one thinks of the Ku Klux Klan movement and the party of their alliance, and of the mobbing, lynching, and burning of Negroes," J.W. Rawlins wrote to Vann in a letter to the editor, "it’s hard to understand just how a Negro feels when he says, 'I am with the Democrats. I am a Jeff Davis man'" (Rawlins). But Vann did not believe that a vote for Roosevelt was equivalent to a vote for the long-dead president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. Rather, he believed that the Black vote should be “liquid”: African Americans should vote for the party advocating policies that would benefit them (Cilli, "Robert L. Vann" 175-176). In Vann’s opinion, the Republican Party of 1932 no longer had the African American community’s interests at heart. The Great Depression had forced nearly half of all African Americans out of work, and Republican president Herbert Hoover was offering little in the way of relief or solutions.
In a September 1932 speech at the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Vann predicted, "this year I see millions of Negroes turning the picture of Abraham Lincoln to the wall." In other words, Hoover would not win the Black vote (Vann "This Year I See" 12). Of course, a massive political realignment was unlikely to happen spontaneously, so he used his paper to tip the scales. The September 12, 1932 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier included a transcript of his Cleveland speech, which contained a history of the Republican Party’s relationship with African Americans and highlighted the GOP’s various "sins of commission" (Vann "This Year I See" 12). For weeks, he ran essays and political cartoons decrying alleged corruption within the GOP and Hoover’s administration as well as the president’s dismal economic record.
In Allegheny County, at least, Vann’s campaign succeeded. Roosevelt won the county by forty thousand votes. Vann claimed thirty-five thousand of those were cast by Black voters ("Negroes Important Factor as Democrats Sweep into Power"). At the national level, results were mixed. Some African Americans switched allegiances, but not an overwhelming majority. Still, Vann claimed that the "Negro voter, independent and thoughtful and following the lead of The Pittsburgh Courier" flipped fourteen states for Roosevelt ("Negroes Important Factor as Democrats Sweep into Power"). This may have been an exaggeration, but the Democratic Party still recognized Vann’s outsized influence and rewarded him with a post in the Department of Justice as special assistant to the United States Attorney General. However, in 1935, after just two years, Vann resigned his position because of the race-based hostility he encountered in Washington, D.C. He returned to the Pittsburgh Courier and served as editor until his death in 1940. His widow Jesse inherited the paper and continued publishing stories that featured Black activism until she was forced off the editorial board in 1963.
Vann’s biographer, Andrew Buni, rather cynically interpreted Vann’s overall advocacy as a bid for political power and more newspaper subscriptions. After all, Vann was an "accommodationist" with "no powerfully motivating ideology" to sustain him (Buni, xiii). But as Adam Cilli has argued, Vann was both strategic and flexible with the policies he publicly championed because, in the interwar period, "the racial challenges seemed too great and the available allies too scarce to permit an exclusive commitment to any one ideology or tactical formula" (Cilli, "The Pittsburgh Courier’s Discursive Power…"). Instead, he dedicated himself and his paper to any organization that promised to improve material conditions for the Black community. If that organization failed to deliver, Vann abandoned them. Besides the Pittsburgh Courieritself, the idea of a "fluid vote," which helped elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, may be Robert Lee Vann’s greatest historical contribution.
Buni, Andrew. Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism. University of Pittsburgh, 1974.
Cilli, Adam Lee. “Robert L. Vann and the Pittsburgh Courier in the 1932 Presidential Election: An Analysis of Black Reformism in Interwar America.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 143, no. 2, 2019, 141-176. Project Muse, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/722218.
Photo Credit: "Robert Vann." c. 1920. Photograph. Licensed under Public Domain. Cropped to 4x3, Filled background. Source: Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. Source: Online Resource. African American Heritage Collection.