For local newshounds and those who love them, journalist Ray Sprigle is the first name in Pittsburgh journalism. Bill Steigerwald (of those Steigerwalds) has been both fascinated and inspired by his work for more than 20 years, and refers to Sprigle as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Babe Ruth. Steigerwald’s new book, 30 Days a Black Man (Lyons Press, $26.95), chronicles Sprigle’s exposé of Jim Crow, which was written while Sprigle traveled the Deep South undercover as a black man in the late 1940s.
In 1995, when Steigerwald was still working for the P-G, the paper was running a series of World War II anniversary stories. He found a series Sprigle wrote near war’s end, in which he had gone undercover to expose the black-market food trade circumventing wartime meat rationing. “He disguised himself, took his teeth out, put on some goofy 50-cent cap, got a total beat-up old truck,” says Steigerwald, who got hooked on the story. He read more, including the series of investigative articles that Sprigle wrote for the P-G in 1938, proving that newly appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Sprigle won a Pulitzer Prize for that series. He later embedded himself in London during the Battle of Britain, in 1940. After returning home, he continued to dig for good stories, including the black-market series.
Then in 1948, he went deep undercover to write a series of 21 articles collectively titled “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days.”
Sprigle, born in 1886, in Akron, Ohio, wasn’t in the trenches fighting for social change, emphasizes Steigerwald, who speaks at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Made Local series on Thu., July 6. Simply put, Sprigle was a driven journalist always on the hunt for a good story, and he wasn’t shy about going undercover to get it. So, in his 60s, he decided to see for himself what things were really like under Jim Crow. To disguise himself as a black man, he spent time in Florida working on a tan — but mostly, he learned that if he presented himself as black, nobody questioned him, irrespective of skin tone. (Sprigle’s series predated, by more than a decade, a similar journey taken by novelist John Howard Griffin that resulted in his famous book Black Like Me.)
More important than passing as black, Sprigle needed someone to take him places he could never find on his own, and to make introductions; he needed a fearless man who knew the lay of the land and would be trusted in black communities and black homes. John Wesley Dobbs agreed to guide him.
Dobbs was a giant in fighting for civil rights in the Jim Crow South, and worked tirelessly to register black voters in Atlanta, his hometown. When he started his voter-registration drive, in 1936, just 600 black residents were registered; when he was finished, 20,000 were registered. He was instrumental in the city of Atlanta hiring its first black police officers — eight of them in 1948, the year Dobbs set out with Sprigle.
Much of Steigerwald’s 336-page book retraces Sprigle and Dobbs’ journey. Some of Sprigle’s own robust prose is sprinkled throughout, like this account of a black man murdered for simply being the first black person to vote in his county:
Private Snipes didn’t know it, but the white folks were right. He was already dead when he dropped that ballot in the box. The white folks just let him walk around another week before they buried him.
Just a week later four white men drove up to Macy Snipes’ home, called him out and after a few words riddled him with bullets and drove off.
To contemporary critics who’d say that Sprigle, however well intentioned, was still trading on white privilege, Steigerwald has a simple answer. “I learned that white audiences weren’t reading the Courier in 1948 — they definitely weren’t reading black papers,” he says, referencing the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important black newspapers of its day, locally as well as nationally, and known for its coverage of Jim Crow. “Black people had to read black papers and white papers. And the P-G didn’t cover [black culture].” Sprigle’s series was syndicated by white papers nationally, but in the South only by the Courier itself. Yet ironically enough, the only way any white readers were going to learn about the black perspective was from a white reporter who went deep undercover.