"Until somebody threatens your life, you haven't been a good journalist," Frank E. Bolden told City Paper in his last interview (see "Bolden the Beautiful," Aug. 13). During his 90 years, in which he led campaigns in the black press against lynchings, Jim Crowery, and racist housing and lending discrimination, Bolden certainly received such threats.
The Godfather of black journalists, both locally and abroad, was fond of saying that "The first slaves came to America in 1619 and the first pilgrims came in 1620 -- hell, my people helped them unload their damn boat!"
To CP he added: "What I want now is to correct our problems and I can't correct it from out in the middle of the street. I want to correct it through achievement."
Achievement, he always explained, softens the blow of racial terrorization.
Though you would never hear it from him, Bolden's list of achievements run as long as Wylie Avenue in the Hill District, where he famously captured the glitterati of both the jazz clubs and Negro baseball league. Bolden also wrote of the Hill's fabulous '40s and '50s "race men" -- the fearless black orators and activists who dared to speak out against governmental and institutional injustices. Bolden, who spent 27 years with the Pittsburgh Courier, was one of these race men himself.
His journalism skills led to his recruitment as one of only two black foreign correspondents embedded with U.S. troops in World War II. His coverage of the war, including interviews with world leaders, ran not only in the black press but also in The New York Times and other papers across the country.
When he returned to the states he took over the city desk at the Courier, where as editor he developed a reputation for a quarrelsome and militant demeanor. Bolden was never apologetic about his rigor, though, often reminding people that oysters only produce pearls when you agitate them.
"You can't be a good editor and treat your reporters like they were infants," Bolden told CP. "You have to be a bad S.O.B. and a good one at the same time."
Bolden didn't always intend to be a writer. He majored in biology at the University of Pittsburgh and wanted to become a doctor or a teacher; both careers were closed to him because he was black. Administrators in Pittsburgh Public Schools told him to go down South to teach, but he said he "didn't want to go fight the Civil War all over again." But he ended his working career as a director of information and community relations for the school district, doubling as a tutor. Bolden also worked briefly in radio and television for NBC, and was a consultant to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. He recently renewed his wedding vows at a 43rd wedding anniversary party with wife, Nancy.
Before his death on Aug. 28, Bolden was already an historical exhibit at The Newseum (which exists only online while a new facility is being constructed in Washington, D.C.)
"As a journalist, if you ever got tired of working for a change, you simply had to talk to Frank Bolden," says Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Erv Dyer, who penned a Bolden profile for the National Association of Black Journalist's digest. The NABJ honored Bolden this summer with their second Legacy Award. "To hear him speak about the work that still needed to be done, to hear his passion for the black press, to hear him talk about covering World War II and civil rights, you were inspired to go on."
In the end it was heart failure, teamed with arthritis and pulmonary dysfunction, that threatened his life. The other threats -- from racism and ignorance -- he had overcome long ago.