Bolden the Beautiful
The Godfather of Pittsburgh black journalism wants to kick life into current newsrooms, and remembers life on the Hill.
"I noticed today, most of these reporters when they come in, the first thing they do is apologize because 'I'm dressed like this,'" says the 90-year-old Godfather of black journalism, Frank E. Bolden
He sits up in his hospital bed and scowls a bit -- his cheeks swollen, not unlike Marlon Brando in The Godfather -- and cocks his left eye up.
"What the hell did you come in here for? For me to approve [your] dress? I don't care how you dress. You can come in here in a bikini if you ask me. Don't ever make an apology for interviewing somebody."
No apology was made. But the sentiment must have been scribbled all over my white linen shirt. At the Pittsburgh Black Media Foundation's Urban Journalism Workshop at Point Park College earlier that day, I had been wearing a black jean jacket, a black T-shirt and black jeans. The shirt change had delayed our interview by 20 minutes. How could the Godfather have known?
Perhaps he recalled interviewing Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi as a young journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier and The New York Times, and the anxieties he felt. Bolden worked for the Courier for 27 years as a sports writer, entertainment editor, war correspondent during World War II, and finally worked as the news and city editors. His articles ran in both the black and mainstream press across the country. He met and befriended many legends: Joe Louis, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. He was responsible for documenting all the dazzling affairs involving these stars in the vibrant Hill District of the '40s and '50s.
Last week he was honored with the Legacy Award from the National Association of Black Journalists at their national convention in Austin, Texas -- only the award's second recipient.
There's nothing arbitrary about the Godfather's name: He is both frank and bold in handling his subjects. The most important subject for Bolden may be the value of "legwork" -- combing city neighborhoods to find stories. He's equally concerned for the younger generation -- whether they are being trained properly, especially for a career in journalism.
At the Urban Journalism Workshop, some of the 23 black high school students were frustrated at workshop rules: Do all reporting from the newsroom. One teen, Jamar Thrasher, said it was important to visit the streets of East Liberty instead. He was granted permission to hit the field, still upset that he was expected to maintain the workshop's business-formal dress code: guys in dress shirts, pleated slacks and ties, girls in business suits or dresses.
"I think I'ma do radio," said Thrasher, his face as long as his necktie. "I can't go out in the streets looking like this. Nobody's gonna want to talk to me."
Another young man, the son of a local news editor, was so frustrated he said he wouldn't be going into journalism. The program had attracted only half a dozen young men. They couldn't be consoled by any "journalism needs more black men&" speech.
The workshop has helped produce many successful black journalists in the past 20 years. It would have helped those young people in attendance to know Bolden's angle on the journalism dress code. All I knew was that journalism had nothing to do with anything tied around my neck or tying me to my desk.
In his hospital bed, just a short distance from the workshop, Bolden listened to these concerns, pulled himself a little closer, and looked firmly ahead:
"Tell them you have a different idea."
How have black journalists changed from the days when you hit the streets with notepad in hand?
They're lazy and there's no one to train them. I'd have a reporter report to me on Monday morning with their coffee and have 15, 20 minutes to talk to each other. Then I wouldn't want to see their butt until Wednesday or deadline time. I'm not interested in where you were. Do you have a story? If you have one, sit down there and write about it. I don't care whether you met John or if you slept with Bill or whether your mother went shopping or if your cousin came here from Toogaloo. I'm not interested in all that.
So how does a black newspaper meet the challenge of sustaining itself in today's market?
Get up off their asses and do some work. Who's going to give city council hell this Monday for not having all the refuse picked up in Homewood and Brushton? How many people are down city council pleading for better police protection? Protection, not beatings. I can take five people and make a good newspaper.
How important is getting more advertising?
Nobody buys newspapers for advertising. You don't buy The New York Times for that. You certainly don't buy the Post-Gazette for that. What's in there that I want to read? Black media is important, more important than I am.
What piqued your interest in journalism?
White press ignored Negroes in America. You see, slaves were brought to America to work, not to think, not to do what other citizens did. I did string work for the Courier. I wanted to go into teaching but they said I made a better writer than a teacher. I found it very interesting because of [Pittsburgh Courier founder Robert L.] Vann. He had a campaign going every year: against segregated baseball, football, fighting discrimination.
Segregation, lynchings and things of that nature made it imperative for a black press to exist because the white press wasn't covering them. But those things don't exist the same way now, and the white press is better about covering the black community, so how should the black press operate?
Those things exist more so now, more so now than before, because look who's running this hospital. Behind it all is the Allegheny County Medical Association. Very few Negroes on the board, very few on the staff. You don't have but so many black surgeons in this town.
Do you believe racism is behind that?
Yes I do. What you're sitting on is what holds us back.
That's what it is. I call it "ass-initis" -- "lead ass-itate."
So it's two different things --
No it's not. We're talking about what slows up the race.
Well, you're talking about "ass-initis" and racism.
So you believe blacks' own laziness is in itself a form of racism?
Yes, I do. Nobody comes here and applies for a job to work in this hospital. See, in my community I'd be fussing like hell if there were no black staff members.
Who are some of the people you interviewed as a sports writer?
Satchel Paige, Joe Louis, John Henry Lewis, all the black baseball players.
Are the black athletes of the 21st century the same as the athletes you met?
No, they're different. They're spoiled. Money spoiled them. They're out there raping women. They lost their manhood to sex and money. You don't have any Bill Russells, Elgin Baylors. Men are not proud of their bodies; they don't care who they sleep with.
Is it important for black public figures to have moral standing?
Definitely. My bartender should have good morals. My barber should have good morals. Very important. When I get out of that chair I'm a role model for that young black fellow sitting there waiting to get a haircut.
Have we lost that?
You know you have. I take you into a barbershop this afternoon, you can't stay in there for an hour. The profanity is so heavy. See, profanity makes ignorance audible. You got two women in here. What makes you think "motherfucker" and "son of a bitch" is good language? We use it like we use "a" and "an."
Let's talk about integration.
There ain't no such animal. You de-segregate things, you don't integrate them. You de-segregate something that's all white. So they hire you and me -- we de-segregate institutions. Integration comes from today at noon, [when] the fellas come by and say, "Hey, we're on our way to work, will you all care to join us?" Or, "We got a bowling game coming up Friday, would you care to join us?" "My wife and I are headed to the movies; would you join us for dinner and a movie?" When I go to work for the Post-Gazette I'm de-segregating their staff. There's a big difference.
When baseball was de-segregated, the argument went that when Major League Baseball began recruiting blacks from the Negro leagues, they took the best talent, and that's what helped dissolve them.
It should have. You're an athlete. You're a Negro second [or] third. You're an athlete first, you're a hell of a baseball player second, there's no need for the third.
So you don't think that was a bad thing for the Negro leagues?
The same argument has been made that when the white press was de-segregated they took the best talent from the black press.
They did. They should've. I would've too. If I was white and you could write like hell, I'd steal you too.
But the best white writers aren't lined up to head for the black press.
I wouldn't either: nobody to boss them or train them. You don't have any black editors that could handle it. Took a hell of a good man to handle me.
So should black journalism students all train to join the Post-Gazette and The New York Times?
Quit looking at each other and saying how good you are. Go out there and prove it. Do a story on the Black Congressional Caucus. Do another one on the city council. Who's helping [City Councilor] Sala Udin with his problems? Who's helping the students in the schools? What about the ministers? You got at least four churches worth a million dollars here. They're not doing anything with it but jumping up and down shouting.
How'd you meet your wife?
Nancy: Is he saying that he doesn't remember?
Frank: I'm tired of talking.
Nancy: I'd like to hear you answer his question about the black press. Did you answer his question about the need for the black press?
Frank: Yes, we need it. We'll always need it as long as we're minorities. Every minority needs its own press. You can't expect the majority to praise you, can you? They'll never do that.
You all aren't off the hook on how you two met.
We met at the Grill I think -- the Crawford Grill. Two friends of mine introduced us.
How was he, Mrs. Bolden, when you met him? Was he charming?
Frank: Hell no. I don't drink that heavy.
What impression did she leave on you?
Well, I just thought she would make a good wife.
She had good character. You could see it. You could see character in her face. She talked sensible. And above all she had what every woman has to have for me: She had a sense of humor. And she wasn't stupid. See, the line between genius and stupidity is very fine. There are more people in the second group then there are in the first. You have to be careful who you pick. You don't pick people just for sex. You pick someone you're going to be compatible with all your life. Your problems will be such that you won't be able to solve them all by yourself. You need somebody to help you -- somebody to help you not only that way, but they'll help you make decisions, too. And if you think you're not compatible, leave them alone.
Any mistakes you made in journalism when you were younger that you've learned from over the years?
First, I learned [to] write not just on race. I've discovered that achievement lowers the tone of racial discrimination and segregation. Thurgood Marshall is a good example. I think of myself as a good example. I got to talk to Stalin, Winston Churchill and Roosevelt by realizing what you can do regardless of the color of your skin. When I did Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, race didn't mean anything. I just went ahead and did it. I learned early on in life to go and do the thing and think about race later. The fact I worked for the Courier always came last. I just wanted to interview this person.
How'd you get to The New York Times?
I did some string work for them from the Courier. That's how it started.
The recent scandals at The New York Times, with Jayson Blair -- what did you think of that whole fiasco?
Bad. It was bad. He should have known better. So I blame him and his boss. He shouldn't have done it. He knows better.
Both of them should have been fired. They knew he was wrong.
Has this set back black journalists?
Yes it has.
We should just be more careful. A good black writer will always make it, though.
Nancy: Unfortunately, what they've done is they made more out of this guy, Jayson Blair, than all the other people who've done the same thing on most of your major newspapers. At least The Wall Street Journal was honest enough to do a litany of all these guys who did the same kind of thing at a variety of papers. But the real problem is the managing editor had an aggressive style that really supported people not being too careful. The kind of safeguards put in place for accuracy were not followed. He wanted to be there first, but it wasn't accurate. The style of the top guy was the thing that permitted Jayson Blair to do what he did -- almost encouraged it.
Do you think it set up a sort of homeland security program within the media where black journalists are screened a lot more rigorously than they would have been before?
What it did was move journalism back to what it used to be with the kind of care and safety features it used to have, where if you said something you had to have a couple sources.
Do you follow black radio at all?
Some of it.
No, used to. When it got you news.
What's your opinion of black radio today?
Not enough legwork. You can't do radio work sitting on your butt like some of them try to do because they're competing with white radio and the Negro press. The challenge is too great to sit like they're doing. They don't get the story inside the story.
Does black radio have that obligation to carry the news? Most radio stations don't have major news programming.
How about our black TV reporters?
TV and radio are no instruments for news. They're for entertainment. Because you cannot give me any news in 90 seconds. By the time I get your name, your address and where you're from, 90 seconds is over.
I take it you're against the kind of reporter who stays in the office all day and reports from the telephone and the computer.
A lot of journalists today work that way.
That's why nobody knows them and could care less about them.
So that's a bad direction for journalism?
Yes, it is. A thermometer's got degrees but it can't talk.
With all the new communication technology out there, cell phones and Internet, how does that contribute or take away from the work a journalist ought to be doing?
Makes them lazy. Keeps you from learning how to reason. Keeps you from learning how to observe people. Keeps you from drawing your own conclusion about people. Some people have something to say; others just feel they have to say something. You want to be in the first group.
When you were young, how did you approach your stories?
One-on-one, face-to-face. What's your name? Where you from? What are you doing down here and why? Then I went from there.
So you went up to random people?
Uh-huh. I said, "What's your name?" If they said, "None of your business," I said, "All right, thank you. I just wanted to do a story on you, that's all. So if you don't want it, fine." I asked Satchel Paige why he drank so much buttermilk, because it gave him wind. He just liked it. I never asked him about his fastball, his curve ball and all that. I asked him something different.
You had a friendship and working relationship with Courier photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris.
He was on my staff for 17 years. I taught him to stop taking pictures his whole life of weddings and dances and parties because people are only interested in that for the time being. Only your sister is interested in the wedding. Once you show it for one week that's it. A wedding's a wedding. The father giving away a bride, it's the same. He's happy and unhappy at the same time. Also, the bride and groom always look the same. The bride's mother and her are so happy that she got somebody. The father is unhappy because he's losing her and his people are happy because she's marrying him, getting him out of the streets, helping him to settle down. See, pictures aren't any good unless they say something.
And Teenie did that.
After I got after him about it. You see, Teenie wanted to work 25 hours a week, but he was better than I thought he was. I'll tell you that. See, Teenie had a natural eye for pictures. Everybody hasn't got that. He's got to be able to see something in your eyes and a story in your face. Teenie had that knack. He was born with it. He could look at your face and tell if there was character in it. See, all women, for instance, aren't pretty. With Max Factor and 10 pounds of pancake makeup they look good. Catch them early in the morning before dawn -- you got to be able to see something in that person. A building must say something. The corner of a building says something where the gang used to hang out. Where Freedom Corner is. Where the ambulances picked up people that were hurt. We used to meet there for lunchtime. It was a meeting place because we didn't have any clubs -- to speak of. The corner was our club hall; what came out of that was very important. Certain areas [were] more important than others, certain spots in the community where we met to discuss our problems.
What did these places contribute to the character of black Pittsburgh?
That was its character. It drew the support of people to support each other. Whenever there was a cutting or shooting or waste of life down on Wylie you had to have something to take somebody to the hospital, and not all hospitals accepted black people at that time. So you had to have somebody down there who felt sorry for me, who'd take me to the hospital. But by the same token you would take me in your car and you didn't mind me getting blood in your car because I was a community man. It showed the humanity of our people down there.
Can you think of other things that contributed to Pittsburgh's character, like jitneys?
You needed jitneys because white cabs would not come in the Hill. They wouldn't come into any Negro neighborhood. I don't know where the name came from. It was necessary and they did a very good job. I've always defended them. But as you made your money and moved out of the Hill, you deserted those people.
I'm sure the Hill was interesting.
Yes it was. I watched Billy Eckstine develop there. Six bucks a week he made. [Hill District jazz club] Derby Dan's owner stole him, took him around the corner for 7. Two weeks later the other owner stole him back for 8 dollars a week. Lena Horne & was my first date here. I was [her] No. 7. There was about 19 of us in line. She lived up on Milwaukee Street. Her daddy grew up here, her uncle was a [pharmacist], used to hang out at Crawford Grill No. 1 along with [Pittsburgh Crawfords and Crawford Grill owner] Gus Greenlee. He and [famous Hill District banker and entrepreneur] "Woogie" Harris were vegetarians. They were the bankers.
Do you worry about how white people will perceive some of the things you say?
What upsets you and me doesn't upset them. They don't know what you're talking about. I am not catering to them. They'll listen to what I have to say and forget it. If they don't like it they can stick it up their ass. That's the way I feel about it and I'm not going to apologize for it. I'm not going to apologize for Thurgood Marshall being on the Supreme Court and his opinions. I'm not going to be unhappy with some of the things I say. They're not always going to be right, but I'm not apologizing for that. When I have to apologize for something that's right, it's time for me to quit. I want them to understand where I'm coming from and why I'm coming this way. The circle you travel in needs your skills. Robert L. Vann was not popular among our people.
Jealous of him. When he died he didn't have 17 cars at his funeral. He didn't have more than four or five black publishers there. They were all jealous of him. So you have to be careful when people start praising you. Be careful when they go after you.
You get a lot of praise today. You think people are after you?
I don't know.
Well, you're about to get this award.
Well, that's because they're hard up and they ain't got nobody else to give it to.
Don't you think you deserve the legacy award?
I haven't done enough work.
You haven't done enough work?
In the last two years I haven't done enough work.
But what about the 50-odd years before that?
Aw, that's history. That's the past. If you want to look at the past -- we got an old saying from the barbershop: The man born with the mask over his face, he never sees a thing before it takes place. The man with the rag over his ass, never sees the things about his past.
Are you a black journalist or a journalist who happens to be black?
The second one.
So there is a difference?
I believe so.
What's the difference?
The second one sees both sides of the question.
We only have a handful of black news reporters. Do you think that adds pressures on each?
A minority reporter will always have pressures. When you go out there to battle [lifts both fists up in boxing stance], you got to have both hands in it. You got to fight. It's a fight before you go out there. If not, you ought to leave your ass home.
You talk about black journalists proving that we are as competent and are able to do the same things as whites. What effect does that have on the psyche of a black journalist trying to perform the basic function of black newspapers -- providing a source of communication for the black community -- and also prove they equal white counterparts?
A minority spends most of his life proving that he's equivalent to the majority. That's part of his job.
Do you think blacks still need to prove those same points today?
Yes, they do.
Because he's not part of the white world.
Should we aspire to be?
Un-huh, always. Why do you think the prizefighters go out? Why do you think baseball players, football players try to prove themselves?
To join the white world?
To join the world, period. The fact that he's black comes last. I'm getting an award for something called "legacy." [Laughs.] Not because I'm black. Actually, because I believe in what I write and I don't retract it. I make sure I'm right, though. And I stick to what I have to say.
You think you get the same recognition in the majority media as you do in the minority media?
Later in life, yeah. Just beginning [to] -- yeah. I'm making it possible for some other Negro writer to get it. It'll be just easier for them, but his writing will have to be more skilled.
Nancy: Truth is, he was getting recognition from the white media before he was [receiving it] from the black media. He got the highest award they give: Lifetime Achievement award from the Golden Quills [given by The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania].
So the black community was late?
Do you have any words of encouragement for a lazy young reporter like me?"If I could just turn a phrase like he can, I'd be great. He tells me all the time that I can do it if I would just try, but he seems to have an ability and facility for doing it. He's a person who has shown me so many ways about how to get things done. He did that in terms of trying to save the race when he was editor of the Courier."