The Pittsburgh Courier was one of the largest newspapers in the United States to be owned and operated by Black Americans. Founded in 1910 by Edwin Nathaniel Harleston, the paper published weekly editions for 56 years and was a leading voice in Black communities, both locally in Pittsburgh and nationally. The paper focused on subjects of particular interest to its readership, including economic and political opportunities, discriminatory practices in healthcare and housing, and the Civil Rights movement. The Courier is also the subject of a film in the Cinecraft Productions collection titled The Pittsburgh Courier: A Romance in Journalism.
The film, produced in 1953, highlights the complex day-to-day operations undertaken to plan, prepare, print, and distribute a weekly publication like The Courier. It introduces viewers to several of the paper's accomplished staff, each of whom was recognized as a leader in print journalism at the time. One of the most notable staff members in the film is President Jessie Vann (née Matthews).
Born in Floradale, Pennsylvania, in 1885, Vann was a gifted student and teacher before marrying lawyer Robert Lee Vann in 1910. Shortly after their wedding, Robert Vann incorporated The Pittsburgh Courier and became editor-in-chief, growing the quality and reach of the paper exponentially over the next three decades. During this time, Jessie Vann quietly supported her husband from the sidelines. However, when Robert Vann passed away in 1940, Jessie Vann had a choice to make. “My husband’s death meant that I was faced with making one of the greatest decisions of my life: whether to remain at home or to accept the responsibility of managing the newspaper business he had left—and I chose the latter." She subsequently became the President and Treasurer of the Board of Directors of The Courier.
Vann ran the paper for 23 years, only stepping down when she retired in 1963. Her excellent leadership earned her the nickname "The Courier's First Lady" and continued the paper's phenomenal legacy of journalistic leadership.
Ona Coughlan is the Audiovisual Digitization Archivist at Hagley Museum and Library