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Book recalls veteran Pittsburgh journalist who exposed Jim Crow laws

| Friday, April 21, 2017, 10:42 a.m.
Bill Steigerwald
Bill Steigerwald
'30 Days a Black Man' by Bill Steigerwald
'30 Days a Black Man' by Bill Steigerwald
Ray Sprigle
Ray Sprigle

In 1948, at the age of 61, Ray Sprigle went to Florida for three weeks to work on his tan. But unlike most vacationers, Sprigle's sunbathing was purposeful: The veteran Post-Gazette editor and reporter was darkening his skin so he could pass as a black man.

“He was first and foremost an old-time newspaper guy,” says Bill Steigerwald, the author of “30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South” (Lyons Press, $26.95). “He was always after the big stories.”

A reading and book release party for “30 Days” will be held April 22 at The Firehouse in Point Breeze.

Sprigle had a knack for finding stories that drew national attention. During World War II, he wrote about a black market meat operation in Pittsburgh that resulted in a federal investigation. Sprigle went undercover as a scab miner to expose working conditions in the coal industry, and filed reports from London during World War II. He received national attention for proving that Hugo Black, appointed to the Supreme Court by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; the expose earned Sprigle a Pulitzer Prize.

“He had a fiction writer's skills,” Steigerwald says of Sprigle. “He was in fact a pulp fiction writer who was on his way to New York City to become the next Maxim Gorky when he stopped to visit a friend in Pittsburgh. He ended up working a night at the copy desk of the Pittsburgh Daily Post in 1911, and took the job and never left Pittsburgh. He had fiction skills and was a great reporter.”

Sprigle was also a “schmoozer,” who at one time lived in a brothel above an illegal bistro where prostitutes, madams and “the self-baptized saviors of the world hung out,” according to Steigerwald, a former Tribune-Review associate editor. But while Sprigle may have hung out with colorful characters, his journalistic skills and intentions were never in question.

“He was always looking for trouble in the sense that he was looking for things that were wrong, that were corrupt, that were stupid, that were unfair to the little guy,” Steigerwald says. “And not always the little guy. He was also looking for the only Republican in a town who he felt was getting ramrodded. He was a very political animal.”

But Sprigle's attempt to pass as a black man in the South was his most daring gambit. After attempting to employ a black insurance agent as a guide, Sprigle enlisted John Wesley Dobbs, a civil rights pioneer from Atlanta, to escort him on his trip. They traveled from town to town, staying with Dobbs' fellow Prince Hall Masons.

The trip was inherently dangerous, but Sprigle and Dobbs managed to avoid trouble by conforming to the standards expected of blacks in the South.

“Sprigle was not interested in getting in a shootout with the KKK or being roughed up by a sheriff,” Steigerwald says. “He wasn't pretending to be black and telling (people) to shut up. He was as humble and as demeaned and as lowly a Negro as he could be.”

In the subsequent 21-part series, “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days,” in the Post-Gazette, Sprigle “apologized that there wasn't really anything exciting that happened,” Steigerwald says, quoting the journalist, “but that's because I was very careful to be always be the good Negro.”

According to Steigerwald, Sprigle didn't have an agenda when he embarked on his trip. He was not an advocate for blacks, nor was he on any moralistic crusade. But Sprigle came away from the trip intent on telling the world about the injustices he saw.

“He was really smart and he was principled, and what he saw, at one point he said it made him ashamed to be an American,” Steigerwald says. “What he saw was 10 million people being treated (poorly). Despite what the Constitution said, despite the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, despite the supposed freedom and wonderfulness of the United States. … In the South, it was open discrimination against anyone with black skin, and when he saw that I think he was really appalled.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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