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Forgotten Courier Closet Yields Wealth Of Pittsburgh Black History

One photograph shows a young Fidel Castro with boxer Joe Louis, standing next to men in shorts and beach shirts.

Another shows six Tuskegee Airmen huddled outside of a plane as they pore over a map sprawled on the ground.

Young African-American men and women dance the Twist in another frame as a prominent minister watches from the side.

John Brewer has thousands of the images. A part-time historian, he has been working to preserve nearly 50,000 photographs that were part of the Pittsburgh Courier’s archives.

He started the process more than seven years ago after finding 100 bound books of the Courier’s editions that many believed had been lost. Each one contains the photographs, stories and advertisements the staff used to layout the newspaper’s pages. Brewer estimates they might hold more than a half-million unique items.

“I’m not a person who gets excited very easily but my heart was pumping all over the place when I pulled that first book out,” Brewer, 70, of Homewood, said. “It’s a feeling unlike any other feeling that I’ve ever had. And it’s something you pray for. Everyone wants to find something, and something meaningful. Well, this is probably the most meaningful thing I’ve ever found.”

Brewer has focused first on preserving images that originally appeared in the Courier, once the nation’s leading black weekly newspaper with editions across the country in places such as Seattle and Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami. For many blacks in the 20th Century, the Courier provided news local white media would not carry about discrimination, Civil Rights or black culture.

“A lot of the photographs captured the culture of a community that otherwise was not seen in other media,” said Rod Doss, editor and publisher of the New Pittsburgh Courier (the newspaper changed its name in 1965). “It showcases the community activities, the lifestyle activities, the dress that was maintained, the nightlife, the Negro leagues. All those things were captured in these photographs.”

Brewer found the books buried in a forgotten closet at the Courier’s offices. He then worked with the newspaper to obtain a $150,000 federal grant to preserve the items. He used the money to buy scanners, computers and archival equipment.

The grant came from the Interior Department’s “Save America’s Treasures” program, with support from Rep. Mike Doyle, a Forest Hills Democrat, and Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and Civil Rights pioneer. Brewer and Lewis worked together with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

The photo collection “documents nearly 100 years of our country’s history,” Doyle said. “It’s a uniquely comprehensive record of a culture and a community over decades that were filled with important events.”

The Courier has kept most of the books at its offices on the South Side. Brewer keeps thousands of images at his Pittsburgh Coliseum building in Homewood — a former trolley barn converted to a community and entertainment center.

The photographs are in 23 black boxes, organized by topics such as education, sports and politics. Brewer said he has scanned more than 45,000 of the images into computers.

“The images are like permutations running through my mind from day to day,” Brewer said. “But I also feel grateful that I have that kind of opportunity. … The responsibility of being a caretaker is something that I wanted to do.”

One problem is that many of the images have no clear owner, said Samuel Black, director of African-American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

Real Times Media, which owns the New Pittsburgh Courier, owns the books along with all of the newspaper’s other assets, Doss said. But Black points out that some of the photographs came from wire services and other sources, and some were shot by famed African-American photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908–1998), who chronicled life in Pittsburgh’s black neighborhoods for the Courier from 1936-1975. The Carnegie Museum of Art owns most of his work.

The History Center has been in talks since 2011 to acquire the books and images Brewer found and is preserving, and it remains interested in adding them to its permanent collections, Black said.

“The Courier’s reporters, journalists and executive staff had connections with movers and shakers and people from all walks of life,” Black said. “It is really a very valuable collection in that sense. It provides so much information.”

Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with Trib Total Media. Reporter Andrew Conte will talk about the collection Thursday on Essential Pittsburgh at noon and 8 p.m.