Book Recounts A White Reporter's 30 Days Posing As Black In The Jim Crow South
During the first half of the 20th century – back when most people still got their news on newsprint – Pittsburgh’s best-known journalist was likely Ray Sprigle.
Sprigle, who wrote and edited primarily for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was a reporter’s reporter. In 1937, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his articles proving that newly appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a lifetime member of the Ku Klux Klan.
But Sprigle was probably most celebrated for his undercover work: posing as a coal miner to expose working conditions underground, or feigning mental illness to gain covert access to a mental hospital.
Sprigle’s exploits are largely forgotten today. But Pittsburgh-based author Bill Steigerwald revisits one of his career highlights in “30 Days A Black Man” (Lyons Press). The book, just out in paperback, tells how in 1948, Sprigle, who was white, posed as African-American to investigate conditions in the Jim Crow South.
Sprigle’s 21-part Post-Gazette series caused a sensation that reverberated from the Golden Triangle to the White House, and from the Deep South to the West Coast.
Steigerwald says Sprigle’s mission was necessary because whites in the North had scant knowledge of Jim Crow. When his series got national play, says Steigerwald, Sprigle “had the whole country for about two or three months talking about the issue of ending legal segregation for the first time.”
Sprigle, who was 61, managed his unlikely imposture with help from two prominent African Americans. One was crusading NAACP national head Walter White. The other was John Wesley Dobbs, the leading civil-rights activist who crucially (and courageously) served as Sprigle’s escort and guide through the segregated Southern states.
How did Sprigle disguise himself? After attempting with little success to dye his skin “black,” Sprigle settled on a deep tan; readers who see the reporter’s photo in disguise might wonder how he pulled off his undercover effort. Steigerwald cites factors including Sprigle’s team-up with Dobbs and the fact that African-Americans have a wide range of skin tones – White himself could have easily passed as white. Perhaps most importantly, in the South, anyone who presented as black was taken as such.
Sprigle’s series arrived the same year the U.S. military was desegregated, but years before most landmarks in the modern Civil Rights movement. And it hit Post-Gazette readers hard, says Steigerwald, in part because of the reporter’s own notoriety: Whenever the paper ran one of his front-page investigative series, the 300,000-subscriber publication’s circulation regular jumped by 20,000 copies or more. Daily newspapers from Philadelphia to Seattle ran syndicated versions of “I Was A Negro In The South For 30 Days.” So did the legendary Pittsburgh Courier, the Hill District-based weekly that had been documenting Jim Crow for years, but – and this is crucial – only for the nationally distributed paper’s overwhelmingly black readership.
“If you're a white guy living in Mount Lebanon, and if you're the most liberal person on the planet, you can be reading the Post-Gazette every day, faithfully, and you're going to find out very, very little about the South, blacks in the south, and blacks in on the Hill,” says Steigerwald, a Washington County resident whose own career has included stints with the Post-Gazette, as well as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Los Angeles Times.
Steigerwald says what shocked Sprigle’s readers most wasn’t stories of lynchings – which had declined significantly in recent decades – or the rigged justice system. It was more the everyday suffocating humiliation and terror of white supremacy.
“It was the day-to-day sort of threat that hung over everyone, whether you were a professor at Spelman College or … a sharecropper,” says Steigerwald. “If you were black, you were always a little worried about what might happen.” While blacks were a much bigger proportion of the population than in the North, “they were always at the mercy of the nearest white man.”
The series drew praise not only from the NAACP’s Walter White – who’d helped facilitate it – but also from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Sprigle and White participated in an ABC Radio “town hall” on desegregation that drew 3 million listeners, says Steigerwald.
Sprigle’s writing was vivid and impassioned; he wrote, for instance, of the sense of losing his citizenship as, in the guise of a black man, his train simply rolled further South. And what Steigerwald calls “the power of the first-person story” sealed the deal -- especially for the white readers for whom these reports might have been “about somebody on Mars.”
Sprigle’s signal achievement is little remembered; indeed, many people might more easily recall “Black Like Me,” John Howard Griffin’s 1961 book documenting a similar undercover project, and its film adaptation.
But if Sprigle isn’t remembered, Steigerwald says, it has less to do with the quality of the work than with changes in society and innovations in media. As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, for instance, it was aided by televised images from the South. “All of the media in the North were doing what Sprigle had done,” says Steigerwald. “You could see on TV how awful it was, and it was hard to ignore at that point.”