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June 15, 2017

"I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days" – How Journalist Ray Sprigle Exposed Jim Crow in 1940s America

In 1948, a white man’s account of being Black in the segregated south was published. Ray Sprigle a white reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette set out to document his experiences of being Black in “Jim Crow” South.

Sprigle, a full-blooded Pennsylvania Dutchman disguised himself as a Black man as part of a secret, ambitious and dangerous journalistic venture. Sprigle wanted to see for himself how the South's 10 million mostly poor, mostly uneducated Black people endured the humiliations and legal oppressions of Jim Crow, a system of enforced racial segregation that the civil rights movement would spend the next 20 years working to destroy.

Ray Sprigle passed as a black man because wishing to do so was unfathomable for most people. (Pittsburg Post-Gazette)

Though he was a lifelong friend of the underdog, Sprigle was no liberal. He was a staunch conservative Republican who hated FDR and the New Deal. All he had wanted his Southern investigation to do, he said later, was to see "that justice was done to a group that is grossly oppressed." As a newspaperman, Sprigle ranked among the countries best. A front-page luminary at the Post-Gazette since the late 1920s, he had won a Pulitzer Prize and national acclaim in 1938 for uncovering proof that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

A prolific writer, he was known as a great investigative reporter who mixed facts and his own views. His everyday trademarks were a Stetson hat and a corncob pipe; he enjoyed doing crime stories and exposes and was always in search of his next big account whether it was in Pittsburgh's criminal underworld or in pre-World War II Europe. He had put on disguises and used the pseudonym James Crawford many times before to write. In May 1948, with the go-ahead and personal help of the national executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Sprigle darkened his skin with various chemicals and things like walnut juice. All were unsuccessful. So, after drawing up a fresh will, he went to Florida, where he shaved his head and mustache and spent three weeks acquiring a deep tan that would allow him to pass for a light-skinned Negro.

Sprigle was 61, five years younger than John Wesley Dobbs, his trusted guide, protector and "cover," the son of a freed slaves. Dobbs was known as the honorary mayor of Black Atlanta and in 1948 was near the peak of his political and civic power. Dobbs lived a few blocks from a preacher's teen-age son named Martin Luther King Jr., who used to play Monopoly on Dobbs' kitchen floor with two of his six daughters. His first grandson, Maynard Jackson Jr., would become the city's first elected Black mayor in 1970. For one month and nearly 4,000 miles, James R. Crawford (his alias) the light-skinned Negro man from Pittsburgh and his “Masonic Brother” and friend Dobbs traveled the South's primitive back roads to places like Dalton and Americus, Ga., in Dobbs'1947 Mercury.

June 1946, Fortieth Wedding Anniversary: Irene, June, Mrs. Dobbs, Willie, Mr. Dobbs, Millie, and Josephine.

From the Mississippi Delta to Georgia's white-only Atlantic beaches, Sprigle "ate, slept, traveled and lived Black." His Whiteness was detected twice. He shared food with dirt-poor sharecroppers, middle-class Black farmers, dentists, with principals of ramshackle Black schools and the families of lynching victims. The Post-Gazette presented Sprigle's articles as Jackie Robinson was breaking baseball's color barrier. A month before, Sen. Strom Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats left the Democratic National Convention in protest of their party's newly hewn pro-civil rights plank.

Titled "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days" and running for 21 days, the series provided a detailed, impassioned and bitter inside look at a Black life most white Americans knew virtually nothing about. Eleven years before John Howard Griffin wrote "Black Like Me,” Sprigle reported what it felt like to know that your "rights of citizenship ran only as far as the nearest white man said they did." His series was syndicated to about 15 other newspapers, including the New York Herald Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and the mighty Pittsburgh Courier.

Aug. 9, 1948: Newspaper clipping of the first story from Ray Sprigle’s series ”I was a Negro in the South for 30 Days” published on the front page of the Post-Gazette.

It appeared in no white paper south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Yet the South's fierce reaction to Sprigle's vivid message would ignite one of the country's first national media debates about racial segregation in the South. Those years of murder, oppression and hated toward Blacks illustrated why NAACP executive secretary Walter White had recruited Dobbs to help Sprigle. Dobbs, a pioneering civil rights activist who had been doggedly encouraging Black Americans to register and vote for years, was quick to accept the proposition.

The two predicted important PR benefits from a project like Sprigle's. In a letter to White accepting the job, Dobbs wrote, "I think it is feasible, possible, necessary, and ultimately, highly important and useful in getting nearer the truth of conditions in our country." Dobbs assured White he would protect Sprigle, as long as he was "willing to endure the hardship of accommodations that we will face in cheap hotels and private boarding houses." Dobbs’ only concern was secrecy. His role as Sprigle's guide was never revealed in the Post-Gazette or any other publication.

Ray Sprigle in his trademark hat and corncob pipe, circa 1948.

Carnegie Mellon University history student Alan Guy Sheffer, who is now a teacher at North Allegheny High School, first reported it in 1973 in a doctoral dissertation. Dobbs' help was priceless to Sprigle. He brought him into a world no white reporter could otherwise hope to see in 1948. In addition to putting him in touch with local Black leaders, Dobbs introduced the undercover reporter to the poor, and far more typical, Black residents of the South. The Flint River Farms School at the corner of Route 29, still new when Sprigle talked to its young principal, John Robinson, in 1948, is long gone. Only a few small piles of red brick, some rotting lumber and a rusting old water pump mark the spot where the journalist and Dobbs stopped by for a drink of well water and a bite of corn pone more than half a century ago.

The vivid language in Sprigle's syndicated 21-part series would be provocative even today. The series brought Sprigle hundreds of letters (70 percent of them critical) and quickly got the attention of the Southern press. Sprigle's leading press opponent was Hodding Carter Sr., the editor of the Democrat Delta-Times in Greenville, Miss. In October 1948, Sprigle and Carter met face-to-face as part of a debate on "What Should We Do About Race Segregation?" on ABC's "America's Town Meeting." A transcript of the debate shows that Sprigle refused to accept the quaint idea that segregation was merely a way to physically separate the races in public spaces.

Sprigle recycled his newspaper series in a 1949 book called "In the Land of Jim Crow," which didn't sell well. Sprigle died in Pittsburgh as a result of injuries suffered when a car hit his taxi in 1957. His old friend J. W. Dobbs died in 1961; on the day Atlanta's public schools were integrated. To mark the 50th anniversary of Sprigle's work, the Post-Gazette republished the entire series in the summer of 1998.

(This original article was published on African American Registry)


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