The iconic photo of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette star reporter Ray Sprigle appeared in the paper many hundreds of times and was familiar to most Western Pennsylvanians when he went on his undercover mission to the Jim Crow South in 1948.

From the Post-Gazette:

Author Bill Steigerwald recounts

Ray Sprigle’s journey

in ’30 Days A Black Man’

Author Bill Steigerwald believes that Ray Sprigle was the Roberto Clemente of journalism. Both men were superstars in their fields but never achieved the level of deserved acclaim outside of Pittsburgh.

Sprigle, a white Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, is the subject of Mr. Steigerwald’s latest book, “30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South” (Lyons Press).

“If Sprigle had done what he did with the 1948 trip, [writing for newspapers] in New York or Los Angeles, Spencer Tracy would have played him in a movie,” Mr. Steigerwald said.

Sprigle’s decision to go undercover as one of 10 million African-Americans in the Deep South in 1948 resulted in his splashy 21-part series, “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days.” Papers across the country carried it, although none south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The Pittsburgh Courier also ran it.

“He shocked the white North,” Mr. Steigerwald said. “The good people of the white North had no clue and he really [ticked] off people in the South: ‘Who is this Yankee guy, coming down here and causing trouble?’ ”

Mr. Sprigle, who lived on a farm in Moon, was the Post-Gazette’s star reporter, a man who would, before his death in a 1957 car accident, have other blockbuster projects. His expose proving U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan earned the 1938 Pulitzer Prize.

Another time, he posed as an attendant at the now-demolished Mayview State Hospital in South Fayette to write about conditions there. And in 1945, he “became” a black market meat vendor to expose violations of the federal war rationing system.

“He started the first national debate about ending segregation in the South,” Mr. Steigerwald said. “One guy, one crazy good journalist.”

Mr. Steigerwald’s book follows Sprigle’s journey and also makes the case for him as “under-honored” for the work.

With the help of black civil and political activist John Wesley Dobbs, a heavily suntanned Sprigle played a subservient black man. He observed shocking differences in public funding between the races, met with families who had suffered terrible losses, and chronicled everyday instances of discrimination in the South.

At the same time, Sprigle was a reporter, not a crusader.

He also was an Everyman who, according to Mr. Steigerwald, befriended men and women from all walks of life. His $10,000 salary at the Post-Gazette would translate to a $100,000 today.

“30 Days” is Mr. Steigerwald’s second book. The seeds of a long-form accounting were planted during the course of routine feature writing back when Mr. Steigerwald was a writer at the Post-Gazette. In researching a few topics for “50th anniversary” story ideas, he came across the Sprigle series in the library’s old, paper files.

Mr. Steigerwald spent three weeks in 1998, traveling in the same area of the South visited by Sprigle. The resulting feature was a literary revisiting of the trip. He also wrote a 2009 Post-Gazette Back Page feature on another trip to the Delta. He also has written about a 2011 production of “All Blues,” a play about Sprigle and Dobbs.

Years later, he drove Sprigle’s daughter, Rae, to Washington, D.C., to meet Mr. Dobbs’ daughter in the city where their fathers’ trek began.

Very few newspapers today could afford such an investigative undertaking.

“You figure, he basically did not work for at least four months, probably closer to five or six months. He was either preparing for his trip, on his trip, or writing about his trip.”

“He probably spent seven or eight thousand bucks in today’s money on the trip itself, plus he wasn’t working all that time.”

Mr. Steigerwald describes himself as “a 17-year-old in a 69-year-old body, who started out wanting to be a writer, like everybody else, and ended up being a journalist. I ended up having a wonderful time being paid to insert myself into the lives and occupations of strangers.”

It’s no wonder he relates to Sprigle, who eloquently did just that.

(Bill Steigerwald will be discussing “30 Days” July 6 at 6 p.m. in the Carnegie Library International Poetry Room, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. He also will be conducting a book signing July 14 at 7 p.m. at the Waterfront Barnes & Noble.)

Leave a Reply