Black In The South: From The Eyes Of A White Man

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By Diamond-Michael Scott

His name is Bill Steigerwald. A former news and investigative journalist, he has written two books since retiring from the media world. 

When he reached out to me a couple of weeks ago after stumbling upon some articles of mine here on Substack, I was shocked to learn that he was the author of a book entitled “30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South.”

In this true account, Steigerwald recaptures the travels of a white journalist and black leader in 1948  along with their first-hand experiences amid the ugly stain of segregation and bigotry during the Jim Crow era. Well-researched and full of vivid detail, it delivers a shocking look at the unjust and unequal life facing millions of Black Americans in the South. 

The book highlights the life of Ray Sprigle, an infamous white journalist from Pittsburgh who in 1948 joined Atlanta’s black civil rights pioneer Wesley Dobbs in an undercover experiment aimed at exposing what Southern U.S. life was like for a Black man. His follow-up newspaper series stunned millions, sparking the first nationally televised radio and television debate about race and segregation in America. 

Encompassing 30 days along a 3,000-mile trek, the duo encountered dirt poor sharecroppers, black schools in disrepair, and Blacks whose family members lynched. Chronicled by Steigerwald in 2017, it offers a painful look at this period and its prevailing impact on Black consciousness. 

In a phone interview from his home near Pittsburgh, Bill shared what it was like to write the book and what he personally discovered from the experience. 

Let’s begin by having you share a little about you

Sure. For starters, I always have to tell people that the book is not an autobiography. In other words, I did not personally spend 30 days as a Black Man. Rather, because of my long career as a journalist for the L.A. Times in the ’80s, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in the ’90s, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a conservative-libertarian paper, in the 2000s, I was able to capture the Southern travails of Sprigle and Dobbs thereby unlocking their story. 

How did you first learn about the prized journalist Ray Sprigle? 

I didn’t know about Ray Sprigle until I was at the Post Gazette. I came across his files in the morgue (as we used to refer to it at the newspaper) and realized that he was a total superstar. TOther than having named a minor prize or award after him here in Pittsburgh, no one paid much attention to him.

Can you elaborate a bit about his work? 

Well, he was a superstar journalist who at one point disguised himself as a scab worker in a coal mine for a week before writing a huge series. I came across his clips and discovered that he had also booked himself into state mental hospitals as both a patient and as a guard on two different occasions to gather a first-hand account of conditions in these facilities. 

He also at one point disguised himself as a black market meat salesman in the waning days of World War II. He would drive up and down the highways buying black-market meat without ration coupons and all that stuff. When I saw all of this, I thought, “this guy is unbelievable!” 

It appears that Sprigle’s career at the Pittsburgh Gazette was the launching pad for his investigatory work. 

That’s correct. He was a tremendous writer who at one time wrote fiction. He was from Akron, Ohio. In any event, he worked at the Post Gazette from 1911 to about 1957 when he died. It was in 1995 when I realized that in 3 years it would be the 50th anniversary of his trip into the Jim Crow South in 1948. This led me to begin looking for stories about his trip to the South and how I might go about retracing it. 

You ended up doing the trip. What first ensued from this?  

After the trip, I did a big Sunday feature for the Gazette. The piece ran and it was a pretty big deal. And then the book I wrote

And as I understand it, Sprigle’s daughter was of immense help in terms of the research. 

Yes. His daughter was still alive — a brilliant and wonderful woman — and she remembered everything. She helped me gather all of his papers and stuff, literally in six giant rubber garbage cans. And so I did a deep dive into all of Sprigle’s 1948 stuff and was able to interview people who knew him and were still alive.

How did your background and upbringing inform your experience in writing the book? 

Well, I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. My dad was a city guy who was born in 1920 who loved jazz. So it was kind of a strange upbringing. We loved Billie Holiday and Count Basie And Charlie Parker, who I didn’t learn about until I was about 25 years old. 

My dad on one hand loved black people. On the other hand, for some reason, he was really tough on Black people, particularly those who were prominent leadership roles at that time. My mother was a Democrat, my father a Republican. 

What about your understanding of Black history going into this book project? 

Well, I ended up becoming a full-scale Libertarian in 1976 while living in Cincinnati and of course have been ever since. So I’m big on the Constitution, big on natural rights, big on individual freedoms, and limited government.

However, given that I was a history major at Villanova and worked in newspapers for 30 years, I thought I should be pretty smart, right? I should be pretty knowledgeable. Well, I guess I am in some ways. But I was pretty shocked when I started doing the research for the book. Over the course of my journalistic career, I did probably a dozen stories on black schools, black business people, black teachers, and a street that had turned from white to black in Pittsburgh over a period of twenty years. But none of that totally prepared me for what I was going to encounter in writing the book. 

How did this impact you? 

Frankly, I was appalled that my own newspaper The Post Gazette had done virtually no reporting about Black people when I got there in 1990. I couldn’t believe how poorly they covered the Black community which is about a quarter of Pittsburgh’s population. 

I don’t know whether you’ve ever been to Pittsburgh but the Hill District was supremely important to Black culture in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, particularly related to jazz and negro baseball. There was also August Wilson, an American playwright who has been referred to as the "theater's poet of Black America.'' He is best known for a series of ten plays collectively called The Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicled the experiences and heritage of the African-American community in the 20th century.

So back to Ray Sprigle, it sounds like you began to uncover a lot about this man and his travels

Yes, Ray had written a book entitled “In The Land of Jim Crow” in 1949. I came to admire the way that he wrote it. Honestly, my initial fear is that Ray may have said some nasty things about Black people or demeaned them in some way. But I never stumbled upon any of that in the book. He was a constitutionalist who basically wanted black people in the South and North to be seen on equal footing as whites. He believed that the constitution needed to be more strictly enforced when it comes to Black people. 

What else did you discover about him? 

Ray really wasn’t a crusader or an early civil rights guy or any of these things. He was simply a very good journalist who knew this would be a great story given his background and what he suspected he would find in the South. What he didn’t know was how bad things would actually be when he visited there. 

Sounds like he stumbled upon some pretty shocking stuff

I would say that he was surprised but not naive. Honestly, I’m terrified that if they ever make a limited series out of this, which I pray that they will someday, they will turn Sprigle into some kind of naive white guy. He, in fact, once remarked that he was ashamed to be a white man after what he experienced in the Jim Crow South for 30-days. 

How long did it take for you to capture all of this in your book? 

It took me about two years to write. But all of the work I had done 20-years earlier laid a lot of the groundwork. As a part of my retracing of Sprigle’s trip, I had the opportunity to interview not only his daughter at length but other people who had met him in the South. It was really a learning process that took twenty years for me to appreciate what Sprigle had done and to acknowledge on my own how awful things were in the Jim Crow South. I felt like I should have known a lot of what I was finding out years before.

In conclusion, what was one major lesson you walked away with from writing this book? 

In doing this book, while I learned a lot of stuff,  I discovered that I still have much to learn about Black America. I think it’s a damn shame that Black history has been siloed off from white history. American History is not just about white guys. It’s about an entire spectrum of people. But somehow, Black History and even Black current events were neglected by the white establishment, particularly in education where decisions are made about what books should be published or taught. My hope is that we’ll find a way to correct this in time. 

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