In 1948, a white man from Pittsburgh shaved his head, tanned his skin, put on modest clothing and a pageboy cap and with John Wesley Dobbs as his guide, ventured across Georgia and the South pretending to be a black man.
It was 13 years before another white journalist, John Howard Griffin took a similar approach in the seminal 1961 book “Black Like Me,” and several decades before Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who worked for the NAACP, was outed for “passing” as black.
But the journey of Ray Sprigle, a star reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was largely forgotten by the public until 1998 when Bill Steigerwald introduced a new generation of readers to Sprigle’s story.
Steigerwald, then a reporter at the Post-Gazette, decided to retrace Sprigle’s steps on the 50th anniversary of his journey. “He is a forgotten figure in Pittsburgh even and certainly in the USA,” said Steigerwald whose story ran with a reprint of Sprigle’s 21-part series in the Pittsburgh paper.
In 2009, Steigerwald reprised the story in an Op/Ed item for the Atlanta Jounal-Constitution. And in 2011, two Atlanta playwrights from 7 Stages Theater turned Sprigle’s journey into the stage play “All Blues.”
Steigerwald knew he had the makings of a book, but it would take some time before “30 Days A Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed The Jim Crow South,” (Lyons Press, $27) was published earlier this year.
“I felt I had a duty to write this because I thought if I don’t do this, no one will,” said Steigerwald. “I have a greater appreciation of Sprigle because I realize he was a newsman, he wasn’t a crusader, a liberal or a civil rights guy, he was a constitutional conservative and he wanted it to apply to everyone.”
Immersing himself in Sprigle’s journey also gave Steigerwald a new appreciation of just how bad things were for black people in the pre-Civil Rights era. “In the book, someone says Jim Crow was legalized humiliation and that is what is was,” said Steigerwald.
Much of Sprigle’s experience into black life took place in Atlanta and coastal Georgia in large part because that is where John Wesley Dobbs, Sprigle’s designated guide, was born and raised.
Dobbs was by then a major figure in Atlanta having risen through the ranks of the U.S. Postal Service to carve a middle-class lifestyle. He bought a house in the Fourth Ward where he and his wife raised six daughters. He became Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons, the black version of the fraternal group and after retiring from 32 years of postal service, he devoted himself to improving the lives of African-Americans in Atlanta and across the country.
Dobbs agreed to drive Sprigle around and give him access to black life under the condition that it would be kept secret. He was a trusted figure in the black community and even if people questioned Sprigle’s “disguise” they would accept him on Dobbs’ word. Though it was likely known in the black community, Dobbs’ secret would hold for many years in the mainstream.
Dobbs and Sprigle set off in a dark green Ford Mercury Town Sedan with Dobbs behind the wheel and Sprigle a.k.a. “James Crawford” as passenger. For the next month, Sprigle would meet and live among black people from North Georgia to the Mississippi Delta.
He met sharecroppers, tenant farmers, teachers, doctors and lawyers. He visited schools that were separate but definitely not equal. He heard first hand from the families of victims about the lynchings and lawlessness that Jim Crow (the state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the South) levied on black communities. By the time he returned to Pittsburgh he was nothing short of bitter.
Those feelings carried over into his impassioned writing which his critics would challenge as “false generalities.” Sprigle didn’t exclude his opinions in his writing, but he also had the facts to back up his statements.
“He applied all of his skills, reportorial and writing skills,” Steigerwald said. “He knew what a good story was. He was a brilliant writer. He knew how to argue and he had good principles. He turned what could have been a dry journalistic story into a gigantic 21-part Op-Ed piece.”
Sprigle had always favored the underdog and in the South he found 10 million black people who played that role. He was not a naive man — his work had exposed him to criminals, the mentally ill and other outcasts — but while he knew conditions were bad for black people, he didn’t know how bad until he saw it for himself.
“He was pissed,” Steigerwald said, but he was far from becoming an activist. “Some people might criticize Sprigle for not having the right motivation. He wasn’t out to help the black people of America but he did it indirectly as a result of his fine journalism,” Steigerwald said.
When the story ran, it caused a national sensation. Newspapers were still the primary news vehicle at the time and Sprigle’s story was the first time a white newspaper with a large circulation paid much attention to segregation.
Many whites were horrified by what they read. Others challenged Sprigle’s story with their own accounts of what life was really like for blacks in the South. But no matter their reaction to the story, everyone seemed to be publicly talking about segregation in a way they never had before.
“Everything he did in the series had not been done by a white northern paper before. White people didn’t have a clue and in a way they didn’t care and they were not made to care because there were so few signals being sent by the media,” said Steigerwald. “A lot of good white people were kind of shocked and the not so good white people were saying it’s all exaggerated. The impact is that he sparked a debate.”
The national conversation culminated in a radio show that brought together Sprigle, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP; Hodding Carter, a white progressive journalist from Louisiana and Harry Ashmore, a white journalist who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of school integration in Arkansas.
After a lively town hall debate, Sprigle went to work on the book version of his story. “In The Land of Jim Crow,” was released in the spring of 1949 to little fanfare. The topic of segregation no longer seemed to be a hot issue — at least not in mainstream America. Sprigle went back to reporting, Dobbs went back to advocating and after an upset over Thomas Dewey, Harry Truman when back to running the country.
“He was too ahead of his time. It was too early for the white north and white northern media and white northern politicians to seize on this issue and run with it. It fizzled out and didn’t come back in a big way until Emmett Till,” Stiegerwald said, referring to the 1955 lynching of a 14-year-old African-American boy in Mississippi who was accused of flirting with a white woman.
While the story of Sprigle and Dobbs’ journey is interesting on its own, it is also fascinating how the national conversation about segregation in 1948 sounds a lot like the national conversation about race in 2017.
Police brutality, pay inequality, poor housing, failing schools, white supremacy, immigration and fake news are all terms that Sprigle uses in his account from 1948 and all terms that could have been lifted from recent news headlines.
While journalists today are able to produce thought-provoking stories about these same topics, it would be a challenge for a reporter to do what Ray Sprigle did 70 years ago, Steigerwald said.
Fortunately, readers have Steigerwald’s book to serve as a reminder of the many ways in which history stays with us. “All of these issues have not disappeared completely,” said Steigerwald. “(The book) is about 1948, but it is timely.”