Legendary reporter of the Pittsburgh Courier, Frank E. Bolden

Herb Boyd | 2/15/2018, 2 p.m.
Next time you’re in Pittsburgh, set aside some time to visit the Senator John Heinz History Center.

The former musician was right at home spending time with a host of jazz immortals, such as Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Errol Garner, Mary Lou Williams and Billy Strayhorn. Many of these greats were featured in his column “Orchestra Swirl.”

Also on the street and his beat was the bustling life of the “nocturnal sisterhood,” his term for the sex workers in the neighborhood. He was among the reporters at the paper who covered the Negro Leagues baseball, with profiles of the entrepreneur Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords team, and the renowned Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

With the outbreak of World War II, Bolden, rather than putting his fingers on a trigger, hit the keys of a typewriter and became one of two African-American war correspondents. The sweltering, vermin-infested jungles of Burman were a long way from Wylie Avenue, but Bolden brought the same intrepid dedication in his coverage of the troops there, particularly those deployed to build the famous Burma Road. His stories captured the challenge the Black soldiers faced on the job and on racial hostility. There was a continuing series of stories combating the negative reports on African-American soldiers and their alleged cowardice.

Bolden seemed to be everywhere in the military, and at one time was even the house guest of the Indian leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, both of whom enthusiastically assured the reporter of their support for the Black civil rights struggle. Other notables who agreed to answer Bolden’s questions were President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin.

After the war, Bolden was back on his beat and his column (turning down jobs at major mainstream publications), and was an editor between 1956 and 1960 at the paper. Among his chief concerns at the paper was to increase the presence of African-Americans on the police force, especially in the city’s Hill District. He also wanted them to be promoted beyond just pounding a beat. On this crusade, he gained a measure of success.

If Bolden was warm and considerate to young reporters—and one of his innovations at the paper was the Junior Courier—he was known to be tough on his colleagues, pushing them to the brink of their talents. Phyll Garland, one of his protégés and later a noted journalist and teacher, said that Bolden rode his writers, “prodding them to do better” and often urging them on with the charge that they were terrible reporters.

In the early ’60s when the Courier was financially troubled, Bolden departed for New York City and for a brief spell worked at The New York Times before joining NBC-radio and NBC-TV, and then, for a year, 1962-63, was employed on the “Huntley-Brinkley Report.”

He received wide recognition for his coverage of the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1964, and he earned a coup and a sizable bonus for his bathtub-side interview with presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

“I didn’t know [newspapers] hired you people,” Bolden said Goldwater told him. “He was a bigot through and through.”

Later, Bolden was back in Pittsburgh, where he was assistant director of information and community relations for the city’s board of education, a position he held for 17 years. Along with this task, he served on the African-American advisory committee of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and subsequently was honored for his volunteer work with Cerebral Palsy Institute, and Family Services of Western Pennsylvania and the Early Learning Institute, a nonprofit agency serving special needs children.

Bolden received numerous awards, including the George Polk Award, a Lifetime Achievement Golden Quill Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation and the Legacy Award of the National Association of Black Journalists in 2003, and he was named a Distinguished Alumni Fellow by the University of Pittsburgh.

Bolden was often known to extend his appreciation of the Courier, saying without the paper there “would be no Bolden,” but to a great extent the opposite was true, without Bolden there would have been no Courier.