Bill Steigerwald

I'm not sure it's politically OK to mention this, now that we've elected President Obama and we're officially in a post-racial age.

But I saw more black people in a recent four-day, 1,600-mile road trip from Atlanta to the Mississippi Delta and back than I have in Pittsburgh in the last year.

The New South, in case any other dumb Yankee besides me hasn't noticed what's been obvious for decades, is far more racially integrated - from top to bottom - than the Old North.

I'm sure this is no newsflash to Georgians, where blacks make up 30 percent of the population, or Mississippians, where blacks comprise 37 percent. But I live in Pittsburgh, the capital city of one of the country's lily-whitest metro regions.

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Nearly 90 percent of us western Pennsylvanians are plain old vanilla Caucasian and about 10 percent are black. Latinos and Asians are almost as demographically rare here as Detroit Redwing fans and Eskimos - sorry, Inuit. And in the southern suburbs where I live you can go weeks without seeing a person of any color except white.

I have good reason to have race on my mind - and good reason for making my recent dash through the South.

I was doing research for a book about an amazing, dangerous and long forgotten act of undercover journalism that was pulled off in May of 1948 by Ray Sprigle, a star reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who died in 1957.

Fourteen years before John Howard Griffin published his famous book "Black Like Me," Sprigle - at age 61 -- disguised himself as a black man and, as he put it, "ate, slept, traveled and lived black" for four weeks in the Jim Crow South.

In August of 1948, Sprigle, a conservative Republican who hated FDR and won a Pulitzer in 1938 for proving that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a loyal member of the KKK, unleashed his highly charged, 21-part nationally syndicated newspaper series.

Headlined "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days," and later repackaged as the 1949 book "In the Land of Jim Crow," the series quickly drew the ire of the Southern press and sparked one of the earliest national media debates about the immorality and un-Americanism of segregation.

Sprigle's trusted guide and wheelman through the South's parallel but unequal black universe was 66-year-old John Wesley Dobbs of Atlanta (1882-1961). Already destined for the history books in 1948, he was a prominent and powerful black civil rights leader and activist in Atlanta who today has a street named after him.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..