Chasing Old Ghosts Through the New South

Bill Steigerwald

6/8/2009 2:04:55 PM - 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.

Sprigle and Dobbs spent a week in the Mississippi Delta, which is why on May 18 I found myself tramping through a badly overgrown black cemetery in Lyon, Miss., looking for the "magnificent tomb of white Alabama marble" that Sprigle described in his series.

According to Sprigle, the tomb had been erected in Shufordville Historical Cemetery by a wealthy black Clarksdale dentist, Dr. P.W. Hill, to honor his wife Marjorie and their unborn child.

Both had died on an operating table in a black Memphis hospital 78 miles away. Dr. Hill had sent them north by ambulance in the middle of the night because he knew his wife, who needed an emergency Caesarian section to save her life, would not be admitted under any circumstances to the local (whites-only) Clarksdale hospital.

Just as I was about to give up my search for Dr. Hill's tragic tomb, it emerged from its clump of dense bushes like a Mayan ruin.

Far from gleaming, its white Alabama marble was soiled and discolored and its heavy metal door was off and leaning against an inside wall. Inside were six marble vaults, including one carved with "Margie Hill, Born October 30, 1904; Died October 10, 1939."

When Dr. Hill proudly showed his newly erected mausoleum to Sprigle and Dobbs 61 Mays ago, Sprigle wrote, Dr. Hill regarded it "only as his tribute to the ones he loved." But Sprigle, who by then had seen as much of Jim Crow's separate and unequal domain as he could stomach, was not so naïve.

In his series he called Dr. Hill's tomb "a monument to the cold-blooded cruelty of the white man; to the brutal mandate of a white world that black men and women must die rather than be permitted to defile a cot or an operating table in a white hospital with their black skins."

I have no idea what Dr. Hill's neglected and desecrated tomb would symbolize to Ray Sprigle today - if he could find it - or what the ghosts of Sprigle and Dobbs would make of the New & Improved South.

But they'd obviously be mighty pleased and proud to learn that Jim Crow, the system of legal oppression that appeared so invincible to them in 1948, has been dead and gone for decades -- and that marble monuments like Dr. Hill's no longer have to be built for its victims.