‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, COVID-19 top Courier stories of improbable 2020

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer

What a difference a year makes.

The front pages of the New Pittsburgh Courier’s January and February 2020 editions discussed what one might expect: Pittsburgh African American women doing amazing things in their professions; Pittsburgh’s Black lawyers denouncing discriminatory comments allegedly made by a White Common Pleas judge; A Black basketball coach taking Vincentian Academy high school to a WPIAL championship; The crippling effect Black-on-Black homicides continue to have on Pittsburgh’s African American communities.

But then, the city, county, state, nation and world pivoted in a direction it never could have expected.

A pandemic has struck.

Somehow, word began to spread among some African American circles that Blacks were “immune” from getting the coronavirus, the culprit behind the pandemic responsible for 355,000 U.S. deaths as of Jan. 5.

That rumor obviously was far from the truth. Actually, health experts in the States soon realized in March 2020 that African Americans would be disproportionately affected by COVID-19’s wrath. The virus could easily be spread between those in close quarters, and have a damaging effect on those with underlying health conditions. Many African Americans fell into those two descriptions.

We at the New Pittsburgh Courier also realized that it was time for us to pivot —and fast.

EBENEZER BAPTIST CHURCH, in conjunction with state Reps. Jake Wheatley and Ed Gainey, Manchester Citizens Corporation, Mount Ararat Baptist Church, Rivers Casino, Iota Phi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Eat Initiative, City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, and County Councilmembers DeWitt Walton and Olivia Bennett, held a food drive on April 10, 2020, to help those during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Gone were our upcoming feature stories and the happenings in the Cultural District—we plastered a four-word phrase on our March 25, 2020, front page that’s become our mantra during this unprecedented time:

“TAKE THIS VIRUS SERIOUSLY.”

Directly under those four words, we wrote: “African Americans are at risk of contracting coronavirus just like everybody else.”

We realized that this coronavirus, whatever it was, however it got to America, and to Pittsburgh, was real. And deadly. And we had to do everything we could to let our African American readership here and across the nation know how serious this virus was.

THE GREATER PITTSBURGH COMMUNITY FOOD BANK held one of its many food drives on April 10, 2020, outside PPG Paints Arena, as hundreds of cars lined the streets to receive the offerings. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

As March went into April, and cases of those with coronavirus began increasing in Allegheny County, we just knew the coronavirus pandemic would be the top story of the year for 2020.

The only top story. Nothing else could even come close, we thought at the time.

REV. GLENN GRAYSON SR., pastor of Wesley Center AME Zion Church in the Hill District, passed out palms and communion to people riding along Centre Avenue on Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020. It was a way for people to receive communion and palms in a safe manner during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

We focused on different aspects of the pandemic in our April and May editions: How the pandemic was affecting Black postal workers, those who delivered the mail and interacted with the public, as well as mail sorters who had no way to “work from home”; How the pandemic was affecting Port Authority bus drivers, many of whom contracted the virus (including at least three deaths); How the pandemic affected “essential” workers at grocery stores, banks, nursing homes and hospitals; and how the pandemic affected small businesses owned by African Americans, many of which had to close during the early months of the pandemic.

THE PORT AUTHORITY OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY had this sign inside all of its buses during the early stages of the pandemic last spring. As of Jan. 5, 2021, three PAT employees have died due to coronavirus complications. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Let’s not forget how much the pandemic affected the kids…in a definite first, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the closure of all K-12 schools for two weeks on March 13 due to the oncoming pandemic. Parents were left having to answer their kids’ questions about the virus, such as how the virus is spread, why couldn’t their friends come over to the house, and so forth. And for the 23,000 students in Pittsburgh Public Schools, they haven’t returned to a physical classroom yet.

Then came May 25, 2020, which was Memorial Day. But for so many Americans, it wasn’t a day to remember due to the event that transpired in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A White Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, unbearably subdued a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, by placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest. The ordeal was captured on cell phone video by a 17-year-old Black girl who methodically had walked with a younger family member to the store. Darnella Frazier had no idea she would be at the “right place at the right time,” to record an officer’s unthinkable actions against a Black man, prompting a national outcry against racial injustice in the U.S.
But this was no normal national outcry. There was outcry when Trayvon Martin was killed by community vigilante George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012. And when a White police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland two years later. And when Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore. And when Eric Garner was placed in a now-banned chokehold by a New York City police officer as Garner told officers, “I can’t breathe.” He later died. And when 32-year-old Philando Castile was killed by a Minnesota police officer in 2016.

But evidently, the George Floyd death was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Protests occurred in hundreds of U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh, where thousands marched from Downtown to PPG Paints Arena in Uptown the Saturday after Floyd’s death. Hundreds of people at the rally held signs denouncing police violence and racial injustice, but the Courier’s front page on June 3, 2020, showed a photo of a young Black girl at the rally holding a sign that simply said: “Stop Killing Us.”

THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE descended upon Downtown and the area around PPG Paints Arena, May 30, 2020, to protest the unjust killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a White Minneapolis police officer, who was fired and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The Courier captured this photo of a Black girl at the protest with a sign that read: “Stop Killing Us.” (Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)

Throughout the summer, as the Fahrenheit temperatures rose, America’s top corporations were also feeling the heat. Shouting “Black Lives Matter,” tens of millions of Americans demanded that companies rid of racial discrimination and bias that permeated within its illustrious skyscrapers.

Netflix, the gigantic movie-streaming platform, responded by giving $100 million to Black-owned banks. IHeartMedia, the nation’s largest radio broadcasting company, started the “Black Information Network,” a 24-hour outlet dedicated to news affecting the Black community. The soda company Sprite made a sugary $500,000 donation to the Black Lives Matter Global Network, then ran a TV commercial that stated the “American Dream” left out Black America. The Bill Gates tech goliath Microsoft committed $750 million to diversifying its workforce, partners and suppliers.

Simultaneously, companies and other entities were forced to cut ties with anything deemed racially insensitive. Quaker Brands got rid of its “Aunt Jemima” image of a Black woman from the slavery days. The owners of the Uncle Ben’s Rice and Mrs. Butterworth Syrup brands said those images would be removed, too.

In Mississippi, after 126 years, the governor there finally signed a bill to replace the state flag, which sported an emblem of the Confederate flag. The symbol was a long reminder of White Mississippians’ role in the Civil War and an inference that Whites there would never cede social or economic power to any other race.

Statues of once-revered figures were torn down by protesters, including, ironically, Christopher Columbus, in the city for which he was named, Columbus, Ohio. Christopher Columbus, who was credited by some historians with discovering America in 1492, had ties to the mistreatment of Native Americans. And Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart’s statue was removed in July after protesters in Richmond, Va., where the statue stood for 113 years, demanded its removal.

In Pittsburgh, mainly peaceful marches continued throughout the summer and into the fall. You could find the rallies in East Liberty, the South Side, Downtown, Uptown, and even in Washington, Pa. As the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (who was killed by Louisville police in March 2020) were incessantly mentioned, there were many calls for “Justice for Antwon,” in memory of Antwon Rose, the 17-year-old unarmed Black teen who was shot three times (and later died) by a White East Pittsburgh police officer in 2018. That officer, Michael Rosfeld, was cleared of all charges in March 2019.

 

 

Alexis Johnson is the Black reporter who, in June 2020, was banned from covering protests for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

 

And on the North Shore, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper found itself in hot water nationally after top editors refused to let a Black reporter, Alexis Johnson, and a Black photographer, Michael Santiago, cover the local protests that were occurring. Both employees have since left the newspaper.

Turns out, we were wrong. There were, in fact, two top stories in 2020 in the Courier’s assertation. The level of awareness for racial diversity and inclusion currently in this country is soaring higher than a NASA space shuttle. Here in our region, we reported in late 2020 on the energy company Duquesne Light’s renewed commitment to Pittsburgh’s Black community; Port Authority of Allegheny County on the hunt for an Equity and Inclusion director; Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew becoming Allegheny Health Network’s first Chief Clinical Diversity and Inclusion Officer; and Sutonia Boykin becoming the first African American to hold the title of VP of Student Affairs at Community College of Beaver County. Don’t forget about Richard Witherspoon, the CEO and Treasurer of the Hill District Federal Credit Union, who told the Courier that he’s fielded calls from all over the country from people wanting to support his Black-owned financial institution.

JORDAN MALLOY, of Wilkinsburg, was among the protesters demanding that more inmates were released from the Allegheny County Jail due to health and safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. The protest was held, April 22, 2020, in Downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

As the voice of Pittsburgh’s African American community for now 111 years, it is our hope and desire that African Americans in Pittsburgh and throughout the country continue to rise. At the same time, we hope that our other top story of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic, takes a nose dive right out of our lives. Thankfully, there are vaccines for this terrible virus, but it still will be months before everyone can get the vaccine.

PITTSBURGH RESIDENT Ja’Ray Gamble, 29, was among the first UPMC employees to receive the first part of the new COVID-19 vaccine, which arrived Monday morning, Dec. 14, 2020, at UPMC Children’s Hospital. (Photo courtesy UPMC)

Pittsburgh, 2020 is no more. It’s 2021. COVID, you can’t mess up our lives for much longer. We’re going to “stay safe, practice social distancing, and mask up!” And then, we’ll be back to the way it used to be, but with a new twist, a new attitude. We’ll be ready to go after our dreams, reach our highest professional and personal highs, all with the sense that if we survived 2020, we can survive anything.

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