BLACK HISTORY MONTH, DAY 3:
Percival Prattis (April 27, 1895 – February 29, 1980)
Percival Prattis of “Our World” in New York City became the first black news correspondent admitted to the House and Senate press gallery in Washington, DC on February 3, 1947
Percival Prattis became the first African American news correspondent admitted to the press galleries of both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. In addition to his work as a journalist, Prattis was a civil rights leader working to advance the African American press. A veteran of World War I, Prattis joined the Pittsburgh Courier in 1935, became editor in 1956 and retired in 1962. He has been noted for his ability to unify black newsmen behind the fight against discrimination of African Americans in the press, particularly in the years around World War II. Prattis’ ability to directly observe Congress allowed him to report on government proceedings with firsthand knowledge of events, and he could apply his unique perspective as an African American veteran and leader of the early movement for civil rights.
Percival Leroy (P. L.) Prattis was born on April 27, 1895 in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the only son of Alexander and Ella (Spraggins) Prattis. He attended grade school at the Christiansburg Industrial Institute in Cambria (now Christiansburg), Virginia, from 1908 to 1912. For further education, he attended the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia, from 1912 to 1915. He later graduated in 1916 from the Ferris Institute, which was a preparatory academy for low income children in Big Rapids, Michigan. Prattis served in the U.S. Army during World War I. He was a Battalion Sergeant Major, headquartered in the Company 813 Pioneer Infantry. He was stationed in France from September 15, 1918 to July 13, 1919, and was honorably discharged from his duties on July 23, 1919. Prattis began his career in 1919 as the editor of the newly formed Michigan State News in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 1921 he moved to Chicago, Illinois, to become the city editor of the Chicago Defender, which was the most influential African American weekly newspaper in the country at the beginning of World War I. The Chicago Defender often used sensationalistic headlines and graphic images to capture the reader’s attention and convey the horror of lynching and other atrocities affecting African Americans. It was the first African American newspaper to have a circulation over 100,000. Prattis held this position until May 1923. In June 1923 he was hired as the city editor of the Associated Negro Press in Chicago, which included articles that were syndicated by other African American newspapers. He also traveled on assignment and reported on international stories, such as the activities of the Moton Commission on Education in the Republic of Haiti; he even interviewed the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, in England. He moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1936 to take a position with the highly influential African American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier. The Pittsburgh Courier, which was the leading African American newspaper by 1926, came from relatively inauspicious beginnings. The paper was founded by Edwin E. Harleston, a guard for the H. J. Heinz Company, as an outlet for his poetry. The first issue in 1907 was two pages in length and featured Harleston’s poetry. Robert L. Vann, an attorney, drew up incorporation papers and assisted Harleston in finding investors. As one of the few African American lawyers in the city and a friend of Harleston, Vann was retained as legal counsel. Since the Courier could not afford to pay Vann, “he was given ten shares of stock valued at five dollars each in lieu of a fee” (Bunie, p. 44). Vann also was a regular editorial contributor to the Courier. In the fall of 1910, Edwin Harleston quit the paper due to creative differences and financial disagreements with the other investors. The remaining partners offered the editorship to Vann due to his experience as editor of The Courant, a student literary publication at the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). He was the Courier’s editor, treasurer, and legal counsel and held these positions until his death in 1940. The Pittsburgh Courier became a force for social change. Editorials by Robert Vann and others stressed that the policy of the Pittsburgh Courier was to “uplift of the Negro race … through the medium of the columns” (Brewer, p. 24). Editorials at the Courier called attention to improvements needed in housing, health care, education, job opportunities, political awareness, crime, Jim Crow, and misrepresentation in the white press. When Prattis was hired as a city editor in 1936, the Pittsburgh Courier was the most influential African American newspaper in the country, with a circulation over “250,000” (Bunie, p. 222). Prattis also had duties as reporter and was dispatched on international assignments to the Middle East, Far East and post-World War II Europe. During World War II, he traveled extensively covering the African American Armed Forces. In 1947 he was unanimously granted membership in the Senate and House press galleries by the executive committee of the Periodical Correspondents Association, thus making him the first such permitted African American journalist. In 1948 he was promoted to managing editor, a position he held until 1956. While working at the Courier, Prattis also wrote the column “The Horizon,” and was a correspondent for Our World magazine. He was named executive editor of the Pittsburgh Courier in 1956. During this time at the Courier, he highlighted the struggles of African Americans for fair employment opportunities from teaching positions to major league sports. In the 1960s the Pittsburgh Courier’s circulation fell as the paper began to lose money and was no longer profitable. Many African American newspapers lost circulation during this time period as mainstream white newspapers gave coverage to the Civil Rights Movement. Mr. Prattis retired from the Courier in 1965 after it was bought by John Sengstacke, publisher and owner of the Courier’s longtime competitor, the Chicago Defender. In retirement P. L. Prattis focused on community involvement and was very active in a number of organizations around Pittsburgh. He was the first African American officer on the Community Chest of Allegheny County Council; president of the Brashear Association; and vice-president of the Federation of Social Agencies of Allegheny County for six years. He sat on the boards of the Centre Avenue YMCA, the Pittsburgh branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. He was named “Community Leader of the Year” by the Jewish War Veterans Post 49. In 1962 he was awarded a medal as one of Hampton Institute’s most illustrious alumni and in 1965 was given the “Master of Men” award by the state of Pennsylvania YMCA. P. L. Prattis married Helen Marie Sands in 1939 and their daughter, Patricia, was born in 1943. Prattis died February 29, 1980 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Aspinwall, Pennsylvania.