Historical Markers
Frank E. Bolden Historical Marker
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Frank E. Bolden

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
2621 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
September 30, 2004

Behind the Marker

"When you're average, you are just as far from the bottom as you are from the top." So advised his father, the first African-American mail carrier in Washington, Pennsylvania, where Frank Bolden was born in 1912. Young Bolden seems to have taken his father's advice to heart; his career bears witness to a remarkable life. Unfortunately, Bolden never wrote a memoir. When asked why, he simply replied, "I feel like a mosquito in a nudist camp. I don't know where to begin."

Frank Bolden in uniform at desk behind typewriter
Pittsburgh Courier reporter Frank Bolden in uniform, circa 1944.
Bolden enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh in 1930, where he played the clarinet and became the first African American in the marching band. He majored in biology, but worked on the side as a sports reporter for markerRobert Lee Vann's Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most influential African-American newspapers in the country. Upon graduation, Bolden wanted to go to medical school, but was turned down; few African Americans were able to become doctors in those years.

After being denied a position as a schoolteacher, Bolden went back to the Courier and began his work as a feature and general-assignment reporter. He wrote lively tales about the Wylie Avenue cultural scene, where a growing African-American society was thriving. "I had good habits," recalled Bolden. "I didn't drink. I didn't chase women. You had a lot of sin in lower Wylie Avenue. The drinking. The place was crowded with the nocturnal sisterhood."

African American women dressed in military clothing stand behind a booth selling war bonds. On the far right is Ruth Gwynnon, who organized this campaign.
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African-American war bond volunteers, Pittsburgh, PA, circa 1944.
When World War II erupted, Bolden became one of the first two African-American reporters accredited to cover the conflict. As a representative of both the Associated Negro Press and National Negro Publishers Association, Bolden wrote stories that received national circulation in the Courier, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, and other African-American and some mainstream newspapers. African-American newspapers had the task of selling the war to their people, many of whom wondered whether or not their race should stay out of the conflict because of the racism at home.

In one of his columns, Bolden made it clear why African Americans must support the war effort. "As far as Colored citizens are concerned, they are duty bound to do their bit as they always have when this country's liberties were imperiled. This is your country and it is worth fighting for because you wouldn't trade it for any other when the chips are down." African-American leaders came up with the Double V slogan–victory abroad and victory at home.

More than 700,000 African Americans served in World War II, most of them relegated to service units and work behind the lines rather than in combat units. Throughout the war, the American armed forces remained segregated. In what one columnist called the "Jim Crow Army," the all-black units were led at the top by white commanders. The Navy had banned African Americans from serving after World War I, then lessened the ban just enough to allow African-American messmen.

The Marine Corps did not allow African Americans to serve until June 1942. Faced with manpower shortages, the Navy in March 1943 finally allowed African Americans to make up to ten percent of its strength. The Army Air Force excluded black pilots until a public outcry led to the establishment of the "Tuskegee Airmen," who eventually became the 99th Fighter Group (and later the 332nd Fighter Squadron), earning combat awards in North Africa and Italy.

Wiley, in uniform, sits on the arm of a bench while his parents sit on the seat.
Lieutenant James T. Wiley of the Tuskegee Airman posing with his parents in...
When the Army in 1942 organized two African-American divisions, the 92nd and 93rd, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, Frank Bolden traveled to the arid desert to observe their training and wrote regular columns, informing his readers about the progress of the "Tan Yanks." When they left for the front, the 92nd went to Italy and fought in the front lines late in the war, while the 93rd went to the Pacific and largely worked as service troops behind the lines. Bolden, meanwhile, was dispatched to Iran, where he spent the last four months of 1944.

Allied forces had occupied Iran earlier in the war to ensure that Lend-Lease supplies would reach the Soviet Union. Most of the post battalions working on the roads and railroads, as well as unloading ships, were African-American units. The heat was unbearable during the day, with temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees. The Army often censored Bolden's stories to protect vital information, but he did manage to convey to his readers the important contributions of African Americans to the Soviet supply effort.

In January 1945, Bolden traveled to India to cover the China-Burma-India theater. He then made his way to the jungles of northern Burma, where he reported on the African-American soldiers who were supplying the muscle needed to build the Ledo Road, a supply artery that stretched through jungle to the Chinese border. Heavy rains, infectious diseases, and occasional Japanese attacks made this tough and dangerous work. "The only difference between hell and the jungle," one soldier told Bolden, "is that hell is supposed to be dry."

Following the war, Bolden had the good fortune to interview both Gandhi and Nehru before returning to America. He then returned to Pittsburgh and worked for the Courier until 1962, when he moved to New York, put in a stint with the New York Times, and worked for the Huntley-Brinkley Report.

Returning to Pittsburgh, he served as assistant director of information and community relations for the public schools until his retirement in 1972. During his long career, Bolden received numerous awards. "He was a real treasure," said a local university professor. "He had in his one memory bank more knowledge, understanding, and details of the history of black Pittsburgh than anyone else will have."
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