This White Reporter Posed as a Black Man in the Deep South for a Story

This White Reporter Posed as a Black Man in the Deep South for a Story

Patrick Lynch - November 17, 2017

Ray Sprigle won the Pulitzer Prize for Reporting in 1938 for a series of articles he wrote which proved that Hugo Black, a newly appointed U.S. Supreme Court judge, was once a member of the KKK. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe was known for his hard-hitting reporting and considered himself a conservative. Indeed, Sprigle had opposed the New Deal, but he was also disturbed by the Jim Crow system which he believed was grossly oppressive to black people.

Rather than complain about it from afar, Sprigle decided to venture into the Deep South in 1948 to find out what life was really like for African-Americans. To say it was an eye-opener was an understatement as Sprigle was appalled by the conditions that up to 10 million black people in the South had to endure.

It was a memorable journey for Sprigle for all the wrong reasons as he travelled approximately 4,000 miles in just 30 days. Afterwards, Sprigle said: “I quit being white, and free, when I climbed aboard that Jim Crow coach.” He acknowledged that while he had made scores of trips to the Deep South, the world he was about to inhabit was completely alien to him. Read on to learn about Sprigle’s remarkable undertaking.

This White Reporter Posed as a Black Man in the Deep South for a Story
Sprigle in his ‘disguise’ – Timeline

The Transformation

Sprigle’s account was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; in 21 essays, the first of which appeared in the August 9, 1948, issue of the paper. The entire story was entitled I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days and was an astonishing look at the deep-seated racism prevalent in America’s Deep South at that time.

However, the entire adventure almost never happened, and in many ways, it is remarkable that it did. After six unsuccessful months of trying various methods to make his skin darker, Sprigle decided to get a deep tan in Florida, shave his head and wear the flat cap typically worn by black men in the South at the time.

The notion of ‘passing’ (light-skinned black men trying to ‘pass’ themselves off as white) was certainly not a new phenomenon and was explored in a variety of texts including Jean Toomer’s Cane and Nella Larsen’s Passing. Nonetheless, Sprigle was amazed at the number of light-skinned black men he found while in the South. According to the journalist, he “encountered scores of Negroes as white as I ever was back home in Pittsburgh.”

This White Reporter Posed as a Black Man in the Deep South for a Story
Sprigle in his trademark hat and pipe combo – Smithsonian Magazine

Sprigle still needed assistance on his escapade and enlisted the help of a member of the NAACP. This individual organized a meeting with Sprigle and an important leader of the black community in Atlanta, John Wesley Dobbs. The journalist’s contact didn’t tell Dobbs that Sprigle was a white man in disguise, so Dobbs believed that Sprigle was a black man named James R. Crawford. The ‘cover story’ was that Crawford was a mason from Pittsburgh who was traveling south to gain knowledge of techniques on political organization from civil rights activists.

Sprigle admitted that it didn’t take him very long to begin thinking like a black man. All it took was a single ride in a Jim Crow car for Sprigle to ‘become’ Crawford and he quickly took a strong dislike to the white people he encountered. As Crawford, he had no desire to speak to – or mingle with – the whites he met, and he resented their arrogant assumption that black people wanted to associate with the supposedly ‘superior’ group of people. The award-winning journalist was a very different person at the end of his 30-day journey.

This White Reporter Posed as a Black Man in the Deep South for a Story
A water fountain with the ‘colored’ designation – OMGFacts

The Law of the Land

Over the course of his journey, James R. Crawford traveled approximately 4,000 miles via car and train and visited the states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee in just 30 days. He grew angrier with every story he was told of the cruelty shown by whites towards black men and women.

One of the things that struck Crawford was the complete lack of justice. He was told the story of Henry Gilbert’s murder which happened on May 29, 1947, in Georgia. The tale began on May 4 when a white man named Olin Sands started an argument with a black man named Gus Davidson. When Sands attacked Davidson, the black man shot the white planter dead. Gilbert was the deacon and treasurer of a small Baptist church in the area and had nothing to do with the crime.

However, he was accused of aiding and abetting Davidson and was arrested two weeks later. For ten days, Gilbert was placed in several jails until a County police officer named Willie Buchanan shot him five times and also beat him badly. Buchanan claimed self-defense but there was no evidence that Gilbert attacked him. Sadly, it appears as if this kind of incident was par for the course.

In Chapter 10 of the story, Crawford recounts the tragic tale of a war hero named Private Macy Yost Snipes. The soldier had managed to survive the horrors of World War II, and when he returned home to Georgia, he wanted to show that freedom truly belonged to all Americans by voting. However, the white residents of Rupert in Taylor County sent a chilling warning: The first black person to vote in Rupert would die. Sadly, they meant every word.

Snipes had survived years of war and would not turn back from this challenge. One week after casting his vote, a group of white men drove up to his home, called him out, and riddled him with bullets. When another black man cast his vote, he was hounded out of the county. Murdering Private Snipes wasn’t enough for the thugs, they threatened his family and told them they were not allowed to bury their fallen hero in the family plot. Instead, he was buried in a plot at the other end of the county. His killer, William Cooper, had a pathetic and unproven excuse that Snipes owed him money and this was enough for the murder to be called ‘justifiable homicide.’

This White Reporter Posed as a Black Man in the Deep South for a Story
Ray Sprigle in his ‘disguise’ – Pittsburgh Courier

The Sharecropping Scam

Another issue encountered by Crawford was the immense discrepancy in wages between white and black workers. There were few roles which outlined this outrageous state of affairs better than the earnings of sharecroppers. He spoke to a black sharecropper named Henry Williams who had worked in the role for 29 years. In 1947, Henry produced a yield of cotton and peanuts worth $5,400 to the plantation owner yet he received just $700. Crawford reasoned that Williams should have received $2,700 minus any fees for tractor hire and fertilizer.

In Macon County, a sharecropper named Henry Mann produced a yield worth $2,600 and should have expected $1,300 minus expenses. Instead, he received a paltry return of just $242. Even though these men were well aware of being cheated, there was no recourse because they were at the mercy of the plantation owners. According to Crawford, the entire sharecropping system in the South was “grand larceny on a grand scale,” and black farmers were the victims.

This White Reporter Posed as a Black Man in the Deep South for a Story
Cover of reprint of Sprigle’s work – Smithsonianmag

White Man’s Country

In 1868, the Democratic Convention’s slogan was: “This is a White Man’s Country, Let White Men Rule.” It seems as if things hadn’t changed much in the next 80 years, at least in certain areas of the Deep South. While in the Mississippi Delta, Crawford noted that 500,000 blacks spend their lives in the service of ‘King Cotton.’ He was also told stories of how the whites in the area were casual when discussing the murder of blacks; hardly a surprise since they usually got away scot-free.

Overall, Crawford’s journey reveals countless tales of cruelty and theft perpetrated against black residents of various Deep South counties. In District No. 4 in Madison County, Mississippi, for example, Crawford wrote that the black residents owned 90% of the land in the district, paid 90% of the taxes and had no say in how their tax dollars were spent. While black teachers received $55 to $90 a month (only the principal got the largest amount), the average white teacher received $150.

Crawford was looking forward to taking a dip in the beautiful waters of the Atlantic Ocean towards the end of the journey. However, he was dismayed to discover that blacks were not allowed to swim. If they were caught trying, they were immediately hit with a heavy fine of $50. He concluded his report by saying that blacks in the South don’t hate the white man despite all the injustice they suffer at his hands.

Crawford also discovered that black men were not allowed to defend themselves against an attack by a white man; resistance was akin to signing your death warrant. White men killed blacks for imagined slights and in the vast majority of cases, got away with whatever cruel deeds they performed. By the end of his journey, Crawford stated that he would have hated “the whole damned white race” had he remained a black man in the Deep South for a few more months.

This White Reporter Posed as a Black Man in the Deep South for a Story
Cover of the Post-Gazette Featuring Sprigle’s Story – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Interactive

A Hostile Reception

While Sprigle’s account was syndicated and published in most nationwide papers, it remained free of the pages of publications in the South. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette received hundreds of letters, the majority of them negative, from Southerners. Southern papers published rebuttals to Sprigle’s claims. Eventually, he engaged in a nationwide TV debate with an editor of a Mississippi publication.

Sprigle’s life was completely changed by his experiences as a black man in the South, and he admitted that he would never regain the superior white psychology he had before his journey. Sprigle died in 1957, and for a man who achieved so much in his career, he is not as lauded as one might expect.