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William E. Hance

Portrait of William E. HanceWilliam E. Hance. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Courier.

William E. Hance (1873-1941) was publisher and president of the Pittsburgh Courier from 1924-1936. A successful businessman with blue-collar roots, Hance was part of the team of leaders who grew the Courier from a hometown start-up enterprise to one of the most widely read and influential African American newspapers in the United States. On politics, culture, advocacy and ground-breaking journalism, “America’s Best Weekly” made Pittsburgh voices heard across the nation.

Sand company boats on the Allegheny River, 1919Boats from Rodgers Sand Company and Iron City Sand Company on the Allegheny River, 1919. Courtesy of Senator John Heinz History Center.

Early Life

William E. Hance was born in Natural Bridge, Virginia to Francis “Fannie” Turpin and Edward “Ned” Hance, a farm laborer. Ned and Fannie wed in Rockbridge County in 1867. By 1880, the couple and their seven children were living in Pittsburgh.

Bill Hance, as he was known to family and friends, got a job as a teamster at Iron City Sand Company. The firm had been founded in 1892 from a merger of four sand-digging companies that operated boats dredging the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers.

Hance’s work ethic was legendary. Rising at 4 AM and donning overalls, he put in long days and pushed himself to excel. He rose to clerk, bookkeeper, assistant supervisor and then supervisor during his 35-year association with Iron City Sand Company.

While at the sand company, Hance pursued other business interests. He formed a partnership with a fellow African American teamster, John Favor, delivering coal from a yard on the South Side. Hance & Favor was located on South 23rd Street and Sidney. It was through this job that Hance gained an invaluable contact in the coal business – Cumberland Posey, Sr., president of the Diamond Coal and Coke Company.

Pittsburgh Courier masthead from 1935Masthead of the Pittsburgh Courier from November 1935. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Courier.

The Pittsburgh Courier

South Carolina native Edward N. Harleston was working as a guard at the H.J. Heinz Factory when he published a one-sheet newspaper called the Pittsburgh Courier in early 1910. He owned no printing press. The first issue was printed in Atlantic City and shipped to Pittsburgh. The newspaper caught the attention of several African American businessmen in the city, including Cumberland Posey, Sr.

Bill Hance, along with Posey, became one of five investors who bought the Pittsburgh Courier in 1910. Attorney Robert Lee Vann was named the paper’s editor, a choice that proved inspired. The small start-up was long on vision, but the operating budget was lean. The Courier’s leaders did not give up their day jobs – Posey at his coal company, Hance at the sand company, and William H. Page at Carnegie Steel. Ira F. Lewis, future president of the Courier, kept waiting tables. Hance worked nights at the Courier after his long days at Iron City Sand Company.

Circulation grew steadily. In 1913, the Courier was selling about 1,300 copies a week and its pages were turned by nearly ten times as many readers. Issues cost a nickel a copy, and a year-long subscription could be had for a dollar. Advertisements from local African American businesses peppered the pages – restaurants, hair salons, funeral parlors, tailors, milliners. Correspondents in Ohio and other parts of Pennsylvania sent news from other cities.

Hance succeeded Posey as president of the Courier in 1924 and was on the paper’s board of directors. During Hance’s tenure as president, the paper achieved key milestones in its growth. In 1929, the Courier acquired its own Hoe printing press and its own building. The move took the Courier from Fourth Avenue in downtown to 2628 Centre Avenue, the heart of the Hill District, a location that was both symbolic and functional. In 1936, the Courier hired photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, whose photos of the vibrant lives of Hill District residents right outside the doors of the Courier’s headquarters became a famous chronicle of the neighborhood for nearly four decades.

Under the leadership of Robert L. Vann and a talented editorial staff, the Courier became a nationally recognized newspaper and voice of civil rights advocacy. In the pursuit of breaking news, the paper was often at the forefront. Courier reporter Joel A. Rogers was the first African American journalist in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when Mussolini’s Italian troops invaded in 1936. In World War II, a scoop by the Courier revealed that the previously unidentified “messman hero” at Pearl Harbor was African American sailor Dorie Miller, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his valor aboard the USS West Virginia on December 7, 1941. The Courier sent abroad two accredited African American war correspondents, Edgar T. Rousseau and Frank E. Bolden, Jr., to cover the conflict and write about the experiences of Black American troops.

By the time Bill Hance retired from the presidency of the paper in February 1936, “America’s Best Weekly” had the largest audited circulation of any African American paper in the United States. Its readers lived in all 48 U.S. states, Europe, Cuba, Canada, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. Twenty-page editions hit the newsstands every week with headline stories, sports, entertainment and society chat from correspondents all over the country, from Harlem to Hollywood. The paper also carried stories, including international news, from the Chicago-based ANP, Associated Negro Press. The Courier had a female vice president, Daisy Lampkin, who had been elected to that office in 1929.

Hance remained engaged with The Pittsburgh Courier as president emeritus until his death in November 1941. His widow, Flora Favor Hance, inherited his shares in the paper and became co-owner. She died in 1952.

Mr. and Mrs. Hance were members of St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Beltzhoover and the prestigious Loendi Club. Flora Hance was president of the Simeon Club at her church. The Hances lived at 115 Zara Street in Pittsburgh’s Knoxville neighborhood.

William E. Hance opened a savings account at Dollar Bank in February 1892.

Pittsburgh Courier press operator, 1940sPittsburgh Courier press operator, 1940s. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Urban League/Otis Finley, Jr.

Pittsburgh Courier's Chicago office, 1941The Pittsburgh Courier's Chicago office, 1941. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

1892 account signature of William Hance