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Frank E. Bolden, 90; Journalist Became Historian of Black Life

September 04, 2003|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Frank E. Bolden, one of two accredited black war correspondents during World War II, died Aug. 28 in Pittsburgh of undisclosed causes. He was 90.

Born in Washington, Pa., he was one of three sons of the city's first black mail carrier. Although he earned top grades at the University of Pittsburgh, racial prejudice thwarted his plans to pursue a career as a doctor or teacher, so Bolden went to work for the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most influential black newspapers in the country.

His earliest assignments focused on Wylie Avenue, the hub of black cultural and social life in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, where Bolden met and wrote about such performers as Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and Billy Eckstine. He later wrote a highly praised series tracing the histories of eight prominent African American families and gained a reputation as Pittsburgh's foremost historian of black life.

When World War II began, Bolden set out to tell the stories of African American soldiers. He wrote about the black engineering troops who died working on the Burma Road and the heroism of black soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division in Italy.

"White America was convinced that Negro soldiers under fire would be cowards and turn and run," he once told an interviewer. "That is why I went over."

He scored a number of reporting coups. In 1945 alone, he interviewed Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Gen. Chiang Kai-shek. That same year, he gained unusual access to Indian leaders Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who invited Bolden to their homes. He stayed with Gandhi for 15 days, with Nehru for 12.

After the war, Bolden received offers from Life magazine and the New York Times, but chose to return to the Courier, where he believed he would have greater impact. He had been promoted to city editor by the time he left in 1962, when the Courier was struggling financially. Over the next several years he worked stints at the New York Times, NBC radio and NBC-TV's "Huntley-Brinkley Report."

In 1964, he scored a coup while covering the Republican National Convention in San Francisco for NBC. He tipped a black bellboy to lead him to the hotel room of Barry Goldwater, who allowed himself to be interviewed while he shaved. Bolden said the candidate told him, "I didn't know [news organizations] hired you people." Goldwater, Bolden said, was "a bigot through and through" who nonetheless allowed himself to be interviewed by the black reporter.

Bolden spent the last 17 years of his professional life as an information and community relations director for the Pittsburgh Board of Education. His honors included the George Polk Award and the Legacy Award of the National Assn. of Black Journalists.

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