Percival L. Prattis - October 2016
Why is the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University?
We have heard that question many times. It is likely that many of the people who have asked that question are unaware of the social justice work of Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, our founder. He was a true visionary and ardent supporter of education for all people, including students of color.
From 1910 through 1928, a number of African American students attended Ferris Institute; many of them came from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (known today as Hampton University). They came to Ferris to take college preparatory courses. Some remained to complete degrees; others left and completed their degrees at other northern universities. Among this collection of young African American students were men who later would serve as editors of national newspapers, argue cases before the United States Supreme Court and advise presidents and civil rights leaders. Those Hampton-Ferris students changed the lives of many and the direction of a nation. In the coming months we will share stories about some of these pioneering African Americans who attended the Ferris Institute.
Percival L. Prattis
Percival Leroy “P. L.” Prattis attended Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, from 1912 to 1915. He attended Ferris Institute from 1916 through 1917 and was a member of the debate team. Prattis served in the United States Army during World War I as Battalion Sergeant Major for the Company 813 Pioneer Infantry from September 1918 to July 1919 (Percival Prattis Papers, 2010).
Prattis is best known for his work as a journalist. He 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, the most popular African American newspaper in the country at the beginning of World War I (Percival Prattis Papers, 2010).
In 1923, Prattis was hired as news editor of the Associated Negro Press in Chicago, a position which allowed him to travel internationally on assignments. He interviewed or corresponded with John F. Kennedy, Haile Selassie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Nixon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, Elijah Muhammad, Langston Hughes, Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others (PRATTIS, 2015, pg. 7).
In 1925 while in Chicago, and working for the Defender, Prattis was founder and the executive editor of The Light and Heebie Jeebies, the first known black newsmagazine. This was nearly 20 years before the creation of Ebony magazine and 26 years prior to the introduction of Jet (Alexander 2010, p. 827; Likes Haiti, 1930).
He moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1936 to take a position with the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper, which uncompromisingly called for an end to Jim Crow segregation. Although hired as a city editor, Prattis also had duties as a reporter and was dispatched on international assignments to the Middle East, Far East and post-World War II Europe. In 1956, he became executive director of the newspaper (University of Pittsburgh, 2010). Prattis wrote a number of famous columns for the Pittsburgh Courier, “Horizon,” “Questions and Answers,” “Turning Pages,” and “Labor Everywhere” (Nuttall, 2010). The significance of Prattis and the Courier was substantial:
“The importance and effectiveness of the black press should not be discussed without mentioning Percival Prattis. Although he was not the only black newspaper editor fighting against injustices during World War II, the Courier was the leader in this struggle” (Simmons, 1998, pg.164)
In 1947, Prattis, became the first African American news correspondent admitted to the press galleries of both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate (as part owner of Our World Magazine), (Smith, Bracks, Wynn, 2014).
Prattis used his work as a journalist to advance the African American press and to fight against racial injustice. He wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956, which was published in The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. He had many cordial correspondences with W.E.B. Du Bois and his wife Shirley (King, M.L. & Clayborne, C., 1997; Du Bois, W.E.B., UMass Archives). In 1967, Prattis wrote the book Employment Opportunities Unlimited. He was a collaborator with Henry La Brie III for the book Perspectives of the Black Press published in 1974 (Taft, 1986).
Percival L. Prattis was a pioneer, activist, and a voice for many African Americans who did not have a voice. The courage and impact of Prattis may be best reflected in a section from Charles Simmons’ book, The African American Press; A History of News Coverage During National Crises, with Special Reference to Four Black Newspapers, 1827-1965:
“Names such as W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, or Ida B Wells may be mentioned in historical discussions but are treated with such brevity that their deeds appear insignificant. Unfortunately, the deeds of Robert Abbott, Robert Vann, Roscoe Dunjee, Percival Prattis, and John Sengstacke have obtained little or no attention, but they were also heroes, those black editors and those who were white who faced overwhelming odds for expressing their editorial opinions for the survival of a race of people. In doing so, they, too, had to survive and they did” (Simmons, 1998, pg. 165).
In 2014, Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, published by Pennsylvania State University, produced a 13-page article chronicling the amazing life and achievements of Percival L. Prattis (Rosenberg, C. A. 2014).
Percival Prattis was a very influential man in the United States and a catalyst for justice and equality. We at Ferris State are very proud of the accomplishments of Percival L. Prattis and the opportunities our founder Woodbridge Ferris provided to him and others.
Franklin Hughes and David Pilgrim
Jim Crow Museum
Rosenberg, C. A. (2014, September). Percival L. Prattis: The Pittsburgh Courier's
Man from Chicago. Western Pennsylvania History, 97(3), 48-60.