Robert Lee Vann, for thirty years among the nation’s most prominent black journalists, was born “somewhere on Old Dr. Mitchell’s Farm” outside of what is now Ahoskie. On his World War I draft registration card, he reported his date of birth as August 29, 1879. Vann’s mother, Lucy, moved with him to Harrellsville when he was six.
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Vann eventually was able to save enough money to attend Waters Training School in Winton, from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1901. From there he went to Wayland Academy in Richmond and Virginia Union University. In 1903 he received a scholarship to Western University of Pennsylvania where he completed college and law school and served as the first black editor of the student journal.
In 1910 Vann was counsel to the incorporation of the Pittsburgh Courier and, within a few months, had become the paper’s editor. While continuing his private law practice, he remained the paper’s editor, treasurer, and chief counsel until his death. By 1937 the Courier was the nation’s largest weekly newspaper for African Americans, distinguished by its coverage of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Joe Louis’s boxing career, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, and columns written by black leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. Vann used the editorial pages to advocate for various social and political reforms.
Switching parties from Republican to Democratic, Vann briefly served as special assistant to the Attorney General during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (He supported Wendell Wilkie in 1940.) Vann died at his home in Pittsburgh on Oct. 24, 1940, and is buried at Homewood Cemetery in that city. A Liberty ship, the Robert L. Vann, was launched in 1943. The former segregated black high school in Ahoskie bore his name; that building under the same name now houses a middle school.
“Robert Lee Vann,” obituary in Journal of Negro History (January 1941)
Andrew Buni, Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism (1974)
Joseph R. Parker, ed., The Ahoskie Era of Hertford County, North Carolina (1939)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, VI, 90-91—sketch by Charles W. Eagles
Robert Lee Vann in the 1930s