Obituary: Edna Chappelle McKenzie / Pioneering journalist and historian

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Sixty years ago, journalist Edna Chappelle McKenzie went into the cities and dales of Western Pennsylvania to battle discrimination. She walked into hotels and sat at lunch counters where she was told she didn't belong. She braved violence and intimidation. Her weapons: a tough spirit, a smile and a pen.

Mrs. McKenzie was known for never having a harsh word against anyone, but what she wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier won her honors and powered the collapse of restrictive covenants in housing, employment and public accommodations years before the rise of the civil rights movement in the South.

Mrs. McKenzie, an accomplished pianist and the first black woman to earn a doctorate in history at the University of Pittsburgh, died of cancer Sunday at Canterbury Place in Lawrenceville. She was 81.

Mrs. McKenzie began at the Courier as a society reporter in the 1940s, but soon jumped to the news desk and covered lynchings and other hard news alongside the men.

When she went on the road for her series on discrimination, Charles "Teenie" Harris, the Courier's legendary photographer, went with her to capture what happened.

At the Courier in the 1950s, Mrs. McKenzie met K. Leroy Irvis, a young law school graduate destined to become Pennsylvania's first black speaker of the House of Representatives. He worked in publicity for the paper.

He admired his friend's brilliance, especially her study of black life and culture.

"I've never known anyone -- white, black, green or red-striped -- who knew as much about humans, especially blacks, as Edna," Irvis said.

Mrs. McKenzie left the paper in the late 1950s to go to school, earning a bachelor's degree in education, a master's in fine arts and a doctorate in history -- all from Pitt.

Armed with her pet phrase "tell the truth," Mrs. McKenzie was meticulous in documenting black history, said her friend Cathy Irvis, wife of K. Leroy Irvis. She believed history could be used to empower, inform and teach, and that blacks should never be ashamed of their history.

"Edna was fearless," said Irvis, who for more than two decades had a standing Saturday shopping date with her friend.

"She always said, 'I just want to tell the truth, to write the truth.' That if this country knew the truth about black history, it would change things."

Mrs. McKenzie was born in Grindstone, Fayette County, said her son Clyde Jackson Jr. of Aiken, S.C. Her father was an itinerant African Methodist Episcopal preacher and her mother a homemaker. They had seven children.

Shortly after high school, Mrs. McKenzie worked for the Los Angeles Tribune, a small tabloid, where she covered music, murder and everything in between.

She came to the Pittsburgh Courier during its heyday, when it was not uncommon to see people like Jackie Robinson, A. Philip Randolph and Lena Horne coming through the doors.

She started as a typist for the ailing-but-popular society columnist Julia Bumry Jones. When Jones died, Mrs. McKenzie took over "Talk of the Town," writing about teas, weddings and parties.

She tired of the social whirl and yearned to work "over there with the fellas" covering fires and murders. At the time, she was the only female reporter at the Courier and going into hard news put Mrs. McKenzie on a path to the history books.

She was part of the team that carried out Courier Editor Robert L. Vann's "Double V" campaign during World War II, calling for victory against U.S. racism as well as against the Axis powers.

With the war over, in one assignment, Mrs. McKenzie had to visit restaurants all over Western Pennsylvania to desegregate them and write about the treatment she received.

"It was worse than fighting a war," she later said about the experience. "When I went home at night, I was just so hurt, I would cry myself to sleep."

She endured and Mrs. McKenzie became a longtime advocate for the black press. What some called sensational, she called necessary.

"We had to show bodies hanging from trees. [The black press] was fighting a battle that could not be clean and pretty," she said.

In addition to her career in journalism, Mrs. McKenzie was a historian, educator and advocate for human rights and educational opportunity. She was an emeritus professor of history at Community College of Allegheny County, where she worked on the North Side campus for 23 years, serving as chair of black, minority and ethnic studies.

She has served on the executive committee of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which recently named a scholarship in her honor. She also was an executive council member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

In addition to Jackson, Mrs. McKenzie is survived by son Edmond McKenzie Jr. of Penn Hills; brothers Dan Chappelle of Oakland and Settie Chappelle of Detroit; two grandsons; and a great-grandson.

Arrangements are being handled by White Memorial Chapel, 7204 Thomas Blvd., Point Breeze.


Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.


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