During a time when only 2 percent of Blacks in Pittsburgh held any of the 30,000 craft union construction jobs during the Pittsburgh’s Renaissance in the 1970s, Nate Smith emerged as a leader to change the staggering statistics on construction sites.
The film, “What Does Trouble Mean? Nate Smith’s Revolution,” explores this issue in Pittsburgh’s history and gives us insight to the man who laid in front of a bulldozer in order to change the face of construction in this city.
The film is featured during the 29th Annual Three Rivers Film Festival that opened Nov. 5. The film will run again Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. at the Harris Theater, 809 Liberty Ave.
The 56-minute film aptly chronicles this Hill District son’s journey showing how with charisma and an unwavering determination, Smith spearheaded the integration of Pittsburgh’s trade labor unions, paving the way for Black construction workers to this day.
The film is the latest work by the Center for Documentary Production and Study at Robert Morris University, directed by professor and Center director, Jim Seguin, and written and produced by Erica Peiffer and Alexander Wilson, recent RMU graduates.
The compelling documentary takes viewers from Smith’s cunning devices to joining the United States Navy at age 12, his boxing career, his work on construction sites and his activism. Told through actual archived news footage, impressive reenactments, and eyewitness accounts, the story resurrects the turmoil in the city during a time when Pittsburgh’s building boom was fueled by construction of Three Rivers Stadium and the U.S. Steel Building.
In the late 1960s, Smith became the first Black member of a trade union in western Pennsylvania. Minorities were lacking greatly on the construction sites, and none were members of the trade unions. Smith led a series of protests and marches including the “Black Monday March” of 1969 where a huge crowd of Blacks and Whites marched through Downtown Pittsburgh. These demonstrations even caused a halt of the construction projects under way.
Smith developed Operation Dig, a project to train Blacks to work in construction. The program became a model for the nation to help train Blacks in construction work. Through the project more than 1,500 minorities and women gained employment in the labor trades.
Rex Crawley, executive producer of the film and assistant dean of the School of Communications and Information Systems at Robert Morris University, credits Ed Meeks from the Renaissance III 2000 Inc., a pre-apprenticeship program that succeeded Smith’s Operation Dig, who brought Smith’s story to RMU. Meeks is a long-time friend of Smith and took the helm at Renaissance III after Smith’s retirement.
Nominated for Best Documentary at the 2010 Arizona Black Film Festival, the film took five years to complete, but Crawley says that every aspect of producing the film was fascinating. “It required deliberation and visioning. Before we had a final product, we had to look at how it sounded and looked,” Crawley said. Production is still paying off the financing of the project.
After securing ownership of the project, the plan is to create curriculum program to get the film in the schools so that younger generations can learn of Smith’s legacy and gain a history lesson that took place right here in their own back yards.
The films producers want viewers to realize when they look at the Pittsburgh skyline that people constructed those buildings. “Inherent in the development of an industrial, and now corporate city like Pittsburgh, was a fight for inclusion that centered on whom was going to lay bricks and contribute to the labor associated with making this happen,” Crawley said. “With everything that happens in America there is a need for equal access to participation. The Pittsburgh story is part of that struggle.”
Smith’s work to integrate the labor unions and his training program earned him national recognition as a civil rights leader. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., plans to incorporate his story into its exhibits.