PNC Legacy premiers African-American oral history exhibit

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When PNC archivists scheduled their interview venerable civil rights attorney Wendell Freeland for its new African-American Oral History display at the Legacy building they expected to take about an hour. Freeland spoke for three.

His recounting of experiences as a Tuskegee Airman battling the US Army’s segregationist policies make up just part the living history exhibit on display in the Legacy Building at the beginning of Pittsburgh’s Cultural District across from Heinz Hall.

The display, which opened to the public on Jan. 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, also features photos and recordings highlighting 11 other prominent local African-Americans:  model Demeatria Boccella, Urban League President and CEO Esther Bush, WNBA champion Swin Cash, New Pittsburgh Courier Editor and Publisher Rod Doss, educator Helen Faison, former NAACP Pittsburgh director Alma Speed Fox, former Pittsburgh Symphony pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings, former YMCA CEO Julius Jones, trumpeter Sean Jones, sculptor Thaddeus Mosley and actor Billy Porter.

Several of the honorees attended a preview of the exhibit and were thrilled with the display which featured their granulated black and white photos next to pillars of their names cut from brushed steel rods. Hanging near the displays are earphones that allow visitors to hear the honorees in their own words. All of the recordings feature an introduction by WTAE-TV reporter Andrew Stockey.

Bush thanked PNC for putting the exhibit together and called it “a fantastic way to start African-American History Month—in January, because February is the shortest month.”

“Pittsburgh has a long list of African-Americans who have contributed to our quality of life. This is a living legacy,” she said. “And I am very proud to have been included in with a Tuskegee Airman, Sean, Julius and Rod. So, whoever picked me, thank you.”

Additionally the exhibit features a revolving video display of prominent Black Pittsburghers who are no longer with us, including labor activist Nate Smith, pianist and composer Erroll Garner, Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, educator Margaret Milliones, Pittsburgh Police Chief William “Mugsy” Moore and the men of the Freedom House Ambulance Service, among others.

That entire section of the exhibit was inspired by honoree Fox, who kept referencing people like Homer S. Brown during her oral history interview.

Jones, who did not grow up in Pittsburgh but since arriving 10 years ago has founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, thanked everyone a PNC who created an exhibit that honors “some of Pittsburgh’s true gems.”
He spoke of how he’d been making a name for himself in New York City’s jazz scene when he got a call from Duquesne University looking for a jazz professor. And while he can’t get a hoagie at 3 a.m. or see a jazz quintet in a club at 4 a.m., he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I’ve spent a third of my life here among some of the greatest musicians, people and minds the world has to offer,” he said. “If you take Pittsburgh out of the equation, there is no equation. Pittsburgh is the heart and soul of America and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

The Legacy Project was initially started to preserve the history of PNC and member banks it acquired over the years. In addition to the Oral Histories display, the building houses an interactive timeline of the city, a Now and Then photo display of 12 downtown sites as the are and as the were 150 years ago, and the Pittsburgh Story Board, comprised of biographies of prominent Pittsburghers from the turn of the century forward.

The Legacy building also offers meeting space for small groups. Located at 600 Liberty Avenue its displays are free and open to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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