Author Mark Whitaker will speak at Carnegie Lecture Hall, Feb. 21
Just in time for Black History Month, a book that details the halcyon days of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, fueled by the Great Migration during the first half of the last century. “Smoketown” is a historical, “untold” record of “the other great Black renaissance.”
As a child, author Mark Whitaker visited Pittsburgh in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, spending the summer with his father’s people primarily in Beltzhoover and Wilkinsburg. As an adult, while researching his family memoir (“The Long Road Home”), he came across two pictures of his grandparents in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Teenie Harris Archives. While perusing the archives, he was mesmerized by the black and white photos of just about every Black icon of the time, including Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne, Erroll Garner, Joe Lewis, Billy Strayhorn, Josh Gibson and Ella Fitzgerald. The images stayed with Whitaker long after he finished his memoir in 2011.
The images fueled his curiosity to find out why all of these luminaries frequented Pittsburgh. That research uncovered why Contee Cullen dubbed the Hill District as “The crossroads of the world.” According to Whitaker’s research, Black migrants from the South arrived in Pittsburgh with a degree of skills and hard work ethic that helped them establish a viable community that thrived in spite of the de facto systemic racism. That ambition fueled the rise of a community that did for itself when Blacks were unable to secure financing from the banks.
Early entrepreneurs included Cumberland “Cap” Posey, who worked his way from a steamboat deck hand to a coal tycoon operating a fleet of river vessels that transported materials up and down the three rivers, eventually connecting to the Mississippi River. Others included Lewis Woodson, Martin Delaney and Robert L. Vann.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 500 at the Heinz History Center, Feb. 5, Whitaker kept pointing back to a key player in Black Pittsburgh’s culture—the legendary Pittsburgh Courier. The paper was aspirational and inspirational, reaching a wide audience through the leadership of Vann and his stable of top-notch reporters who provided scoops such as “The Life Story of Joe Lewis” that enabled the rise of the Brown Bomber as the hero of Negro America.
“Robert L. Vann is a man who was primarily responsible for taking literally, an eight-page pamphlet that was sold on the Hill to the largest, best-selling and most influential Black newspaper in all of America with a circulation of almost a half-million by the end of World War II,” Whitaker told the audience.
The Courier expanded its influence in the political arena when Vann editorialized the charge for Blacks to move beyond homage of the (Republican) Party of (Abraham) Lincoln by turning the Great Emancipator’s picture to face the wall and back Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whitaker said during the Feb. 5 event that Vann first made this declaration during a speech in St. Louis in 1932.
Other causes and crusades included the Double V campaign, which advocated victory overseas during World War II and a victory in equal rights for Negroes.
“Black Americans went to fight, they did everything that White folks did, and after the war, if you were a poor Jew growing up, Irish, Polish, and you had lived in one of these poorer neighborhoods, alongside Black folks, and suffered in some cases some of the same discrimination they had…if you went off to war, and you came back as a veteran, it changed your life. You were no longer just Polish-American or Italian-American, you were American, you had served in the military and you could apply for the GI Bill and you could go back to school, you could get a job, move to the suburbs and it changed everything for White Americans,” Whitaker said. “And it did not for Black Americans. The second victory (of the Double V campaign) did not materialize and I think it broke the heart of Black America.”
Having two Negro League teams also heightened Pittsburgh’s profile through the Courier’s coverage of future Hall of Famers such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and a young ballplayer named Jackie Robinson, who likely wouldn’t have broken the Major League’s color barrier without the advocacy efforts of the Courier and an enterprising sportswriter named Wendell Smith.
Evelyn Cunningham, just as the other women of the Courier, was a pioneer in her quest for gender equality and wanted to do more than chronicle teas, dances and social (pretty much the bulwark of the women’s page). She wanted to advocate on a national scope. Cunningham would become the only civil rights reporter in America who could offer romance advice in her spare time. She eventually persuaded her editors to give her a column, “The Women,” which touted the accomplishments of women as well as dating advance. She charmed the male leadership of the day with her journalism, one of whom was Thurgood Marshall, instrumental in the Courier receiving preferential treatment while covering the attorney’s court appearances to argue for equity in law, in particular the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
The music scene in those days was unrivaled and held its own alongside larger Black cultural enclaves as Harlem and Chicago’s Bronzeville. A deep well of locally-nurtured talents such as Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstein, Erroll Garner, Roy Eldridge and Ray Brown made Pittsburgh’s nightlife a requisite tour stop.
“Smoketown” concludes with a section titled “The Bard of a Broken World,” using August Wilson as an appropriate metaphor for the Hill District’s decline from those glory days of yesteryear.
Mark Whitaker will be Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures’ featured author at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21 at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall on Forbes Avenue, Oakland. For more information, contact Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures at 412-622-8866 or http://www.pittsburghlectures.org.
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