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DEBBIE NORRELL

I pride myself on knowing a lot about Pittsburgh. When a new restaurant opens I usually visit or have at least read about it. The same goes for all of the new hotels that are opening in the city. I have to admit that I knew nothing about the Dollar Bank Heritage Center until I was invited to attend their Black History Celebration. The reason that I didn’t know about it could be due to the lack of time I spend in Downtown Pittsburgh. I have walked past the Smithfield Street entrance many times and had no idea what was inside. As I mentioned in this week’s feature story, the Heritage Center is free and open to the public during normal banking hours.

Here is what you will see when you visit the center. The wall to the left of the entrance features paintings of many minorities that opened accounts as early as 1855. There are several displays of vintage piggy banks. Somehow I have always loved branded merchandise. It might have to do with getting things like this for free when you opened an account. The one item that really struck my attention was the ledger that Dollar Bank used when people opened accounts. Remember these were the days before people had picture identifications. When someone opened an account they would write down their name and a description of the person, you would see descriptions such as medium light skin referring to the person’s skin tone, their age and occupation and the date they opened the account. Some were listed as full African and others as half African. These ledgers allowed the bank to see how many people of color had accounts as far back as 1855.

The first African American to have a job at Dollar Bank was James Jackson, he was a porter in the 1890s.There is also a section that features a technology timeline. This shows how the bank has advanced through the years. Remember the “passbook savings accounts?” Back in the day you had to have your passbook if you wanted to deposit or withdraw money. Several of Dollar Bank’s early depositors were among the nearly 200,000 African American men who served in the armed forces of the United States during the Civil War.

The musical traditions of Pittsburgh’s African American community go back much farther than the heyday of jazz clubs on Wylie Avenue and the New Granada Theater. Singer, musician, orchestra and jazz band leader Joseph McCloud was a musician with an astonishing repertoire.  Bach and Mendelssohn, Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin, old English madrigals, Tin Pan Alley hits, jazz, jubilees—McCloud played it all.  Born in Front Royal, Virginia, his father, Hartley, was a laborer, and his mother, Martha, kept house.  The family moved to Pittsburgh in 1888, when Joe was 14.  In 1900, he married Anna Gertrude Carson, whose father, Paul Carson, was one of the first African Americans on the City of Pittsburgh police force.  The newlyweds lived on Wylie Avenue. They opened a Dollar Bank account in 1901. Nice piece of Pittsburgh history.

(Email Debbie at debbienorrell@aol.com.)

 

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