Pittsburgh's black middle class has learned to navigate a city that is still segregated in many respects
The cream of Pittsburgh’s African-American community — successful professionals and entrepreneurs — filled the main ballroom of the Omni William Penn Hotel in late December for the ball held every other year by the Pittsburgh chapter of Jack and Jill of America Inc., to celebrate the hard work of 10 outstanding African-American high school students.
The men wore white bow ties with long tail tuxedos and the women wore formal gowns as the estimated 430 attendees danced to classic waltz music. The exclusive organization was started 79 years ago to arrange dating opportunities for children of higher-income African-American families living in nearly all-white neighborhoods and attending white schools.
“Organizations like Jack and Jill help to unite African-Americans because I’m sure they feel isolated. They get involved with Jack and Jill as a matter of acceptance,” said Jackie Dixon, a retired executive with Giant Eagle who serves on several influential boards in Pittsburgh. “But it’s also an organization that is selective. Everybody can’t get in.”
Taylor Brown, left, and Katie Davenport practice their curtsy before they are presented at the Jack and Jill ball. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)
While middle- and upper-middle-class African-Americans in Pittsburgh often don’t show up in large numbers for mainstream cultural events in and around the city, there are dozens of other events and gatherings they do participate in that draw few if any white people. They’re hosted by their fraternities, sororities, churches, professional groups and social clubs that pay homage to black culture.
Unlike other major cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia or Atlanta with sizable African-American populations, affluent black people in Pittsburgh who wish to socialize with other upwardly mobile blacks often complain about not having restaurants, bars and night clubs in their own communities that are of the same quality as the establishments white people have available.
“African-Americans do not have a lot of restaurants that we own,” said Eugene Hanner, 63, a retired pastor at Pentecostal Temple in East Liberty. “Jerome Bettis has one of the better restaurants in Pittsburgh [on the North Shore] and Chuck Sanders is the owner of Savoy in the Strip District.
“But it’s not too often that even our people go in those places because of the prices,” he said. “Blacks are on the low-income side in Pittsburgh. It’s not economical even to attend the Pittsburgh Steelers games or the Pittsburgh Pirates. There is a correlation between economics and the absence of African-Americans at those types of events in this city.”
Jackie Dixon, a retired executive with Giant Eagle. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)
While many African-Americans have left Pittsburgh as part of the New Great Migration for a number of reasons, those who have stayed — especially those with higher education or incomes — have learned to navigate a city that is still segregated in many respects.
The story of race in Pittsburgh could be a tale of two cities, in as much as the two major racial groups have not found ways to live a more integrated existence in terms of where they live and the social activities they participate in.
Where is the middle class?
For many blacks whose career path leads them to Pittsburgh, the terrain here may be a rougher one to maneuver, especially if the family or individual is used to living in another major city such as Atlanta or Washington D.C. with a more concentrated population of affluent black people.
One of the first questions they may ask a Realtor or a co-worker when deciding where to look for a home is: Where are the middle-class black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh? The answer typically raises more questions.
“We can’t tell you where the black middle-class neighborhoods are because they don’t exist,” said Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project, a social justice and civil rights activism group based in the Hill District.
“You name any neighborhood in Pittsburgh and I can tell you whether it is a black or white neighborhood,” he said. “We will never be confused with Atlanta or D.C.”
Within the American class structure, there has always been a black middle class even in the earliest days of emancipation. But the definition of who is middle class in the black community can be complicated and it does not always line up with the interpretation of middle class in the white community.
Whites possess 20 times more wealth than blacks according a 2011 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center, which reported that the average white family had accumulated $113,149 of wealth while the typical black household has accumulated only $5,677 in wealth.
In the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, blacks in 2015 had a median household income of $26,330. White households had median incomes of $57,187.
In light of the wealth gap and income disparity between the races, blacks have adopted more lenient criteria for middle class, which is more heavily weighted toward educational attainment. Teachers and school administrators and other professionals who earn less than the median income for whites could still be considered middle class in their communities by virtue of a college education and a white-collar job.
Home equity also carries less weight in the black community than it does in the white community in determining middle class status. Whites in metro Pittsburgh were 2.2 times as likely as blacks [32.8 percent] to own a home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey.
“Sometimes middle class can be based on the position you have,” said Russell Bynum, who co-owns the Downtown ad agency Bynums Marketing & Communications Inc., with his wife Kathy. “If you are a professor at the university you may be considered middle class. Years ago if you worked at the post office you had a good job and were considered middle class.
“So middle class does not always necessarily mean income by itself,” he said. “It may be positions.”
Russell Bynum, co-owner of ad agency Bynums Marketing & Communications Inc. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)
While the poverty rate among the 189,005 African-Americans in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area stood at 32.5 percent in the 2015 U.S. Census, an increasing number of blacks who earn higher incomes are integrating predominantly white neighborhoods.
But the lack of any well-defined middle class black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh also could be tied to an overall smaller population of black people living here, said Howard “Hoddy” Hanna III, CEO of O’Hara-based Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, the third largest real estate company in the U.S.
Pittsburgh vs. Cleveland
Although Cleveland is just a little more than two hours away from Pittsburgh, it has a larger black population than the number in the Steel City as well as a much higher percentage of African-Americans to the overall population. These may be two reasons that several distinct middle class African-American neighborhoods have been established in Cleveland. Among these are Shaker Heights, University Heights and South Euclid.
Metro population identifying only as black
Median household income among blacks
Home ownership among blacks
Source: 2015 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census
“Cleveland and Pittsburgh are very similar,” said Mr. Hanna, whose company set up offices in the Ohio city in 2003. “But there seems to be more African American middle class and professional people in Cleveland rather than in Pittsburgh population-wise. It leads me to believe we have African-Americans living in a lot of different neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, but we don’t have the kind of concentration of middle class African-Americans we see in Cleveland.”
Larry Davis, dean of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh, believes there is a logical explanation for why middle class blacks are scattered across all four corners of the Pittsburgh region rather than concentrated in historically black communities.
“At one time, Pittsburgh was quite the city for African-Americans,” Mr. Davis said, referring to the jazz scene and popular restaurants and social clubs that thrived here during the heyday of Pittsburgh’s Hill District from the 1930s to the 1950s when this city was one of the nation’s most prosperous black communities.
“I don’t think it’s a strange mysterious thing that we are where we are now,” he said. “...After the steel industry got hit hard the things that replaced it were not as diverse as it might have been in some other cities.”
However, the exodus of middle class blacks from historically black communities traces its roots back to the civil rights movement.
As anger and destruction played out during the 1968 riots and the crack epidemic took hold in the 1980s, middle-class black people were steadily moving out. Today, blacks with the financial wherewithal to do so have integrated just about every predominantly white community in Pittsburgh from Fox Chapel, to Sewickley, to Squirrel Hill and upscale neighborhoods throughout the North and South hills.
“Much of the scattering of the middle class has to do with black individuals exercising their right to live wherever they want to live and many have avoided those communities they were previously segregated to such as the Hill District and Homewood,” Mr. Davis said.
“In some respects, it is what they should do,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways. We can’t say we are against segregation, but at the same time not exercise our right to freedom.”
The only ‘one’ in the room
As a newly elevated partner at the Downtown law firm of Cohen & Grigsby, 33-year-old Katie Jacobs said she is glad she took a leap of faith joining the firm seven years ago at a time when there were no other black attorneys working there. Still, she often felt isolated at social events she attended — such as the theater and symphony — outside of work.
Katie Jacobs, left, a partner with Cohen & Grigsby law firm, shares a laugh with Brittany Felder, a law student at the University of Pittsburgh, during the Mid-Atlantic Black Law Students Association's 49th Regional Convention Career Expo. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)
“Back then I could say yes. I often found myself being the only African-American in the room in social settings,” she said. “But now it’s not hard to be in a nice restaurant or theater event and look across the room and see at least one other person who looks like me — a black professional.”
On her first day of orientation at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 2006, she got a glimpse of what her future in Pittsburgh would be. “I looked around the room and saw about five of us,” she said. “Five African-Americans speckled among a sea of Caucasians.”
“I never had any intention of staying. I had in my mind that I would just come here, focus on my school, do what I have to do, graduate and then go back home to Virginia where my family and friends are.”
It wasn’t until the summer of 2008, when she worked at Cohen & Grigsby as a summer law associate, that she changed her mind.
“What made me stay was how included I felt at Cohen & Grigsby that summer,” Ms. Jacobs said. “I never was made to feel that I was the only ‘one’ in the room even though I was the only ‘one’ in the room. The support I received for my development and growth was just tremendous.”
Since joining the firm, Ms. Jacobs has purchased a home in Scott and has made friends through various professional groups. She has joined the firm’s hiring committee, and after seven years, Cohen & Grigsby recently hired another black attorney who is male.
“Through my efforts and the efforts of the firm, we will have our most diverse summer class, including three African-Americans, one Asian and three Caucasians,” she said.
Fred Kendrick, 51, a South Florida native who moved to Pittsburgh in 2001 to work as executive director of human resources at Bayer, shared a similar experience. After working in corporate America his whole career — BP, Amoco, Toyota, etc. — he got accustomed to being in work and social settings that were predominantly white.
When he arrived in Pittsburgh he chose to unplug from the black community. He even bought a house on five acres in Beaver County to create distance.
“All of a sudden I started drinking the Kool-Aid because I got so sucked up by large corporations after graduation and they had their own network or cloister of how they take care of you, how you should think and where you should socialize,” Mr. Kendrick said. “They kind of tell you where you should go and hang out because they don’t want you to damage the brand or the image of the organization.”
Fred Kendrick runs the undergraduate career development program at the University of Pittsburgh. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)
Things worked fine while he was at Bayer. There was a sense of camaraderie in the workplace and there were several African-American mentors there. “I never had a reason to go out and look for the black community,” he said.
But that changed in 2008 when he left Bayer for an executive management job at a major Downtown law firm. He was the only African-American executive in the organization. He had no close friends or mentors there and the firm had no events outside of work to build relationships.
“I found myself needing to network,” Mr. Kendrick said. “I found myself running around trying to ask people for some African-American groups I could get involved with. But when I went to the events no one knew who I was. I wasn’t feeling like I was part of the mix.
“I wanted to fly away from here,” he said. “I wanted to get out. I tried.” But moving would have been complicated at the time. “So I dug in and just decided to go to church and work and back home.”
He left the law firm in 2013 and now works at the University of Pittsburgh, where he runs the undergraduate career development program.
Deb Sadowski, who was part of a diversity recruiting initiative at Eaton Corp. in 2005, said she helped recruit a black man here from Milwaukee to fill a vice president position only to see him pick up and move to Atlanta after three years.
“There were not a lot of African-Americans in our organization, but he felt nurtured by us,” said Ms. Sadowski, who is white. “We talked openly about it, and he did not feel discriminated in our organization. But his wife could not find a community of people to do things with. She was a teacher, so she found a job. They moved to Moon Township. He wanted to have a nice home and have his kids go to a good school district.
“I was brokenhearted when they left because I liked them,” she said. “A number of us from work socialized. We would go out on Thursday or Friday nights and spouses would come. His wife felt very alienated. The other thing she said is she felt very unwelcomed by black women here because she was not a native.”
What makes a black community?
With the population of middle-class African-Americans in Pittsburgh scattered throughout the region, the black community itself is not so much a physical place as it is a sense of people from the same race coming together for common interests, whether it be a fraternity, a sorority, a club or a church.
“My daughter moved to a big metropolitan area — Baltimore — where she didn’t know anyone, but she was able to contact another Alpha Kappa Alpha sister [a sorority established by African-American college women 110 years ago] and they laid the red carpet out,” said Ronald Saunders, a human and civil rights activist living in Penn Hills. “It’s about connecting. Her connection with a sorority eased the transition.”
Alexis Steals, president of the Pittsburgh Jack and Jill chapter, said the close-knit group of club members also are able to give new families a support network, which means helping families decide where to buy homes, helping African-American women find places to get their hair done and things like finding reliable people to watch their children.
“We help people navigate their initial landing here in terms of finding a church and other lifestyle issues,” said the Avonworth resident. “We are a database of information. This is important information you can’t find on the internet or the Yellow Pages.”
But not everyone can join. The membership, by invitation only, is comprised of African-American mothers with children ages 2 to 19. The club serves as a network for mothers while seeking to instill a sense of ethnic pride in suburban black children. Families become legacy members when their children turn 20 years old and leave the program.
Jackie Dixon, center, shares a laugh with Carlow University President Suzanne Mellon, left, and former Carlow University President Mary E. Hines in the lobby of the Kresge Center. Mrs. Dixon is featured in a local magazine. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)
Feeling safety in numbers
Among efforts underway to draw more black professionals to Pittsburgh and retain those who are here, the four-year-old volunteer group African-American Neighborhoods of Choice has co-commissioned a recent report that will serve as a baseline from which to develop strategies. Among its findings, the report described Pittsburgh as a less welcoming place than other cities for young black professionals.
“How do we do a better job of recruiting African Americans to Pittsburgh whether they be doctors, or other professionals in the medical, technology field or higher education?” asked Mr. Hanna, the real estate CEO. “The largest law firm in Cleveland has a managing partner who is African American. I just don’t think we have the population and concentration of affluent black people here.”
Others determined to stay in Pittsburgh have learned to push forward.
In many ways, Ms. Dixon, the retired Giant Eagle executive, said she feels she has an advantage when it comes to receiving invitations to attend mainstream social and cultural events due to her serving on the Regional Asset District board, which allocates $100 million annually to about 100 organizations such as libraries, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.
“I have tried to get other blacks to join boards, but they usually decline unless there are five other blacks already on that board,” she said. “They don’t want to be trendsetters. Their lives revolve around their sororities, social clubs and their church and they don’t do anything else.
“If you walk into a place where nobody knows you and they look at you strange, just keep going. Pretty soon they will get used to you and they will stop looking at you strange.
“I have been accepted very well here in Fox Chapel,” she said. “It makes it easier to be part of things that cross the line if you live in a neighborhood that is across the line. What gets me is when people move to these neighborhoods in the suburbs, they still don’t get involved in those communities.”
Tim Grant: email@example.com or 412-263-1591