Names at the new Braddock library recognize those who once weren’t welcome
When Jim Kidd was a boy in Braddock, he could walk past the storefronts along rumbling Braddock Avenue and peer in the windows of places such as the Sunset Cafe and Och’s Restaurant, but he couldn’t go inside to buy a meal.
Those were the rules.
On hot summer days, he could step inside Isaly’s to order an ice cream cone, but he couldn’t stick around and visit with the white kids inside. He had to eat outside. Similarly, at Braddock’s grand old Carnegie Library, it was OK for him to enter, climb the steps to the second floor, check out a book and giggle with his friends at the bronze statue of naked Mercury in the reading room. Then he had to leave. The library’s swimming pool and gymnasium were off limits, too.
No “whites only” signs told him where he could not enter. No usher stood at the entrance of Braddock’s Capitol Theater to direct him to the balcony seats. He just knew that’s where he was supposed to sit.
But how did he know? How did he learn the rules of being Black in Braddock in the late 1940s and 50s? Now 82 years old, Mr. Kidd puzzles over that question. He has a few theories.
“Well, one of the things I think that was helpful, visually, is that you saw only whites” in certain places, he said. “You never did see anybody that looked like you. So in some ways, in your head, you put together that maybe you can’t go in. This is a sad thing.”
Another thought: “Our parents didn’t go to those places. So I think that was the message we got from our parents. There are certain places that you can’t go.”
It all left him ill prepared for what he would experience on a sixth-grade trip to Washington D.C. He and a white classmate, Billy Hoffman, had earned a trip to the nation’s capital through their jobs as school crossing guards — the official job title was “Captain of Patrol,” Mr. Kidd remembers.
At Braddock’s P&LE railroad station, James Kidd and Billy Hoffman hopped on a train and joined students from other areas, all bound for Washington D.C. The two boys thought nothing of sitting together. They were excited about the trip. As the train neared Washington, however, an official-looking man approached James Kidd.
“Will you come with me, please?” the man said.
James followed him to another car, this one filled with Black students.
“This is where you can sit,” the man said.
James was stunned. What’s happening? he wondered. He didn’t know any of these kids.
Once the train pulled into Washington’s Union Station, the white students traveled to the fancy Statler Hotel to eat lunch. James and the other Black students ate at the train station. Afterward, the Black students were taken to a hotel in what Mr. Kidd remembers as Washington’s Black district. White students lodged at the Statler. Later that evening, the other Black students asked James if he wanted to join them in exploring the city. James shook his head no.
“They went out,” he said. “And I stayed in the room and I cried. I cried because I couldn’t believe it was happening. Mom had warned me. Before the trip, she said, ‘You might have some problems.’ But as a little kid, I’m thinking, ‘What did I do wrong, other than look the way I look?’”
The only one
During Evelyn Benzo’s senior year at Scott High School in North Braddock, she and 15 other female students arranged themselves in three neat rows for a group picture to be published in the school’s 1947 yearbook, The Highlander. The young women, dressed in blouses and skirts, had learned typing, shorthand, bookkeeping and other office skills. They appeared professional, ready for work.
Ms. Benzo stands in the second row on the far right of the picture, labeled “Office Girls.” She’s the only Black student.
Shortly after graduation, her white classmates quickly landed jobs at the region’s largest employers — places such as U.S. Steel, Westinghouse and Union Switch and Signal. She searched for her own job. She found none.
“And that irked me to no end,” said Ms. Benzo, now 92. She was confident she could do the work. She didn’t care that teachers had told her she couldn’t compete with her white classmates. “I knew what I could do,” she said, “and I knew I could do it as well as the next person.”
For a decade after graduation, she worked menial jobs at a drug store and a dress shop. Then, in the late 1950s, she was hired to do clerical work at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry in Pittsburgh. Finally, she could use her learned skills to earn a living.
By then, she had married and moved from North Braddock to Braddock — first to 11th Street, near the Edgar Thomson steel mill, and then to a neat row house on Oliver Street. She loved to read, and often visited the Braddock Carnegie Library to check out books she could enjoy at home. Like Mr. Kidd, she was only allowed to borrow books. Everything else was off limits.
She continued working for the state, increasing her skills and moving up as she qualified for better jobs. By the late 1960s, she was working as an interviewer for the labor and industry department. She talked to people seeking jobs, and matched them with employers needing workers with certain skills. For some employers, however, qualifications were not the top priority. “They were concerned with the color and not the skill,” she said.
Those employers did not directly say they would not hire Blacks. “They just played the game,” she said. “They just knew what to say and who to say it to. They wanted me to go along with the program.”
By then Ms. Benzo’s two children were in college, and she needed the job. She felt there was little she could do to fight against the discrimination she witnessed.
One day, however, it all became too much. A representative from a Pittsburgh hotel called, looking to hire a janitor. “I have someone here for you,” she replied. The prospective employee was Black. The man from the hotel “played the game,” and let her know the man would not get the job.
This time, she pushed back. She refused to fill the order. The man then called her boss to complain. Her boss backed her up. Still, Ms. Benzo realized the powerlessness of her position.
“I won the battle but didn’t win the war,” she said. “Someone else was going to fill the order. He’d get who he wanted.”
Much has changed in Braddock in the past 60 years. The Sunset Cafe is gone. Isaly’s is gone. So is the Capitol Theatre and its balcony. For a while it was difficult to envision a future for the town, but now restaurants and other businesses are slowly returning.
Ms. Benzo retired from her job in 1989 and, a decade ago, moved to a seniors apartment building on Braddock Avenue after nearly 60 years in her Oliver Street home. During her long life, she served on Braddock council and on a number of committees and boards. Her efforts helped change the town. “She’s been a leader for numerous causes and a strong female voice,” said Vicki Vargo, executive director of Braddock’s library. Ms. Benzo has served on the library’s board. “She’s fearless,” Ms. Vargo said.
Mr. Kidd remains in Braddock, in a Corey Avenue house filled with an eclectic mix of items he’s collected over the years. His walls are a kaleidoscope of paintings, African masks, crosses and other artwork, such as a listing of the Ten Commandments in needlepoint. Every flat surface supports a statue, a family picture or a book. He owns several images depicting John the Baptist. “He’s my hero because he was the first hippie,” Mr. Kidd said. “He wore animal skins, he lived in the woods, he ate locusts.”
The great-grandson of slaves in Virginia and the son of a single mother, Mr. Kidd was raised by an aunt and uncle who moved to Braddock in the late 1940s. They were lured by work in the town’s steel mill. He calls his step-parents mother and father. “My mother used to tell me, ‘We’ve given you everything a poor boy could want.’ And it was true. I didn’t want much.“
Mr. Kidd worked his way through school, earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree, and was employed for more than three decades as a therapist for Turtle Creek Valley Mental Health/Mental Retardation on Braddock Avenue.
In the past few decades, both Ms. Benzo and Mr. Kidd have focused much of their energies on the town’s soot-stained library, which once considered them worthy of only borrowing books and then leaving. They’ve both played key roles in the library’s reemergence as a facility that strives to meet the needs of all those living in Braddock.
Ms. Benzo joined the group of volunteers who saved the library from doom in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, and for years she served on the library’s board. She helped clean debris from the abandoned building and guided visitors on tours of the place. For the first time, she realized the amenities she’d been denied all those years. Upon seeing the library’s swimming pool, guests often swooned with nostalgia and proclaimed, “I learned to swim here.” Ms. Benzo hadn’t known the building housed a pool until she became a volunteer and could wander freely through the facility.
Mr. Kidd has long been involved in the library’s Neighborhood Print Shop, which provides community access to screen printing equipment. He’s always been creative, painting and sketching, but until he began visiting the print shop, he didn’t consider himself an artist. “I just do art,” he said. Others felt the term “artist” did fit, and so Mr. Kidd served in 2011 as the library’s first artist-in-residence. With help and encouragement from Leslie Stem of the artist collective Tranformasium, created a book of phrases and sketches — Ms. Vargo describes them as “Kiddisms” — such as, “There are no mistakes in the universe.”
Items from Mr. Kidd’s vast collection of artwork, as well as some of his own work, are part of the library’s innovative art lending program.
Now the library plans to recognize Ms. Benzo and Mr. Kidd in a way that will make them a permanent part of the library and its history. The facility is in the midst of a major renovation designed to make the place more accessible to all of those in its service area. And a few months ago, the library received an anonymous donation to its capital campaign that includes funds to name a new elevator in honor of Ms. Benzo. The new print shop will be dedicated to Mr. Kidd.
Mr. Kidd appreciates the irony of having his name attached to a place that once considered him unworthy of sticking around. All the other places that said “no” to him and Ms. Benzo are long gone. The library remains because people in the community insisted on its transformation. Two of its new amenities will each honor one of those people and, in the process, recognize the stories of Mr. Kidd and Ms. Benzo as part of Braddock’s larger story.
Steve Mellon: firstname.lastname@example.org.