As a pregnant teenager, the mayor’s mother almost gave him up for adoption
Part one: A triumphant, tangled legacy: Ed Gainey’s Virginia and Pittsburgh roots run deep
Darlene Gainey felt her body changing. A friend arranged for her to see a physician. After an examination, the tall, slender 15-year-old knew the truth, and it terrified her. She decided to keep it quiet.
In the summer of 1969, as astronauts’ footprints lingered in the moon’s ancient dust and the spiritually infused song “Oh, Happy Day” chimed from transistor radios, a frightened girl suffered alone through the morning sickness as she tried desperately to keep the secret from her parents and brothers, all living in a two-story row house on Lawn Street in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.
One Saturday morning, while Darlene pushed a vacuum cleaner across the living room floor, her mother approached her. Darlene shut off the machine.
“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” Frances Gainey said.
“Why would you say something like that about me?” Darlene demanded, then began to weep.
“I’ll tell you what,” her mother said. “On Monday morning, we’re going to [the doctor’s] office to find out.”
Darlene slept little the next two days. On Monday, after another examination, she stood beside her mother as the doctor confirmed Frances’ suspicions with a simple nod of his head.
Darlene had no idea what this meant for her future. She was headed into her sophomore year at Schenley High School. What was she supposed to do?
When classes resumed, she kept her pregnancy secret. She usually wore skirts and kept her shoulder-length hair turned up at its ends in a flip. Everything looked and seemed normal.
But Frances knew her daughter would soon be unable to hide the life growing inside her. Frances had been pregnant herself at age 17. She was keenly aware of the challenges her daughter faced.
She would be shamed, humiliated, called a “loose” and foolish girl. She’d face cruel jokes from classmates. And what about the neighbors? Lawn Street was overwhelmingly white. Would Darlene’s pregnancy reignite the problems the Gainey family had faced years before, when they moved to the street?
Desperate to protect her daughter, Frances came up with a plan.
On Nov. 17, Darlene packed her belongings into a few bags. She and her mother traveled in a jitney to a four-story fortress of a building on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. Frances had arranged for her daughter to spend the next few months at the Roselia Foundling and Maternity Hospital, a place where unmarried pregnant women could stay — out of sight — until they gave birth. The expectation was that they would put their children up for adoption.
Darlene soon fell into a routine, completing mandated chores and attending classes so she wouldn’t fall behind on her education. She continued studies in English, health, world culture, biology and business. She learned to type and crochet.
Most of the other young women in the facility were a few years older, and they were white. Something about her impressed them, and they elected Darlene as floor supervisor. She made certain that rooms were cleaned, floors swept and beds made.
Three miles away, at the Gainey home on Lawn Street, Darlene’s pregnancy remained a secret. Her brothers Chauncey, Richard and Tommy were told she was staying with an aunt in Philadelphia. They wrote her letters, which Frances pretended to mail, then delivered personally to Bedford Avenue.
Darlene rarely, if ever, left the Roselia facility. She celebrated Christmas on a snowy Thursday, and the 1960s ended a week later. She went into labor on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 1970, and, at 3:56 a.m. the next day, gave birth to a 6-pound, 8-ounce boy.
She knew she’d be giving him up for adoption. But, as Darlene would say decades later, “God had other plans.”
Within days, she and her mother met in a conference room at the Roselia home with one of the nuns in charge.
The child Darlene had named Edward Charles Gainey would not be raised by another family.
“I understand what I signed. I know what the agreement was, but we’re taking him home,” Frances said to Sister Helen.
Fifty-two years later, on a chilly January morning, that child — Darlene’s son — chatted with relatives and friends packed into his family’s one-story home in Lincoln-Lemington. Darlene joined the crowd of people greeting each other with hugs, handshakes and laughter. It was a small celebration of a specific achievement: In a few hours, Edward Charles Gainey would be sworn in as the city of Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor. It marked the latest chapter in the decadeslong story of the Gainey family, which struggled to establish homes and lives in a city that didn’t always make that easy.
The Gainey family began a tradition of integrating Pittsburgh neighborhoods more than a century ago.
In the early 1900s, Darlene’s grandparents, Charles and Rosa Gainey, lived in a two-story house they owned at 849 Kennebec St. in Greenfield. (The street was then known as Killeymoon.) The Gaineys were the only Black family in an area encompassing several blocks, census records show.
Over several decades, the Gainey family brought the experience of Black life to Kennebec Street. Charles Sr. went to work each day as a messenger at the B&O Railroad offices in the Oliver Building in Downtown. He was described as a popular employee in a 1917 Pittsburgh Post story that noted his return from vacationing in Boston and New York. Both he and wife, Rosa, had migrated to Pittsburgh from the South — he from North Carolina, she from Maryland. The couple raised four children — sons Charles Jr. and Chauncey and daughters Hazel and Anna.
Rosa and her daughters were active in the Warren Methodist Episcopal Church on Centre Avenue and sometimes held committee meetings at the Gainey house. Charles Sr. was a member of the Ritz Club, one of the city’s oldest social clubs. He was a committee leader at the local lodge of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization formed during the Civil War to ease enmity between Northern and Southern states. (The Pythians soon decided to admit only white members, so Blacks formed their own Pythian organization.)
Grief descended on the Gainey home when Rosa died there on Sept. 6, 1926. Six years later, on March 14,1932, while temperatures dipped into the teens, daughter Anna died at home of tuberculosis. The Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s influential Black newspaper, published a front-page story headlined “Popular Young Local Girl Dies.” She was 25.
The Gaineys proved resilient. A few months later, on a Friday evening in July, music and laughter filled the house as Charles Sr. surprised Charles Jr. with a party. Dozens of people gathered to dance and to play croquet and bridge, the Courier reported.
By the early 1940s, Charles Sr., 70, had moved in with Charles Jr. and his wife, Irene, who were living next door at 851 Kennebec. A cousin lived with his family at the original Gainey home. The family remained a presence on the street for several more years.
Starting on Lawn Street
Charles and Rosa’s son, Chauncey, and his wife, Frances, brought the Gaineys to Lawn Street in Oakland.
In 1958, the couple moved their young family out of a cramped third-floor apartment on Cliff Street in the Hill District to a more spacious row house on Lawn Street. It was a chance at upward mobility. Chauncey Elmer Gainey worked seasonal construction jobs and cleaned a dentist’s office. During baseball season, he parked cars at nearby Forbes Field.
Frances Thornton Gainey raised the four children still at home — Chauncey, 6; Ricky, 5; Darlene, 4; and Tommy, 1. An older child, Melvin, was already grown and had left the house. Frances didn’t work outside of the home, although family members say she had been involved in a Hill District numbers operation, a form of illegal gambling popular in the city’s working-class neighborhoods.
Lawn Street runs along a hillside overlooking the Monongahela River, 2 miles east of Downtown. In the 1950s and ’60s, residents looked down at a rumbling steel mill sprawling along both sides of the river.
Before the Gaineys moved in, the only Black residents on the street were an elderly couple named Dorsey. The family’s arrival upset some of Lawn Street’s residents. A handful would spit at the house or hurl racial epithets while walking past. As the Gainey boys grew, they got into fights with white boys in the neighborhood.
In the mid-1960s, Frances decided enough was enough. Darlene believes her mother called on her contacts in the Hill District numbers racket to solve the problem.
At midday on a hot, sunny Saturday, while 12-year-old Darlene and her older brother horsed around on their front porch, a black Cadillac pulled to a stop yards from the house. Neighbors on their own porches turned to catch a glimpse; shiny and expensive automobiles were a rare sight on Lawn Street.
Dressed in pin-stripe suits, three stocky white men — one smoking a cigar and another wearing sunglasses — exited the car and walked the four steps up to the Gainey porch. One joked with Darlene and her brother. “You want to take a spin in this here ride?” he asked, motioning to the Cadillac.
Frances came out of the house and greeted the visitors. She seemed to be expecting them. “Come on inside,” she said.
Darlene and her brother remained on the porch, wondering what was happening. After a few minutes, the three men exited and each walked to a different Lawn Street address. The 12-year-old noticed the men were visiting homes of neighbors who had caused problems for her family.
What did the men say to the residents? Darlene would never know, but her mother later joked that they may have asked the residents if they wanted to “swim with the fishes.”
After the men drove away, racial tensions seemed to ease dramatically on the street. The name-calling and spitting ceased. The change was especially noticeable in the next-door neighbors who shared a common wall with the Gaineys.
Those neighbors no longer banged on the common wall. Instead, they knocked to communicate a greeting or to pass a message. Frances in return tapped on the wall to let them know she had biscuits or bread to share. The families eventually grew close, and when Frances moved out years later, the neighbors wept.
Frances Gainey, a tall “big-boned” matriarch, ran her household with a gentle but iron fist. Her children knew not to cross her. If Darlene and her brothers weren’t home when the street lights came on, they knew they’d be in trouble. While Chauncey was at work, Frances kept busy in several community organizations.
But she wasn’t very comfortable explaining sexuality to her only daughter, or giving insight about navigating relationships with young men. In her teens, Darlene was fumbling through various romantic relationships and acting out with her friends by sometimes cutting school — while at home, she was being responsible, washing dishes and keeping up with her chores.
When she was 15, Darlene met a Westinghouse High School student named Jacob C. Talton, known to his friends as “Spuddy.” Jacob was a few years older, and Darlene thought he was handsome. They began spending a lot of time together. Within months, Darlene became pregnant.
‘I’ve got it from here’
After giving birth, Darlene returned to her family’s Lawn Street home and resumed attending classes at Schenley High School. She’d promised her mother she would graduate. Frances took over most of the duties of raising the baby boy.
In her senior year, Darlene was offered an internship to do secretarial work at the University of Pittsburgh’s office of governmental relations. It was her first real job experience — before she had only taken on babysitting gigs. The internship turned into a full-time job after she graduated in 1972. She moved into an apartment, although Frances continued to play a big role in raising Ed.
By 1978, Darlene was working for a security firm run by Harvey Adams, the late civil rights icon and former Pittsburgh NAACP leader. Darlene and Ed, then 8, had moved to a housing unit on Collins Avenue in East Liberty.
Mother’s Day 1979 was a turning point for Darlene. While at school, Ed created two handmade cards, one for Darlene and one for his grandmother. Darlene appreciated her son’s thoughtfulness — but she couldn’t help but notice the card he made for his grandmother was more elaborate. Did Ed consider Frances more of a mother?
Now 25, Darlene was ready to take on the responsibility of caring for her son full time. Frances needed to step back and give her room. So she confronted her mother.
“I appreciate all that you’ve done to care for Ed, but I’ve got it from here, Mom,” Darlene said.
To her surprise, her mother didn’t make a fuss. She knew her daughter had grown into motherhood and was ready to take the reins.
The way station
In March 1983, Darlene and Ed moved to a one-story, two-bedroom rental home on Black Street in East Liberty.
The teenager claimed the basement game room, with its sofa and wood paneling. The house had the advantage of being close to Frances, who lived in a high-rise apartment building nearby.
People were always coming and going. After a while, the house on Black Street became a sort of way station for friends and relatives, and young Ed witnessed it all. The house was often filled with music — hits from The Five Heartbeats and Whitney Houston blared on a radio tuned to WAMO. People would play cards in the kitchen or simply stand around and chat.
Darlene’s brother, Tommy, and his family stayed in the basement for a year or so before moving to their own home just down the street. Frances moved in for a few years before her death in 1990. One day, Darlene’s brother, Ricky, showed up with his belongings in a bag. He ended up staying nearly a decade.
There were others. A troubled niece shaken by a recent death found refuge on Black Street. After Darlene’s best friend, Teresa “Terry” Pesanka, was killed in 1994, Darlene invited Pesanka’s 17-year-old daughter, Nykisha, to stay. She was briefly joined by her brothers.
“I’m not qualified to give people therapy,” Darlene would say. “But I know how to love someone.”
In the ’70s, Ed attended Holy Rosary Grade School in Homewood, now closed. From there he went to Central Catholic High School — but that lasted only for a short time due to struggles with the tuition. He ultimately graduated from East Liberty’s Peabody High School in 1988. (Peabody is now the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies.)
Darlene gave birth to her second child, daughter Shadé Mallory-Mason, in 1985.
After graduating from Peabody High School, Ed packed his bags and headed to Norfolk State University in Virginia, not far from his father’s family home in Newport News.
Ed would later admit he was “18 with a 14-year-old mentality” and lacked a hunger for learning. He partied and went to the beach but did little studying. He left college in December with a 1.8 grade point average.
“If you’re not ready for school, let’s just shut this down right now. But you’ve got to do something.”
His return to Pittsburgh proved a life-changing event. At his mother’s home, he became keenly aware of Darlene’s disappointment. He realized he’d let her down. It was a serious blow to a young man who wanted to please his mother.
The two sat down for a discussion.
“If you’re not ready for school, let’s just shut this down right now,” Darlene told him. “But you’ve got to do something.”
Years later, Ed would say, “That was the first time the light bulb went on.”
He took a few classes at Community College of Allegheny County, then headed to Baltimore to attend Morgan State University. It was there in 1990 that Ed walked into a classroom for a scheduled course, only to find the room empty except for the professor, who asked, “What are you doing here? The lesson is not here, it’s with your classmates.”
His classmates were on the street — protesting proposed tuition increases, poor living conditions that included leaking roofs and rats in dormitories, and a lack of state funding. Ed joined them on a march to the city’s downtown.
Student efforts that year included a boycott of classes and the occupation of Morgan State’s administration building. Those efforts effectively shut down the campus. It was a lesson in the way in which politics impacts investments in various communities, and it proved an eye-opening experience. Ed graduated in 1994 with a business management degree.
A year later in Pittsburgh, a contest heated up for the Pittsburgh City Council seat held by the late Jake Milliones.
Darlene went to work for one of the candidates, Sala Udin. Ed served as a volunteer — it was his first brush with politics. After Mr. Udin’s victory, Darlene became his office manager, a job she would hold for about four years.
Cars bustled about in the Strip District in December 2003. A number of college students home for the Christmas holiday crowded into Art’s Tavern on Penn Avenue. Many were simply out for a good time. One was a tall man with a fresh haircut who was laughing and chatting with a group of colleagues and friends.
Ed Gainey, now 33, moved around the packed bar. He was working as a special projects manager for Mayor Tom Murphy, a Democrat, so naturally he networked the crowd, seeking opportunities for connections and greeting familiar faces. Across the dimly lit room, an unfamiliar woman began making her way toward him.
“Hey, Shawn,” the woman shouted over the sound of chatter and music.
“I’m not Shawn,” Ed responded as he leaned in.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said an embarrassed Michelle Coburn, a Homewood native who worked as a manager for the hospitality and leisure training program at the Urban League.
She thought Ed was a guy she had met a week earlier at the Urban League. She quickly walked away.
Later in the evening, Ed found Michelle and asked about the Urban League. The two of them laughed and flirted for a while before he returned to his friends. A month later, he called her and asked if the Urban League could help a constituent with housing. She connected him with the person he needed.
A month after that, Michelle attended an event honoring the relationship between the Urban League and the city’s African American churches. Ed, dressed in a dark suit with a name tag on the right side of his chest, showed up.
In addition to working with Mr. Murphy, he had served as a legislative aide to state Rep. Joseph Preston Jr. Now he was running for Mr. Preston’s 24th Legislative District seat, which serves Wilkinsburg, East Liberty, Highland Park, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington, Homewood and parts of Aspinwall and Point Breeze.
Ed walked over to Michelle and wrapped his long arms around her. A kiss on the cheek was a pleasant surprise to her.
“You will have to give me that back,” he said.
Confused, Michelle asked her friend if there was something she was supposed to give Ed that she had forgotten about. It later dawned on her that it was the kiss he wanted back. Seventeen years into their marriage, Michelle still teases Ed about his pickup line.
She is surprised now that they didn’t meet earlier. Michelle had lived in Penn Hills and Moon before moving to East Liberty to live with her father after her mother died in a car accident in 1984. The Westinghouse Academy graduate learned that Ed knew her brother, stepbrother and godfather Harvey Adams, the longtime civil rights activist. They had even been in the same spaces, including NAACP conferences.
Michelle was intrigued by the way Ed walked and dressed, and how he challenged her in such a way that she felt she should study and prepare before their dates.
They married in November 2006 on Veterans Day. They now have three children — Mariah, Alexa and Darius.
Run, Ed, run
Ed Gainey’s campaign team propped up lights and a camera at the family’s Lincoln-Lemington home on Apple Street on Jan. 19, 2021. Wearing a mask as a protection against COVID-19, Ed sat at his dining room table before a black laptop, poised to share the news.
He and his family had been weighing the decision for weeks. He would run for mayor.
“What does this change look like to our family?” Michelle questioned. What would be said about him in commercials that his children would see? How might their kids’ friends feel? They had to talk to their two tweens. Ed was accustomed to being on a public platform as a state legislator, but running for mayor was a different sphere. The world can be cruel — particularly in a digital society where rumors run rampant.
In May 2021, Mr. Gainey astounded the political pundits, defeating incumbent Bill Peduto in the Democratic primary 46% to 39%. Then, on Nov. 2, he defeated Republican nominee Tony Moreno with more than 70% of the vote, becoming the mayor-elect of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Gainey assumed office as the 61st mayor of Pittsburgh on Jan. 3.
“You didn’t know.”
A few months later, Darlene Gainey Craig sat in her living room in Wilkinsburg and discussed her life as a single mother. It seemed she had always worked to make certain her children had what they needed.
Ed would say: “I remember Christmas. Every year, she made it happen. I remember her always making do, making sure we were all right. All I’d see was go, go, go, go. That’s where I get my work ethic. It became a part of me.”
But that work was now in her past. Darlene retired in March from the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office, where she had worked since 1999 — first as a deputy coroner investigating deaths, then as a supervisor.
She had more time for contemplation. Her mind drifted back to a moment years earlier. Ed had become a man and seemed to be doing well, but Darlene wasn’t entirely sure everything was fine.
“That was all I needed to hear.”
She’d been thinking about her past as a teenage mom who could change diapers but didn’t truly know how to mother her child. She considered the years her mother, Frances, had taken on the role. Perhaps, she thought, her son was resentful.
So she called him on the phone and asked him to meet her for lunch at a Pizza Hut in East Liberty. There, the two sat in a booth and chatted for a bit before Darlene got down to business. She brought up her faults as a teenager struggling to learn motherhood.
“Listen, Ed,” she said. “I want to apologize for what I did, or didn’t do. I want you to forgive me for any feelings that you may have.”
He looked at her and replied, “Mom, you were young. You didn’t know.”
For Darlene, those words were a balm.
Recalling them years after they were spoken, she leaned forward and said in a voice that barely rose above a whisper. “That was all I needed to hear.”
Photography: Steve Mellon
Design & Development: Zack Tanner
Timeline: Ed Yozwick