Part two: The Gainey family has a long history of firsts in Pittsburgh
One day in the summer of 1900, the man whose great-great-great grandson would become Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor set out from his home in rural Virginia. Watt Talton moved along a dirt road that took him past Warwick County farm fields he had cultivated for decades.
Talton was about 60 years old, his body wracked by illness. Ahead was his destination — the two-story, red-brick Warwick County Courthouse with its tall windows. A year earlier, he had paid $275 to buy 19½ acres near the courthouse. Land equaled wealth and Talton intended to deed that wealth to three of his sons. Each would receive 6-½ acres.
Little is known about Talton’s life, but one line in a deposition given by his son Jacob a few years later indicates he was a man concerned about his legacy: “He went to the courthouse one day to have the deeds fixed for [the sons], but was too sick to remain so he went back home and shortly thereafter died in June 1900.”
Watt Talton likely is buried near other family members in a church cemetery a few blocks from his land. If a headstone once marked his grave, it no longer exists. Talton’s name rarely survived in any tangible form.
But his story, teased from a few scant records, reveals a life intertwined with some of the most transformative moments in American history — including the one that came more than a century after his death when Ed Gainey took the oath of office to lead the city of Pittsburgh.
The first slaves
Talton lived and died a few miles from a place then called Point Comfort on the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula, a finger of land bounded by rivers and bays.
There, in 1619, more than 20 captive Africans disembarked from a ship called the White Lion. They are considered the first American slaves, their feet stepping on land they and millions who followed would build and shape and bleed upon.
Born Black in a Southern state whose system of slavery English novelist Charles Dickens decried for its “air of ruin and decay,” Talton emerged after the Civil War as a farmer who thrived during Reconstruction, exercising his new rights and owning land that would, decades later, slip through his family’s hands.
A child and grandson would later join the Great Migration of Southern Black residents to Northern cities and leave the family’s Virginia home to seek new opportunities in Pittsburgh. Although early on the Steel City seemed to offer the Taltons nothing but tragedy, the family would persevere and gain a foothold here.
When Mr. Gainey raised his arms in triumph on election night in 2021, he celebrated a historic moment in the multigenerational stories of both his family and the city.
But in Warwick County, the losses outweigh the victories for many of the relatives of the man they and Mr. Gainey count as their forefather.
Angela Mickel, Watt Talton’s great-great-granddaughter, parked in a gravel lot one chilly day earlier this year and peered through the rain-splattered windshield at the Menchville Marina. She looked past the dozen or so oyster boats tied fast to pilings and focused on a distant strip of sand jutting into the water.
“That’s where they would have the baptisms,” she said.
Ms. Mickel, 49, remembers her grandmother’s stories: Congregants from the First Baptist Church Denbigh — a Black church built on land she says was owned by Talton — waded into the water when the tide was low to be immersed, purified and reborn.
Her photo album contains two yellowed pictures depicting this rite. One shows two men leading a white-robed woman through knee-high water. The second shows a pastor in a black robe and a white collar with his right arm raised heavenward. The woman gazes downward, prayerful. Cursive writing on the picture appears to read, “God, heal us.”
“They make a point of saying you’re not supposed to be out here.”
The images represent an era when the Talton family owned several tracts of land and knew the area’s most prominent people. That era ended during Ms. Mickel’s lifetime — and so did the feeling that she was welcome in places like the marina. She points to a Confederate battle flag flying from one of the oyster boats,
“They make a point of saying you’re not supposed to be out here,” she said.
Ms. Mickel feels like her family has lost its prominence in the place that, more than a century ago, provided the seeds for Mr. Gainey’s historic trajectory in Pittsburgh.
“What happened?” she wonders.
Watt’s Warwick County
Prior to the Civil War, Warwick County was an isolated region of woods and farms owned by white residents and worked by enslaved Black people who produced corn, oats, sweet potatoes and wheat.
Census records place Talton’s birth at around 1840, mostly likely in Warwick County. His status for the first few decades of his life remains uncertain. He may have worked as a slave on a plantation or farm. Of the county’s 1,740 residents in 1860, more than 1,000 were Black slaves. Their identities are a mystery. Census records from 1850 and 1860 include only the age and gender of enslaved individuals.
It’s possible Watt Talton was a free Black man. That’s the story passed down in his family. The 1860 census counts 59 free Black people in Warwick County, and Watt Talton is not listed among them. Not all public records from that era are reliable and complete, however.
War arrived abruptly in spring 1861. Union forces landed at Fort Monroe on the peninsula’s southern tip, and Confederate generals responded by setting up defensive lines 20 miles north. Much of Warwick County was a sort of no-man’s land between the opposing armies.
White landowners quickly fled with their families to the Confederate lines, leaving behind crops, homes and livestock. Their slaves remained. In some cases, they simply refused to accompany their owners. Many flocked to the protection of Union camps and were designated “contraband of war.”
In April 1862, the Union Army used the peninsula as a launching pad to attack the Confederate capital in Richmond, Va. Union forces occupied a number of Warwick County’s abandoned houses and confiscated food.
The campaign foundered later that summer, and President Abraham Lincoln ordered the army back to Washington, D.C. The war continued for another three years.
After the Confederate surrender in 1865, white residents returned to find Warwick County devastated — “a good many of the houses gone, the fields uncultivated and covered with shrubbery, fences burned, orchards destroyed and everything laid waste,” reported landowner George Benjamin West. The world once known by West and other white residents was gone forever. Federal authorities confiscated more than 50 tracts of land and sold or leased them to freed Black people.
Despite the Union victory, Black residents continued to suffer. Poverty and the cold winter of 1865-66 brought malnutrition, pneumonia and smallpox. In Warwick County, the newly formed Freedmen’s Bureau reported three or four deaths each day in the Black community.
Incensed over their military defeat, former rebels returned to find people they had once owned working their plantations and farms and serving the occupying Union army. Some took out their fury by raiding Black homes and stealing food and livestock. On a few occasions, they killed Black residents.
In this unsettled time, the misspelled name “Wat Tarlton” appears in a hand-written document from 1867 titled “Poll Book, Colored Electors, Second District, Warwick County, Va.” The list includes 72 names, all African American males registering for the first time as voters. Statewide, more than 105,000 Black men signed up to cast ballots for representatives to Virginia’s constitutional convention.
The election began Oct. 22. Harper’s Weekly magazine sent artist/journalist Alfred Rudolph Waud to sketch the event. On the magazine’s Nov. 16 cover is his image of a Black man dropping a ballot into a glass jar. The caption reads, “The first vote.”
There is no mention of Talton in the 1870 census, but he’s listed in 1880 as a 40-year-old farmer with a wife, Martha, and eight children. One was 2-year-old Phillip — Ed Gainey’s great-great-grandfather. Another was James, 5 — Angela Mickel’s great-grandfather.
An 1880 census form shows Talton farmed what appears to be 14 acres of tillable land — the number is smudged. His last name is again mauled, this time as “Taulton.” The document does not indicate whether he owned the land or worked as a tenant farmer.
By then, he had joined a movement of Black people asserting their independence in a changed society. After Union troops had moved through Warwick County in 1862, newly freed Black worshippers formed a congregation and met in a church building abandoned by fleeing white residents. They named it the Colored Denbigh Baptist Church. (Denbigh was the name of a nearby plantation,)
After the war, the white congregation returned and reclaimed its building, so the Black congregants built their own church a little more than a mile from the Warwick County Courthouse. Ms. Mickel believes the church was on land owned by Watt Talton — it’s close to the 19½ acres he would later acquire — but land records are incomplete.
The Denbigh church served multiple purposes. It was a center of Black political and social organization as well as a place of song, prayer and revival. In its first few decades, the church grew to about 450 members and had several pastors. Watt Talton was one, serving in 1882-83. Church members meet today in a modern building known as First Baptist Church Denbigh. Family members buried in its cemetery include Talton’s son, also named Watt.
‘We were the same’
As a teenager, Angela Mickel remembers entering a grand but aging two-story building across from the courthouse.
The Smith Hotel once served as a gathering place for judges, attorneys and courthouse regulars. By the early 1980s, the building was home to her piano teacher, Wilbur Cary Smith, a descendant of some of the most prominent white landowners in the county. Ms. Mickel called her teacher “Miss Cary.”
As Ms. Mickel sat at a piano near a window looking out at a statue of a Confederate soldier, she was told she had a special family history. Miss Cary insisted the two were related. “She kept saying we were the same people, our families were mixed together.”
Ms. Mickel recalls times when, as a child, she could romp across land and visit areas where other Black people felt unwelcome. Was this because her family once had some connection to prominent white families?
Older family members say Watt Talton was fair-skinned and freckled. Like many family stories, it can’t be verified.
White and Black people had a history of intermixing in the region, notes Robert Francis Engs in his 2004 book, “Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1891-1890.” “As a consequence, free Blacks and slaves were permitted more privileges than were common in the antebellum South,” he writes.
Ms. Mickel and her aunt Edna Talton try to connect the stories in a worn document they call “the scroll.” It’s a sprawling family tree headlined “Watt & Martha B. Talton.” Handwritten notes fill the margins with names, dates and questions like, “Who was Frances Talton Thornton?”
Edna Talton, Watt Talton’s great-granddaughter, grew up on Talton-owned property. She and her family lived in a one-story, three-bedroom house with a washing machine on the enclosed back porch and an outhouse in the backyard. Most of the neighbors were relatives. A garden yielded corn, string beans and tomatoes. Trees provided apples, pears and walnuts. Her father, Isaac Talton, drove his tractor over the walnuts to crack the shells.
Edna Talton, 67, was one of only a few Black students in the grade school across the street. She wore a green-and-white gingham dress on her first day in 1961. Her family remained active in First Baptist Church Denbigh, and in high school she attended fashion shows on the second floor of the Warwick County Courthouse.
Her father worked at a shipyard and in his spare time plowed fields and cut grass for others. He also delivered milk and was a deacon at the church. In the 1980s, he became a minister. “He got his certificate, and he preached one sermon,” Edna Talton said. “And then he died,” during a routine surgery Oct. 14, 1987.
That decade brought other losses to the family. By 1985, most of the land once owned by the Taltons had been sold. The process began decades earlier. Edna Talton keeps a document in her collection of family memorabilia. It’s a letter, dated July 17, 1961, from the Newport News city manager to her sister, Bertha Talton. The letter offers $1,875 for a tract of several acres.
“The city requires this property in connection with the proposed establishment of William and Mary College and for other municipal purposes,” the letter states. “This is a bona fide offer for the said property, and you are requested to advise me whether or not you will accept same on or before September 1, 1961.”
Maps show the land encompasses much of Christopher Newport University’s 75-acre footprint. Christopher Newport was founded in the early 1960s as an extension of the College of William and Mary.
One piece of land that remained was a 6½-acre tract that was part of the 19½ acres Watt Talton purchased in 1899 for $275. That tract, deeded to his son, Watt, in 1902, was sold in 1985 for $10 to Dimensions Inc.
A housing development called Pear Ridge now occupies the land Edna Talton once considered home. Her photo album holds a black-and-white picture of her standing next to her family’s home. If she stood in that same location today, she’d find herself in the middle of a cul-de-sac surrounded by modern one- and two-story homes with garages.
Edna Talton and Angela Mickel are sad there is nothing bearing the Talton name in what is now Newport News, Va. There’s no Talton Street or Talton Lane. Ms. Mickel said it’s almost as if her family never existed.
But she knows the Taltons have a long history in this place, and it extends beyond Virginia to Pittsburgh.
“I’m so happy for Ed Gainey, especially after what Watt had to go through,” she said. “He wanted to pass something on to his family. Unfortunately, in the area where he was from, it didn’t work out very well. But it was enough to propel his son Phil to set a foundation that led Ed Gainey to be in the position he is in now.”
Sometimes she goes down to the docks and dips her hand in the water that carried her ancestors into bondage and then purified their souls in baptism. “I feel like my ancestors live in that water. You can’t block me from my ancestors.
“I know there are people who don’t want me there,” she added. “They feel like this place is theirs. I almost feel pity for them. I want to say, ‘You’re a part of me, too. You’re cutting yourself short by not trying to find out who we are. Just think how much stronger we could be if we just worked together.’”
In 1902, Watt Talton’s daughter, Mattie, married a 22-year-old Warwick County neighbor, William Canaday, a laborer for a railroad company. The records are unclear, but she may have been as young as 13 or as old as 17.
Within a few years, the couple made a life-changing decision: They moved to Pittsburgh, a city well on its way to becoming the nation’s largest steel producer.
Opportunities in the city’s mills and factories were luring workers from overseas and rural America. Over the next several decades, they would be joined by Southern Blacks heading to places like Pittsburgh and Chicago to improve their lives and escape Jim Crow laws and customs.
Mattie and William settled in the city’s Larimer neighborhood, and in July 1905, they celebrated the birth of a daughter, Flocie.
Larimer had just emerged from an outbreak of whooping cough — a contagious respiratory infection. In the cold winter months, children in homes throughout the area wheezed and gasped for breath during violent coughing fits. By the summer of 1906, Flocie had developed symptoms of the infection. She suffered for 30 days before dying on Sept. 26.
Mattie and William buried her in Allegheny Cemetery, and in the months that followed, the couple’s relationship fell apart. Mattie remarried, to a Virginia-born construction worker named Horace Gentry. Mattie and Horace lived in Homewood on a section of Formosa Alley filled with other transplants from Virginia. The men worked as laborers or cleaners. Mattie was a “washerwoman.”
She gave birth to a son, Cecil, around 1908 and a daughter in April 1910. A month after the girl was born, Mattie fell ill with tuberculosis. She died May 26. The now motherless baby caught a chest cold and died July 5. Her parents had named her Isabela, according to her death certificate. Like Flocie, she was buried in Pittsburgh. Relatives returned Mattie’s remains to Virginia.
More than 15 years and a world war would pass before another Talton migrated to Pittsburgh.
Back to the Steel City
This time it was Mattie’s nephew, Jacob Talton.
Born in 1906 to Watt Talton’s son, Phillip, and his wife, Ida, Jacob was working as a laborer, perhaps in one of Newport News’ shipyards, by 1925.
Two years later, he was in Pittsburgh where he found work as a restaurant cook. He lived on Finance Street in Homewood with his wife, Bertha, a Georgia native. Their first child, born prematurely in October 1927, died. Two years later, Bertha gave birth to a son, Jacob Talton Jr.
As with many in that era, illness and loss would continue to be part of the family story. When the boy was 7, his mother developed a lung infection. She sought a doctor on Thanksgiving 1936. Bertha died of bronchopneumonia a month later, on a cold and rainy Christmas Day. She was 29.
Jacob Sr. remained in Homewood with his son and three daughters. When the U.S. entered World War II, he enlisted and served as a cook with the Army’s 385th Engineer Battalion from May 1942 to August 1945.
Once he returned to Pittsburgh, Jacob Sr. moved to the Hill District. He liked fine clothes and combed back his slick, wavy hair. A photo shows him wearing a light-colored suit with a tightly knotted striped tie.
By 1951, Jacob Sr. was living “on top of the world” in a house at 1831 Webster Ave., his grandson would later recall. From his stoop, he watched automobiles rumble along the brick avenue that ran steeply down through the Lower Hill, the heart of Pittsburgh’s Black community. The jazz-loving man was known to his grandchildren as “Pop T.”
Music filled the Lower Hill’s clubs and bars. Jacob Sr. could walk five blocks to Fullerton Street, where sharp-dressed men mingled with women decked out in hats and gloves. He could head over to the Crawford Grill on Wylie Avenue, or Loendi’s or the Harlem Casino or the Bambola Social Club, where a band played from midnight until 2 a.m. then gave way to a floor show that included dancers, comedians and more music.
Six years later, the music disappeared.
Wrecking crews reduced the Lower Hill to rubble in the name of urban renewal. Jacob Sr. could watch it all from his stoop. He eventually moved a few miles east, to the neighborhood he had settled in when he first moved to Pittsburgh three decades earlier. Jacob Sr. died at age 62 on Aug. 11, 1968.
Jacob Talton Jr.
Pop T’s son, Jacob Jr., spent most of his life in Homewood. He worked at a post office. The family — father Jacob Jr., mother Gertrude and five children — didn’t have much money, but son Jacob C. didn’t really notice.
He was surrounded by friends who played baseball and football in the street. He and his buddies “felt like millionaires,” he’d later say. His father was an easygoing man who served as a church deacon.
“He was hardworking and he loved his family,” Jacob C. said. “He had his struggles, problems with alcohol for a minute, but that was common in the area we lived in.”
Gertrude made sure the house was clean and orderly. She had dropped out of school in the 10th grade, after her mother’s death in 1944. Her family needed money — she had 11 siblings — so she went to work as a housecleaner. As an adult, she continued cleaning other families’ homes.
The couple’s youngest daughter, Sonya, was born in 1970. By the time she was a teenager, life in the Talton household had stabilized. They had moved out of their row house on Bennett Street to a single-family home on Bricelyn Street.
Gertrude led a church choir and helped out with various church activities. She got a job as a janitor at Westinghouse High School.
While there, she studied and passed a certification test to become a boiler engineer. Gertrude stressed education — each of her five children attended college — and it seemed she was forever learning. When the family’s dryer stopped working, or the car sputtered, she’d go to the library, find a repair book and do the work herself.
Her husband, Jacob Jr., found work as a resident director for an organization that helped people with mental health issues transition back into the community. Some of the residents stayed in touch long after he retired. He cooked like his father, though not professionally. When he was preparing barbecue ribs or hot sausage sandwiches, relatives knew to stay away from the grill. That was Jacob Jr.’s domain.
Spuddy & Darlene
Jacob C.’s friends called him “Spuddy.” At Westinghouse High, the son of Gertrude and Jacob Talton Jr. threw shot put for the track team. He attended parties on the weekend and drove through town in his parents’ candy apple red 1966 Pontiac Bonneville. In warm weather, he and his friends rolled down the windows and tuned the radio to R&B stations playing Earth, Wind and Fire, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone.
Spuddy had a friend named Charles who worked as a popcorn vendor at the Civic Arena, the venue built atop the bones of the Lower Hill District where his grandfather once listened to jazz. Charles was dating a pretty 15-year-old named Darlene Gainey.
Soon, the friend was out of the picture and Darlene was dating Spuddy.
In the summer of 1969, Darlene discovered she was pregnant. She gave birth to son Ed on Feb. 18, 1970.
Jacob C. was thrilled with some aspects of being a father — the “gaga-goo-goo thing,” he’d later say. But he was young and immature and unprepared for the responsibility. He wanted to go out with his friends and have fun. Baby Ed would stay with his father on some weekends. After graduating from Westinghouse, Jacob C. went to Penn State University. He’d visit his son during trips back to Pittsburgh.
After two years at Penn State, Jacob accepted a job with a company in Virginia — he was offered as much money as he would get with a degree and would receive training to be a manager. So he moved to Alexandria, Va. Jacob concentrated on his career at this point, and his relationship with his son suffered.
The two reconnected when Ed was a teen. During summers, the two spent weeks together in Virginia. Father and son often played basketball. Tall, lanky and competitive, Ed was determined to beat his father.
Growing up, Ed often spent weekends at his grandparents’ home. He and his aunt Sonya were less than a year apart in age, and their relationship was more like that of a brother and sister. They played together as children, and as they grew older would hang out at a Penn Hills shopping center. They’d buy a pizza and play arcade games.
Sonya remembers visiting Ed once at his home on Collins Street in East Liberty when the two were about 10. They went outside to play, but Ed stopped in the yard and stared out at the neighborhood.
“This can be better,” he said to Sonya. “We can make improvements.”
“We don’t have any money to make improvements,” she replied, puzzled. She would recall that exchange decades later.
Elect Ed Gainey
In May 2021, Jacob C. Talton and his wife, DeVonne, traveled from their Virginia home to stand outside a polling location in Highland Park on primary election day. They handed out Ed Gainey’s campaign flyers and chatted with voters on what they hoped would be a historic occasion.
“I want our children to see that we don’t separate by divided lines.”
Mr. Gainey’s campaign had surged after the tumultuous summer of 2020, when thousands of people protesting the death of George Floyd regularly packed streets Downtown, in East Liberty, the Hill District and the South Side. Police response to the protests angered many activists and residents, and they blamed the city’s then-mayor, Democrat Bill Peduto.
As the primary campaign heated up, support shifted to Mr. Gainey, a former community development specialist then serving as a state legislator.
He delivered his election night victory speech Downtown at the Benedum Center. The building had opened as the Stanley Theater in 1928, the year before the birth of Mr. Gainey’s grandfather, Jacob Talton Jr. For years, Black people were confined to the theater’s third balcony and could not socialize with white theatergoers.
Nine decades later, a newly elected African American mayor stood on the theater’s steps and said, “I want our children to see that we don’t separate by divided lines.”
Photography: Steve Mellon. (Headline photo: Alexandra Wimley)
Design & Development: Zack Tanner